G’Day Australia!

Australia is quite big
It wasn’t exactly a warm welcome to Australia.

I arrived on a night flight from Johannesburg. I was vaguely aware that the Aussies are quite strict on what is bought into the country, so I had diligently asked the check-in clerk at Johannesburg what the rules were. She had seemed totally unaware of any restrictions and brushed aside my concerns. Lesson number 1 : Never trust customs information provided at a foreign airport. They don’t know and don’t care.

So I settled down for the long flight and forgot about it. I failed to get a wink of sleep until, it seems, they put on the Customs and Immigration video, at which point I must have gone out like a light. So on arrival at Perth, I proceeded sleepily through Immigration, blissfully oblivious of the regulations. I proffered my 3 month holiday visa and waited while they did the usual quick inspection of my passport. The customs official was taking ages over it, looking increasingly uneasy, and finally announced that I didn’t show ‘sufficient likeness’ to my photo (surely that should be the other way round?) I would have to be seen by a ‘facial specialist’ or some such jargon. I was in such a tiredness-induced daze that I don’t actually remember this person at all, I just wanted it to be over and to go to bed.

What I do remember is emerging from this ‘inspection’ and becoming aware of being followed towards the baggage reclaim area by someone else. He trailed alongside me asking my reasons for entering Australia, without actually asking me to stop, which I found very unnerving. It did cross my mind whether he was a weirdo stalking me or a real official. Probably best to err on the side of caution, given the photo fiasco, so I stopped and waffled about my travels. He demanded to see written confirmation of onward flights and any hostel bookings I had in Australia, and quizzed me incessantly on my precise route around the country. Lucky I had been organised and had printed copies of everything. Unbelievably, he then asked me to repeat my route, clearly trying to catch me out. He even asked what I did in the UK, why I left, and what I was going to do when I went back. None of your sodding business, I was tempted to say, and why the hell would I want to stay in this country anyway? But thankfully I decided against it. Lesson number 2: always have print outs of onward flight information and travel plans. Essential at South American borders too.

Finally he let me go. I breathed a sigh of relief as I spotted my backpack on the carousel, and went to haul it off. Unfortunately someone else seemed to have spotted it too – a very cute, waggy-tailed sniffer dog. His rotund owner made a beeline for me while the dog tenaciously mauled my bag at my feet. I was beyond caring that everyone was staring at the commotion, and desperately tried to think what possible contraband I could be carrying. With a thumping heart, I remembered my emergency packet of biscuits. I told the dog handler, and started to hunt around for the wretched things with a wet-nosed helper slobbering over my hand. Please don’t let there be any other stray snacks, I thought. It’s not unknown for loose sultanas to make a mysterious appearance in the bottom of my bags. I became aware of her asking me if there was anything else to declare, to which I replied no.

Mistake. I should have known from my track record in the packing department that I was rarely in a position to itemise everything in my backpack. Frankly it gets a little out of control at times. I triumphantly located a plastic bag containing the biscuits. She took it from me, delved her hand into it, and to my horror produced – in surreal slow motion – an apple. I was agog. It took a good two minutes to dimly remember shoving the apple into my bag in South Africa, thinking what a useful snack that would be. The dog got a biscuit (not one of my quarantined ones) and a pat on its smug head.

The guard adopted a more official tone, as if she was reading a legal document, and pronounced that I had failed to answer her question truthfully. I made pitiful protests that I was tired and had totally forgotten about the apple. Inwardly cursing my stupidity, I had another nasty recollection. A Tupperware container harbouring remnants of a nice tuna salad, in the bottom of my backpack. In fact, that was probably what the dog had smelt. Oh God, and a shell from a South African beach. I stopped thinking in case other things popped up. Bizarrely, she wasn’t very interested in the tuna when I sheepishly drew it from my bag, although it turned the dog psychotic. Lesson number 3: think carefully what is in your backpack before flying anywhere. I dearly hoped I would take this lesson to heart before my next flight.

