A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: Impressions

Week two of the African journey has ended, and I’m on my own from here out. Looking back though, the final leg of our South African road trip started at the country’s rugged coastline as we left the wide stretches of farmland behind and worked our way down the southern coast.

We spent days hugging the coastal waters and skirting mountain ranges until we reached the southernmost point in Africa. Cape Agulhas is a rock-strewn and windy beach punctuated by a shipwreck, a lighthouse, and a long boardwalk allowing us to watch the clash of rough waters where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. From there, Gary and I headed further along the coast to the Cape Peninsula—and a much more touristy area of South Africa—before heading into Cape Town and then, sadly, parting ways as he heads to St. Helena and I am here for another week or two.

Cape Agulhas

On Tech and Travel

Along with the pretty vistas though, this past week was entirely framed by the sad demise of my laptop. And, if you follow me, you know I use my laptop for client-work, which is the sole way I fund my travels. A small water incident just as our road trip hit the coast led to an endless litany of international phone calls, domestic phone calls, and back-and-forth with my international warranty providers to get it fixed. It is, if I am lucky, getting fixed, so cross your fingers.

And this entire debacle begs the question of tech gear and which laptops are best for international travel. In 2010, I used a Mac on loan for three months and I loathed it… I really just loved my PC. In addition to familiarity, I have easily fixed PCs many-a-time on the road (Bangkok in 2009 and Bali in 2010 to name just two—I’m hard on my gear!). But Gary made a compelling case for switching to a Mac, and that is their policy on international repairs, which seem a lot more friendly than what I just went through.

Add to that strong recommendations from my favorite tech-travel gurus at Too Many Adapters, and I may make the switch this summer. Import duties here make buying a Mac here astronomically more expensive than in the US, so I am hoping they can fix my PC. But, change is a’comin’ methinks.

Thoughts? I know the Cult of Mac has many diehards, can anyone weigh in on what it’s like to fix a Mac overseas?

Strusbaai Harbor
Sunset in Strusbaai, near the southernmost point in Africa.
Strusbaai Harbor near Cape Agulhas
Kids fish at dusk in the calm waters of the harbor.

On South African Culture

This past week, OnTravel, a show on the American Forces Radio Network, invited me to join Gary on a two-part episode about our South African road trip (part one, part two). We discussed our first impressions here, from what it is like to travel through post-apartheid South Africa to the infrastructure and misconceptions surrounding this region of the world.

I own up to holding many misconceptions before I landed because I did not properly prepare for traveling here. With the flurry of NatGeo activities just before I left, I did far less pre-trip reading than I had planned.

The reality on the ground here is of a developed infrastructure ideal for tourism. I know some of the more developing places I will visit next won’t have this, but I had lumped South Africa into that as well, and it’s not the case. The country has well-maintained roads, many guesthouses, and well-run tours throughout the more populated areas. While vast distances do separate many cities, it’s easy to use the web of hotels and roads to explore. It’s travel-able in a way many people overlook or assume is not the case.

The mainstream media paints this entire continent with a twin brushstrokes of unsafe and troubled under the best of circumstances and war-torn at the worst; South Africa is casually marked within those assumptions too. Yet the are moments when it seems as easy and high-functioning as any modern city back home.

Gary and I noted that Cape Town feels a lot like San Francisco in climate and vibe. But then, that is just a perception as well. The legacy of issues here snapped into view when we drove through the outskirts of each city. Before I make the picture too rosy, a short drive out of Cape Town yielded views of the largest township I’ve seen so far;  corrugated tin houses stretched far into the horizon and the stark poverty of this predominantly black area lied just on the edge of wealthy towns built to pull tourist dollars from the hot-spots of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point.

Cape of Good Hope
A shot of the Cape of Good Hope from the Cape Point Lighthouse right at the tip of the peninsula.

Just last week, I described how the vast plains often gave way to the sudden rise of towering mountain ranges, so too, the cities change from very developed and Western, to sprawling townships awash in poverty. Some locals in town tell me of changes, of the slow process of building solid homes in these areas to replace the tin shanties, but to understand more I need to read up a lot more on this part of the country’s history.

