A Tale of Three South Africas

As we wrap up our stay here in South Africa, I find it hard to reason about the deep differences between our three distinct experiences here. We flew from Morocco to Cape Town the long way. Apparently, Morocco and South Africa don’t see eye-to-eye so there are no direct flights. When we planned our trip, we didn’t have a specific agenda picked out and I needed to pick airports, so I had us fly into JNB (Johannesburg). However, after some planning, we decided to start our South African adventure in Cape Town. Our actual flight path from RAK (Marrakech) to CPT (Cape Town) involved RAK to FRA to JNB to CPT. Needless to say that’s a long set of segments.

Additionally, our JNB-CPT segment was booked on a separate ticket, so managing our connection was no longer the responsibility of the airline. We planned a 4+ hour layover in JNB, just to make sure and figured we’d relax, stretch our legs and eat some good food. What did we end up doing? Filing lost baggage claim forms for Gianna’s pack. Not the best way to start our South African experience.

Cape Town

Once we landed in Cape Town and rented our car, we drove to our Airbnb house in Camps Bay and met our host Gert for a brief tour. The house was amazing, the view was amazing, we were amazed… and tired. We walked to dinner, ate some food, walked home and passed out. When we awoke the next morning, we hadn’t been dreaming - the place really was amazing. It was clean and large with four bedrooms and two baths, a balcony overlooking Camps Bay with beautiful views of the water, the Lion’s Head Mountain and Table Mountain.

View from Cape Town balcony

At the end of day two, Lufthansa couriered Gianna’s bag to us which they had found in some undisclosed location. Travel crisis averted.

There are some things that made me quite uncomfortable with our Cape Town experience that became more concrete after our visit to Johannesburg. All of the places in Camps Bay (and the rest of Cape Town) have rather up-front and hostile private security systems: think razor wire or electrocution systems surrounding every personal residence. These things do not make me feel safer, they make me feel uneasy. Specifically, I didn’t feel that crime was a problem there and felt the deterrent unnecessary.

There was a lot of construction going on, but after Marrakech I was just like: “oh shit, this again.” All the labor and almost all the hospitality jobs were staffed by black South Africans, yet there were white South Africans living and working here as well. The part that felt uncomfortable was that everyone acted as if this was both normal and expected. Apartheid is over here, but the division in Cape Town seems embedded in a way that seems unlikely to be removed.

Eggs Benedict The food in Cape Town is the best food I’ve had on our trip so far; it’s a foodie paradise. So many different cuisines with top-notch execution. On top of that, the area is ridiculously inexpensive by U.S. standards. Lisa and I at BAKED Our family of five went out to place after place and ended up with delicious culinary experiences between $40USD and $100USD. My favorite place was a little bistro called BAKED run by a few guys that came off as stoner surfers. They were wonderfully friendly, the food was complex, artistic and lovingly created. They also just opened a brewery called BAKED Brewery a week before our arrival and I got to have their first beer: BAKED Lager. I think I might go there almost every day if I were to live in Cape Town.

The construction there did develop into a more serious problem. On our way to dinner one night, I stumbled on a deconstructed sidewalk and stubbed my toes. Well, by stubbed I mean broke my second and third toes on my left foot and turned the end of one of them into raw hamburger. If my feet could talk, they would damn me in ways that no other on Earth would. Sadly, the buddy-taping strategy normally used for toe fractures does not work on my syndactyly-challenged feet. As I write this a week later, my toes still hurt all the time. I realize that construction is always ongoing in urban areas, but it still frustrates me deeply how other countries seem to take a horrible stance towards pedestrians and fail to setup temporary routes (tapes or coned) so that automobiles don’t hit them.

African Penguins One day here we drove down to Boulders Beach to see the African Penguins. The girls loved it, so I’ll let them write about it. I just reinforced that penguins aren’t interesting to me. Another day we went to an outdoor supply shop to get permethrin to spray on some of our clothes for our upcoming safari.

Despite my limp, I enjoyed our stay in Cape Town because the relaxation factor in our house here was so high. We had almost no agenda here and executed it beautifully.

Table Mountain

Peruse our photos at our Cape Town Gallery.

Safari at Kirkman’s Camp

We flew from Cape Town to a tiny airport (KMI) near Kruger National Park and a tour operator picked the five of us up and drove us two hours to Kirkman’s Camp. Kirkman’s Camp is a 300 hector game reserve abutting Kruger National Park such that the animals therein can freely migrate back and forth.

Breakfast in the bush All the images you might have about safaris likely include dorky dressed Brits dining on fine food on white tablecloths in the middle of the bush with a lion nearby. Well, I’m here to tell you that is basically spot on. It’s ridiculous.

As we’re traveling light this year, I chose not to bring my big DSLR and lenses around. I regretted that decision partially and bought a DSLR in Konstanz. However, the idea of traveling with my 70-200 1:2.8L IS Canon lens makes me want to quit. Big and heavy. Here on safari, I would have given my left two toes for it (though I might have just wanted to get rid of my left two toes). What I didn’t realize is that the camp could coordinate the rental of whatever lens you wanted to be snagged by you at JNB on entry to the country and returned there as well. Had only I known! I would have gotten something up to 300mm and taken many more amazing shots. There were two saving graces. First, there are some nice parts about having the 5DSR though… at 50MP I could take full frame pictures and crop small bits of the picture to produce sufficiently detailed photos. Second, the big game was up close and personal. It was really shots of elephants and birds that would have been better with a more powerful lens.