Back to the apple. “This is from England?” Uh oh. “Africa.” Suddenly I had a hysterical urge to laugh, but managed to contain myself as walkie-talkies appeared, a supervisor was summoned and the apple inquisition stepped up a gear. I don’t know what they expected me to say, so I continued my pleas that I had asked at Johannesburg and they hadn’t informed me correctly, I had slept through the Customs video (not that I wished to imply it was boring or anything) and had done nothing on purpose. Finally they let me off the huge fine but gave me a long, overly loud lecture on protecting the precious and pure Australian environment.

So I walked out of Perth airport, my backpack a little lighter and clasping a humiliating souvenir – an official written warning from Customs. Welcome to Australia.

The Garden Route – Where is Everyone?

I was exhilarated as I set off on my own along the Garden Route – the stretch of coast to the east of Cape Town featuring some of the country’s most scenic mountains, beaches and rivers. I bought a ‘hop on, hop off’ ticket on the BazBus, the door-to-door backpacker service, and chose Mossel Bay as my first port of call. Waiting outside the security-coded fortress of my hostel for the early morning pick-up, I felt ill at ease for the first time in Cape Town. The street was deserted, and there I was with all my belongings including an expensive laptop and lots of cash. I was so jittery that it must have been obvious I had something worth stealing. I told myself to get a grip and tried to adopt the nonchalant demeanour of someone whose backpack contains nothing but tacky souvenirs and smelly clothes. Fortunately, the bus turned up as scheduled. It was virtually empty though – an ominous sign that South Africa’s low season might be somewhat lower than I imagined.

Leaving Cape Town, we passed eye-openingly long stretches of townships which bore a closer resemblance to the shantytowns of Kenya than anything I had seen on organised tours in South Africa. I presumed this was Khayelitsha, the largest township with around half a million inhabitants. As we drove further around the Peninsula, a fantastic view of the city and Table Mountain stretched behind us, and our driver kindly obliged with a photo stop. I stepped out of the bus and for the first time in my life was quite literally blown over by the force of the wind. It took a major effort to fight against the wind and get back into the bus!

The hostel I had chosen in Mossel Bay would have been lovely, if it weren’t for the fact that I was the only tourist there. My fears were confirmed: the Garden Route was deserted. That night I had a 14-bed dormitory to myself – very bizarre and frankly unnerving. Plus, the weather was dismal. I had envisaged lots of hiking, exploring and socialising with other travellers, but my week on the Garden Route became more about relaxing in the peaceful surroundings and rediscovering
reading, running and healthy eating – three things I hadn’t done much of since leaving home.

Wilderness Beach. Beautiful.
I still had a good time. I loved Wilderness. My hostel there was slightly more inhabited than Mossel Bay and was perched on a hill above one of the finest beaches I have seen on my travels. It was fabulous running along miles of sand with the Indian Ocean clawing at the beach, and then watching the sun set from the hostel balcony. Whales, dolphins and sharks are all prevalent off the South African coast, and I don’t think I’d ever get used to such an abundance of amazing sea life. Whilst jogging, I came across a jelly fish the size of a dustbin lid stranded on the beach. I also stopped to watch a fisherman engaged in a battle with something tenacious and energetic on the end of his line. A small crowd joined me, and fifteen minutes later he managed to reel in what was clearly a shark, around two feet long. He proudly told us that it was a ‘baby raggy’, a spotted ragged-tooth shark, and then proceeded to let it go.

My concession to extreme sports - 
the Flying Fox / Zip Line tree canopy
'tour' in Tsitsikamma National Park
At night, it took me a while to realise that the incessant crashing noise in the background wasn’t an annoying generator in the neighbour’s garden, but the sound of the sea. The hostel landlady told us that Europeans are always shocked, and she often gets complaints of a mysterious roaring noise during the night! It was certainly a million miles away from the gentle lapping waves that had lulled us to sleep on the coast of Tanzania. South Africa’s sea is deafening.

One place I would like to revisit in good weather and with companions is Nature’s Valley. As the name suggests, is the most unbelievably remote and tranquil spot. Wild Spirit Lodge, on the doorstep of Tsitsikamma National Park, overlooks a lush valley, with scores of hiking routes, waterfalls and mountains all around. This would have been very appealing if it had stopped raining for even five minutes, if the mist had lifted, and if I had other people to enjoy it with. Rather worryingly for the rest of my trip, I realised that I just didn’t fancy setting off on a trek alone, especially in miserable weather.