I’d like to crowd-source some good books I should read about this region—any recommendations?

Exploring the Southern Coast

Like any new place, there are fun and frivolous discoveries as well. Tourism dollars pour into the Cape Peninsula for good reason—gorgeous views and cute animals are pretty compelling.  Cape Point is home to a very adorable colony of African penguins, marked by a pink blush above their eyes, which live in just a few coastal colonies in this region. A lot of people assume these little guys don’t live outside of Antarctica, but places like Melbourne, Australia also have their own breed of penguins calling home to their cool waters.

African Penguins at Boulders Beach, Cape Peninsula

The penguin colony have a prime spot too, they live on a beach just down the road from Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope—panoramas worthy of applause. From the top of Cape Point, only white patches of surf mar the stretches of unrelenting rough blue waters to give evidence the dangerous, rocky coastline boats face as they round the southern tip of Africa into Cape Town Harbor.

Thus far, the trip continues on a more travel-y side until I can fix my computer and start investigating some social enterprises. In terms of places to be stuck for a while though, Cape Town is not shabby. The clucking toddler wandering my internet cafe reminds me it’s time to head out into the sunny day and continue exploring the neighborhoods and markets of my new and very temporary home.

A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: The Road Trip

Leaving for AfricaIt’s been a whirlwind first week here in Africa; after 40 hours in transit from Washington, DC to South Africa, a fellow travel blogger—and friend—met me with a smiling face and a plan at the Johannesburg airport. When we first noticed our travel plans matched up we decided to team up for a South African road trip before I head out solo.

These next few months in Africa are a new adventure for me as I head overland in search of grassroots, local-level enterprises, so this marks the first dispatch in a new weekly series on the site that will share some of the quick impressions, smaller anecdotes, and updates on my route. I often overlook the details in the stories I craft, but emails over the years indicate that these missing nitty-gritties baffle some readers. In a story, it appears as though I magically appear in a new place. The reality is often hours of bus rides, plane flights, rough hotels, endless negotiations for vegetarian food, and a lot of days spent getting lost and asking many questions (which already baffles Gary—I am forever stopping random strangers and asking for help!).

Road Tripping South Africa (and Lesotho)

I finished my first week on the continent of Africa. First impression: It’s enormous. I over-estimated my ability to travel north in a mere four months. Africa looks large on the map, but the reality on the ground makes it ever the more evident. And a roadtrip? Well, it drove home the point even more so.

The initial plan was to go overland up through Africa toward Kenya until June, but that seems less likely now that I’ve seen that our 20+ hours of drive time this past week took us through hours of unpopulated, shrubby flatlands broken up by an occasional hill or a massive field of sunflowers. And we haven’t even crossed half of South Africa. Vast, anonymous distances separate the larger cities; if you’ve ever driven across Texas for 10+ hours, this is akin to that. It just never ends.

A welcomed break in the monotony came from a side-trip to the Kingdom of Lesotho, a separate, landlocked country lying like a pebble tossed on a map of South Africa. The landscape erupted from the red plains and this tiny country is mountainous and culturally very different. Few white South Africans seem to live there, and shepherds wearing blankets and traditional hats tended their sheep along the roadside. After hours of seeing few people, driving into Maseru, the capital, was an explosion of lively food vendors, chaotic streets, shouted “hellos” followed by vigorous waving, and rapid chatter in Sesotho.

We spent just a few hours driving through and lunching in Lesotho; one day I’d like to return and explore more of the mountain towns—our micro car doesn’t have the engine power to make it there this trip.

Cape Agulhas

Visiting Victoria Falls

I jumped ahead though, because before driving south from Johannesburg, we caught a flight to Zimbabwe and spent a weekend exploring Victoria Falls, which straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Initial impression of Zimbabwe: expensive, easy and friendly. Outside of Vic Falls, I hear the prices are more on par with other regions of Africa, but we visited in the off-season and only a few, expensive restaurants were open this time of year. Another thing that surprised me, and I may be naïve, but English is truly a default language in this region of Africa and I loved having the ability to chat and ask heaps of  questions. Lots of readers fear the language barrier, but here, as with other places, it’s often a non-issue.