The troupe in front of the Land Cruiser One thing that absolutely amazed me is the animal behavior. Being in the bush on foot is quite dangerous. If you enter a large animal’s territory, it could quite quickly be the end of you. However, when you are in a safari vehicle (ours was an 11-seat, open-air Toyota Land Cruiser) most of the large game completely ignore your presence. Elephants and buffalo being notable exceptions; they can charge so you give them space.

Elephants drinking

We had giraffes about 8m away from our vehicle, a leopard 3m away and an adult male lion about 2m away. Being that close to a completely wild predator was surreal. And I’ll note that at that range, I didn’t need to get near 70mm on my 28-70mm lens. Lisa and I took more pictures in those two days than in the previous three weeks.

Leopard prowling

Lioness with cubs

Stopping for cocktails to take in the sunset in the bush while looking at rhinos was surreal. Arriving at a spot overlooking the sand river to a white-tablecloth full English breakfast was surreal. Being served pork belly and leg of lamb cooked on the pit while listening to locals (the staff were locals) sing and dance was surreal. Watching giraffe kids frolic and play was surreal. Watching a white rhino altercation about 5m away from our vehicle was surreal (and very tense). The whole thing was surreal. I’m a bit sad that the rhino altercation happened after cocktails (which means after sunset) and the lighting was too dark to take good photos or video with my f/4.0. I got the giraffes on video though!

Lion The last expedition ride we went looking for zebra (again) and failed. However, our ranger guide Rikus and his tracker Richard got a call about a male lion entering the reserve. They high-tailed it to the lion. Five of us in the back of a Land Cruiser going down 45-degree slopes, up 45-degree slopes, on slopes that had us yaw at almost 45-degrees. I got clipped in the ear by an acacia bush, spilling an awkward amount of blood from such a tiny nick. We reached the lion and tracked him for about 20 minutes until he left the other side of the reserve.

We got amazingly close. We had been told stories that this lion had recently attempted to take down a giraffe and got kicked with a hoof in the mouth. His incisor was dangling in a stomach-turning way. Since the injury, he and his brother had taken down (and eaten) a large buffalo, but alas the tooth would dangle by a thread. Rikus joked that he should tie some string around it while he was sleeping and pull it out with the expedition vehicle — if only for the stories.

Lisa and I stayed in one room and the girls stayed in a room next door. We were told that we shouldn’t come out of rooms for any reason at night without an escort as wild animals often walk through the camp. They had an elephant in camp the day before we arrived and several large buffalo sleeping near the main lodge the night before we left. The girls did great and so did Lisa and I. I will say that the 5am wake up was easier than I thought; passing out from a long day surely helped!


Peruse our photos at our Kirkman's Camp Gallery.


Our stay in Kirkman’s Camp ended (I think far too early for all of us) with a two hour trip back to the airport where we flew to Johannesburg. Tori and Lisa, who are quite prone to motion sickness, managed the rowdy safari rides with no ill effects whatsoever. The same cannot be said for the fifty-minute plane ride from KMI to JNB; puke. We landed, this time with all our luggage and headed to our hotel in Sandton via the Gautrain and some foot trekking. Check-in was complicated due to some Booking.com snafu, but we landed in our two bedroom apartment by 4pm, ordered dinner, had a meltdown from the overly long day, and all passed out fairly early.

On the first day here, we walked up to Sandton City, which is an enormous shopping mall. We needed to get a few simple things. I ended up buying a tripod as I’ve been in so many evening situations wanting to take pictures that end up blurry because my hands aren’t steady enough. When we later go to New Zealand (and maybe some places in India) I want to take night-sky pictures as well. It weighs a ton, so what I didn’t want to do with a lens I am now doing with a tripod; color me idiotic.

Soweta We actually had no plans for Jo-burg, but had thought to visit the Apartheid Museum. We changed the plans a bit because that museum is a bit adult for the youngest of us (and maybe even the second youngest) and the Nelson Mandela exhibit is under construction and unavailable. Turning point Instead we went on the CitySightseeing bus for a two-hour tour of Johannesburg interrupted by a two-hour tour of Soweto; I rather enjoyed the whole thing. It was quite interesting and it gave me a better understanding of tensions in general here. Nelson Mandela and many others were truly great men who had the ability to lead in a way so few do. The tour helped crystallize what made me uncomfortable about Cape Town; here in Johannesburg - unlike in Cape Town - no one ignores the effects of apartheid: they are understood and remembered in everything, everywhere, always. The fact that the history here never dies and is not forgotten allows people to look forward in a way that we fail to do at home.

That evening we had a little rain spider in our bathroom. By “little” I mean the thing was the scariest looking spider I’ve ever seen in person. I fear more that will not hold true for the rest of the trip as we enter Southeast Asia: the land of giant spiders. This scared the bejeezus out of Zoe who discovered it in close quarters in the bathroom; elevated pulse, sweat and hyperventilated breathing put her clearly in shock. Not being educated well on the various spiders present in South Africa, I was not bold enough to take an in-focus picture of it. Even the maintenance guy who showed up said something resembling “oh Jesus” when he saw it… his departing remarks were, “I’m sorry, maybe you should shut your windows.” Turns out that type of spider is “harmless” to humans assuming that you don’t include “chance of heart attack” as a harm.

The rest of our time in Sandton was uneventful and used to catch up on schooling. Our time there would have been better had we found better food; when compared to Cape Town, the Johannesburg area is culinarily unimpressive. It was quite disappointing that the Internet there was so poor which put us much farther behind in uploading photos and blogging; double disappointing as we go to India next, where I expect connectivity to be far worse. I think we were all happy to leave Sandton for India. It was designed to be a respite before the great unknown of India, and it served its purpose.

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