As it is, my abiding memory of Wild Spirit Lodge is being woken up in the night by strange, rhythmic scratching and rasping sounds. There was definitely something pretty large making its way around the room and up the walls. The two Belgian girls in the dorm had also awoken and we whispered to each other in panic, before deciding upon a sensible course of action – hide under the bed sheets and ignore it. We woke in the morning to find droppings over all the spare beds. Bats!

I was glad when I reached Port Elizabeth, from where I was flying to Johannesburg and on to Australia. I had met some nice people in hostels and the Garden Route was evidently a perfect place to commune with nature, it was just a shame I had visited it in September.

Carry on in Cape Town

Cape Town's Twelve Apostles
Although I had loved roughing it on the tour, words cannot describe how nice it was to reach civilisation. I wondered how long it would take before I took cleanliness and comfort for granted again. I was especially lucky - for some reason the hostel had temporarily changed their pricey penthouse room to a shared dormitory and I was allocated a bed in it. It was definitely the best hostel room I can ever hope to stay in. The plush bathroom and power shower were pure luxury; fluffy towels awaited on the comfy beds; and as I excitedly swung the skylight window open above my bed, I found myself gazing upwards at the towering and spectacularly close Table Mountain! Five star hotels couldn’t have asked for a better view.

View from half way up Table
The weather was beautiful and Table Mountain could wait no longer. I decided to give the cable car a miss in favour of climbing up the mountain, so myself plus Dan from Acacia and Renska from my dorm embarked on the ascent in the scorching afternoon sun. We hiked up Platteklip Gorge, the most popular trail, and after much puffing, sweating and cursing our recent lack of exercise, we reached the top in just under an hour and a half.

It was very hard work but we enjoyed a fabulous perspective of the mountain during the climb that we wouldn’t have got from the cable car. The world famous views from the top are not in the least exaggerated – stunning panoramas abound in every direction, with the city of Cape Town nestling between mountains, the Atlantic and Indian oceans.We took the cable car back down, and then jumped into a tourist bus back to our hostel. All went smoothly, although the following day I heard that

Lion's Head
tourists on one of the buses from Table Mountain had been held up at knife point. Such stories are rife, and we were warned not to walk into town in the evenings or on Sundays when there aren’t many people about. Personally I felt safe walking around the city centre on my own, especially with the heavy security presence and plethora of ‘armed response’ vehicles patrolling the streets.

Strangely, I have a particular penchant for City Sightseeing bus tours! (I went on the Windsor one twice when I lived there – you learn such a lot!!) The Cape Town route didn’t disappoint, giving a great impression of the lie of the land and key landmarks. We looped round the city’s bays, past swish residential areas, the shiny Victoria & Albert waterfront development and also saw the World Cup stadium under construction. Somebody asked me where the city reminded me of, but I couldn’t think of many coastal cities I’d been to before, let alone any with Cape Town’s unique features. Some of the properties and the sea views put me in mind of the Caribbean, but I had a feeling that the rest of my travels might provide better points of comparison, especially Australia (I imagined the housing to be similar to Cape Town, for some reason) and South America (perhaps Rio de Janeiro’s setting).

My initial excitement at having found a large Specsavers in the centre of Cape Town faded rapidly as they took an age to deliver my new glasses. However, I did a good job of finding some distractions in the meantime (doing my bit for Anglo-Afrikaans relations!) and took a trip up the coast to Hermanus for the annual ‘whale watching’ festival. I can’t say many whales made an appearance, but the local street festival was good fun. A group of us also went for a day trip to Stellenbosch, a pretty, upmarket university town. We had been advised not to catch local trains outside of rush hour, but ignored that advice for some reason, and although we had no problems we indeed found the trains out of Cape Town to be chaotic and intimidating by their emptiness.

Finally, on the joyous morning that my glasses turned up, I waved goodbye to Cape Town was ready for my first taste of proper independent travel.