Rainbows over Victoria Falls in January when the Zambezi River is full.

The bridge connecting Zambia and Zimbabwe

Our focus was visiting the falls, which are spectacular. I could wax poetic over the Victoria Falls, but the word “spectacular” sums it up nicely. I’ve never visited any of the other major waterfalls in the world, neither Niagara Falls nor Iguazu Falls, but even so, this waterfall rates.

Vic Falls is also called Mosi-oa-Tunya, which translates as “The Smoke that Thunders,” a very fitting name if you visit in the wet season when you’ll witness the largest falling sheet of water in the world as the Zambezi River pours through the gorges.

One thing of note, and if I had done my research perhaps I would’ve known, is that this is the rainy season for Victoria Falls.  So, while the Zambezi River is gorgeous and full, much of the falls were completely obscured by the dense mists created by the gushing water. Actually, mist is a bit of a misnomer, at points it was as if we were walking through a full, mid-summer Florida rainstorm as gusting winds lifted the water from the gorge and into the viewing areas. There are a few things, like rafting and swimming in the river, I would have liked to have done, but opted not to this time around—I’ll be back in dry season one day!

Also, we visited both sides of the falls, which meant a quick border crossing for the afternoon. And while Zimbabwe claims most of the falls viewing areas, both sides are worth a visit because Zambia offers gorgeous viewpoints of the falls from a bit further back. If you’re in the region, I’d suggest doing both.

victoria-falls-zambia
Called “The Smoke that Thunders” in the local dialects, the force of the water hitting the gorge creates a think mist around the falls.

What’s Next

This week Gary and I finish our drive down the coast. Although we’ve been moving quickly, we also stop at each and every UNESCO World Heritage site in South Africa — Gary’s goal is to visit every sight in the world. We will end our road-trip in Cape Town, with a stop at Robben Island, the Cape of Good Hope (and Cape Agulhas where I’ll reach the southernmost tip of Africa!), and topping it off with a visit to the iconic Table Mountain. Then, I fly solo for the next few months as I move north; I have a lead on a Cheetah Conservation Center outside of Cape Town I plan to check out, and some readers shared projects in Namibia as well—I’ll share more details as I start researching these grassroots projects in the region.

More soon, I have a photo essay of Victoria Falls coming this week!

A Little Story… An Unexpected Stop in Wadi Halfa, Sudan

My friends Dave and Deb are two of the most adventurous travelers I’ve met. Before they became long-term travelers blogging at The Planet D, they took and epic bike journey across the length of Africa in the Tour d’Afrique. I’m not the most adventurous of travelers, so I asked them to share a story from their trip that best illustrates the themes they encountered during their time in Sudan.

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Famine, war, drought, and suffering—that’s what comes to mind when people hear the word Sudan. It’s been prominent in the news for years; the war in Darfur is a devastating genocide that has caused thousands of deaths and casualties in the country. Before we visited Sudan in 2008, I didn’t know what to expect. I had only seen videos on the news of a desert country with very little infrastructure and people wrapped in headscarves and white linen. Like many others, in the early aughts I learned more of the hardships when George Clooney and Mia Farrow advocating for ending the war. They brought attention to the situation through media.

Truck on dusty road in Sudan

Falling in Love with Sudan

ferry crossing Lake Nasser from Aswan to Wadi Halfa

Despite knowing so little of the country before we arrived, it didn’t take us long to fall in love with Sudan.

We had taken the ferry across Lake Nasser from Aswan, Egypt to Wadi Halfa, Sudan. When we stepped off the ship, the energy immediately changed. We didn’t see any main roads or crazy traffic, and no crowds of people swarmed us at customs.

We had entered a land that few have visited, a land even fewer think about. My husband and I were cycling across Africa—through ten countries en route from Cairo to Cape Town—and we had entered the unknown. We had discovered one of the least visited countries on the planet.