Destination South Africa

There was a distinct buzz about the truck as we approached South Africa. In fact, it was difficult to tell who was the most excited, the guides or the passengers! Our first couple of nights in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ were spent amidst undulating hills, beautiful mountains and the lush winelands

for which the Western Cape is renowned. We enjoyed a couple of good nights in the campsite bars, including an impromptu hen party for one of the girls. I can’t say I had a tear in my eye as I took down my tent for the last time – I was very glad to see the back of those nasty, cold metal poles that seemed to inflict daily injuries on me!

Steaming along towards Cape Town on the last official day of the tour, it suddenly felt as if the last couple of weeks had flown by. It was a spine-tingling moment when Table Mountain came into view on the skyline; I hadn’t known quite what to expect, but I definitely hadn’t realised how dominating and integral the mountain would be to the city. As we got closer, we could see the famed fingers of cloud that usually shroud the ‘table top’, but the rest of the sky was clear and bright. We were itching to get up the mountain while the good weather lasted.

First, though, we had one final activity left: visiting a township. I had been looking forward to comparing this with my experience of the slums of Nairobi (Kibera), and as we headed

Table Mountain watching over the new
housing in the township of Langa
into Langa it became immediately apparent that the two are worlds apart. Langa, after all, was a planned community designated for black Africans during the Apartheid era, purpose-built by the authorities with transparency and control in mind - a direct contrast to the origins of Kenya’s slums, which struggled to register at all on the authorities’ radar. We had seen little evidence of official aid in Kibera, and tourism was definitely in its infancy, exposing us unapologetically to the raw reality of filth, extreme poverty and rampant disease. In Langa, minibuses full of tourists were pouring into the vibrant chaos. We heard rumour of a B&B in the neighbourhood, and we even ate (somewhat tentatively) alongside locals in a crazily raucous, jam-packed cafĂ©. Unthinkable in Kibera.

Langa consisted of an incongruous mishmash of different types of housing. Kibera-style corrugated iron shacks and down-at-heel brick tenements rubbed shoulders uneasily with neat, middle-class bungalows and new-builds not unlike a Milton Keynes estate. It looked like a community undergoing a face lift, presumably as part of the government 'upgrading’ initiatives of recent years and (looking cynically at the
proximity of Langa to the airport) a clean-up operation for the World Cup. The guided tour was very organised and it was impossible to judge whether we were being presented with just one superficial face of Langa. Certainly the tour gave the impression of a vibrant, open and evolving community; however I couldn’t help but wonder how different classes of housing could possibly be introduced into an established slum without disrupting social cohesion and order.

Leaving Langa, we boarded Kwando for the last time and headed for our final destination – a backpackers hostel a few minutes from the centre of town.

Photos from Botswana and Namibia


More Marvels in Namibia - Dune 45 and Fish River Canyon

Namibia still had two major attractions and distinct landscapes in store for us.

Firstly, we drove through the incredible ‘sandscape’ of the Namib desert to the region known as Sossusvlei. ‘Vlei’ means ‘pan’ in Afrikaans; a vast, circular expanse of white, cracked mud that is a low-lying flood plain. The pan is surrounded by Namibia’s massive, angular, rolling sand dunes, which at 300 metres high are amongst the largest in the world. Our campsite was a short drive away from the imaginatively named Dune 45, the world’s ‘most photographed’ dune (they had to think of some accolade to give it, since it isn’t the world’s highest!) and we set about mentally preparing ourselves for the following morning’s mission – climbing it before sunrise (when else!)

So we prised ourselves out of our sleeping bags excruciatingly early, plonked ourselves in the truck and drove in pitch darkness to the base of dune. I had a nasty suspicion that this climb was going to be very strenuous, especially so early in the morning and after weeks of little physical activity. We embarked on a single-file trudge up the side of the 170 metre high dune, feet sinking into deep, cold sand and pausing every now and again to catch our breath. It turned out to be more invigorating than exhausting, once we found a steady rhythm
and learnt to step in the footprints of the person in front. Finally we reached the crest and collapsed into the sand to admire the stunning, untouched sea of sand (aside from our own footprints) as the day began to break.

The early start was definitely worth it because we had the place entirely to ourselves. The descent was great fun – leaping and sliding our way back to the truck, where our guides had put champagne on ice and prepared a lovely cooked breakfast. This was certainly one of the most unique locations we enjoyed ‘Kwando cuisine’!

Sand dune action continued as we set off again in the style to which we were becoming accustomed – crammed into the back of a jeep. We were driven further into the desert for a guided walk to learn about the former lifestyle of the indigenous bushmen and the wildlife found in such seemingly inhospitable terrain. Our guide spotted snake tracks (alas no snake); delved his

hand into the sand and somehow produced a poor, squirming gecko for us to ogle; and pointed out small dotted circles on the sand that he claimed were ‘front doors’. He tapped several times on one, and sure enough a piece of sand flipped back and the inhabitant – a spider – popped out to see what was going on. The guide was a very curious character, and possibly an Olympic speed-walker: barely had he finished his commentary in one location before he took off at such a fast pace that we nearly lost him several times (or he nearly lost us, given that we were the clients!)

The most interesting part of the tour was visiting Dead Vlei, a kilometre wide white clay pan that hasn’t seen water for hundreds of years. The ancient, blackened trees spike eerily out of the pan’s baking hot surface and inspire iconic photographs of their skeletons silhouetted against the deep red of the dunes and the beautiful blue of the sky. The silence of the place is remarkable, and also the stifling heat, as the height of the dunes prevent wind from cooling the pan.

Leaving the sand dunes behind us, the final highlight of our Namibian visit was Fish River Canyon, Africa’s largest canyon boasting a 100 mile long ravine. There was no let up in the heat of the day as we strolled along the edge of the canyon, enjoying amazing views of its sprawling gorges and ravines. The sunset that evening was incredible, however – to my shame – I should mention that another unfortunate incident had occurred. I had dropped my camera onto a sandy track, lens open, and it immediately began to produce a sandstorm backdrop to every photo, before grinding to a halt altogether. So I cannot take the credit for any of the photos from Dune 45 to Cape Town! It was almost as inconceivable to continue my travels without a camera as it was without my glasses, so I added this to my growing list of things to buy in Cape Town. Certainly the city’s shopping malls were going to do very well out of me.

Surreal Spitzkoppe and Swakopmund

Our journey from inland Namibia towards the coast to took us through some very unusual landforms. One moment we were travelling through grassy plains, admiring the distant mountains, the next we found ourselves amidst a fascinating range of granite hills and strange rock formations. We wound our way through the hills to Spitzkoppe, an area strewn with large, domed chunks of the 700 million year old granite. In the shadow of these boulders we set up bushcamp for the night.

I really enjoyed camping in this unique setting. We climbed up the hills for a panoramic view of the landscape before settling down for an evening around the campfire. All was going smoothly until someone’s shrieks announced the arrival of some impressive wildlife - ‘a tennis-ball on legs’ had apparently scuttled under a chair! For once, I was glad that I couldn’t see properly, especially when I had to venture to the ‘facilities’ before bed (otherwise known as long grass behind one of the boulders.)

With the last of our bushcamping exploits behind us, the road to regular hot showers, proper toilets and reliable electricity stretched luxuriously ahead. To much excitement, the plan for the next two nights was to stay in a backpacker hostel – the first time since Zanzibar. The location of this treat was Swakopmund, a colonial seaside resort and Namibia’s centre of adventure sports. Many of the group had adrenalin activities in mind but I preferred to ‘chillax’ (to use an annoying word, heard especially frequently in South Africa) and explore Swakopmund, as I knew there would be plenty of opportunities for exactly the same sports (such as sandboarding, skydiving) later on my travels.

The guidebooks describe Swakopmund as ‘quirky’. I would say it borders on the surreal - Teutonic, fairy-tale like architecture, wide boulevards and upmarket boutiques are juxtaposed with the bright colours, palm trees and beaches of a Caribbean resort. To me, it all looks a bit weird. I had to fight the urge to prod buildings to see if they would wobble like scenery on a film set. The centre of town felt perfectly safe, however I took a convoluted route back to the hostel via the beach and felt distinctly uncomfortable with groups of loitering locals watching me. I can only assume it’s not the done thing for a white (foreign) woman to walk around on her own.

Looking more carefully at Swakopmund, I realised that Nairobi-style security measures were back: intruder alarms flashed on every house and there was a constant, rhythmic click-click-clicking in the background that wasn’t insects this time but electric fences, including one surrounding our hostel. I was rattled by this sinister undercurrent given the outwardly cheerful and benign appearance of the town – and it was another reminder that this wasn’t Western society as we know it.
A night out was however pretty normal, apart from the fact that I went into a club carrying a doggy bag of overcooked zebra steak from our earlier meal. Not something I’m likely to repeat in Reading! Unfortunately the night didn’t end too well for all of us. One of the group mistakenly thought he’d been locked out of the hostel and attempted a beer-induced leap over the electric fence, only to be found some time later lying in a heap with a badly broken ankle. Sobering up quickly, we made frantic attempts to find an emergency services number and wake up the hostel’s management but failed on both counts. So one of the guides ran off to find the local police station to get help, and sure enough a police car duly pulled up with music blaring out and policemen looking suspiciously like they were enjoying themselves. Apparently the ambulance hadn’t been able to come because it was ‘in the garage’, so the injured party was lifted into the rear ‘cage’ of the police car and driven off to the local private hospital.

The following day we were all surprised to see him back in the hostel being helped about by others. Apparently the insurance company had dictated that it was too expensive to stay in hospital overnight – so he had to wait around a whole day before getting a taxi back into hospital for his operation. To complete his tale of woe, the decision was taken that we’d have to leave him behind, so we decided to call into the hospital on our way out of town. I don’t think the hospital had ever had 20 people through its doors at one time – especially out of visiting hours! – so we attracted curious, yet not overly concerned, glances by staff. Having said our goodbyes, we were off once again towards the Namib desert.

Elephant Extravaganza in Etosha

We thought that we had ‘done’ game viewing. But our final animal adventure in Etosha National Park topped the lot and took our breath away. 

For the first time, we drove straight into the Park in our very own truck (and home-sweet-home), Kwando. Our guide Jacques hopped in the back with us and drew upon his ranger background to give us an excellent
commentary through the safari. We spotted the rare black rhino, gemsbok and had a marvellous view of zebra drinking from one of the park’s waterholes.

Just as a couple of bull elephants arrived to compete for drinking space, the truck decided to develop a few water problems of its own and refused to start. So our rather anxious guides plus a mechanic from the group ventured outside (amidst ‘do not get out of your vehicle’ signs) and disappeared under the engine to administer some on-the-spot repairs. Thankfully Kwando spluttered into life and we were off again.

Our campsite in Etosha is where the real excitement began. We were astounded to find that there was a large waterhole right next to camp, complete with benches positioned just inside the low perimeter fence to give lazy tourists a unique ring-side seat. Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to appreciate the night’s waterhole entertainment (see lost glasses diary entry), I stayed behind while the group went on an evening game drive and savoured the iconic African sunset from the waterhole’s benches. I was immensely glad I did. Within a few minutes, I spotted what I thought was an elephant approaching in the distance. Squinting in disbelief, I realised that it wasn’t just one elephant, it was the first of a whole herd – females, bulls, babies, the whole extended family! - ambling in single-file towards the waterhole for an evening dip.
I watched their breathtaking display of bathing and preening for a good half an hour, at which point some other large bulls turned up, prompting much trumpeting and aggressive stand-offs. It would have been very handy to have an elephant expert on hand to explain the various social interactions that were evidently taking place but which I had no idea how to interpret. My good luck continued as some giraffes also took their place at the waterhole, spreading their legs wide and leaning their neck forward to drink in a very ungainly manner!

The next morning, I was woken at 5am by a tremendously powerful, resonating growl that continued menacingly for nearly forty minutes. I had never heard lions roaring before and can only describe it as the most intimidating rumbling sound. They sounded incredibly close, but we were told later that the beasts were as far as ten kilometres away. The elephants’ waterhole antics and lions’ roaring were totally unforgettable and a highlight of the whole trip.