Originally, we planned to simply camp overnight and head further south at the crack of dawn. Now, however, those plans had to change: Our support vehicles were delayed at the border and we had an entire unplanned day in Wadi Halfa.

But nobody stays in Wadi Halfa. It is a run down, dusty border town that most travelers quickly exit.

And that’s where the tragedy lies.

Things to Do in Wadi Halfa

Woman at coffee stop in Sudan

On our first morning, Dave and I sat down at a coffee shop hoping for a cup of tea—it was one of the only things to do in Wadi Halfa. A fellow patron named Abdulla Ahmed immediately greeted us with a warm smile and asked us to eat with him—another popular activity in a small town with just a handful of restaurants. Bowls of spiced beans and pitas multiplied before us as Abdulla talked to us about life, all the while scooping spoonfuls of sugar into our small glasses.

He was a man filled with wisdom and sadness. He shared with us the history of his village—how it was the most green and lush city in all of the Sudan until Egypt built the Aswan Dam. The dam flooded the old city of Wadi Halfa, displacing a staggering 100,000 people. Today, the residents of Wadi Halfa are slowly coming back, and it now has a population of 15,000.  Abdulla used to be a professor in Khartoum, but he has returned to his place of birth and is hoping that it will eventually thrive once again.

On our visit to the town hall, we saw photographs of a happier time in Wadi Halfa. Palm trees lined the city’s streets and grass grew in abundance. Now the town is barren; erosion and loss of nutrients in the soil have made the land dry and inhospitable to the people who had cultivated it for centuries.

The three of us talked for more than two hours, and when we offered to pay, Abdulla refused. He said it was good luck to meet us, and he enjoyed the chance to talk with us since so many travelers rarely take the time for even a cup of tea. Abdulla had very little, but was open to sharing. I will never forget him; a proud man with a possessing a sense of dignity you so rarely find. His eyes contained a multitude of complexities, his clothes were impeccably white, and he commanded attention.

It was people like Abdulla that I saw throughout our time in Sudan. Everyone waved to us with quiet dignity as we passed. They were always smiling and were so very generous. They may not have been able to speak our language—they may not have even understood why crazy foreigners were riding in spandex through the desert!—but whenever they saw us, local Sudanese people beckoned us to stop to say hello.

bikes cycling the tour d africa

We never saw the conflict that plagues the Sudanese people. We saw a warm and friendly people that talked to us about peace. We saw villages frozen in time, and we saw families and communities living their lives as they have done for centuries.  The only thing that we experienced in the Sudan was kindness and curiosity. It’s a shame to see yet another country that the world has seemingly forgotten.

I believer that tourism help save a country. If people come and a country thrives, what is the need to fight? There are complex layers of conflict in this region, that won’t go away, but if the international community takes notice, then positive change really can happen.

I’m not an advocate and I’m not political—I don’t claim to know the intricate details of peacekeeping and global issues. All I can write is my own experience. From the conversations Dave and I had with the people we met in Sudan, they would like more visitors to experience their culture. They are proud of their country and would love to show it off.

I am saddened, however, whenever I think of Abdulla. He visited us at our camp later that evening after we had shared breakfast. Our trucks had arrived and cycling race would continue the next morning. The next few days were going to be brutal, and we had to change our tires and tune our bikes to handle the deep desert sands.

The sun was setting and Dave and I had very little time to talk. I saw the hurt in Abdulla’s eyes. I wanted to give him the time that he deserved, to repay him for his hospitality and generosity. Yet I did not. He left and tears came to my eyes: Why didn’t I just forget about the tires? I could throw on my headlamp later and finish. Instead, I continued to work. It’s easier than you think to miss the most memorable moments on the road and I live with regret that I didn’t prioritize the connection we had with Abdulla, prioritize the opportunity to share drinks and have one last memorable conversation.


Dave and Deb, The Planet DDave and Deb are an adventure couple from Canada who are always searching for a new way to explore the world. Their goal is to teach people about other ways of life and raise awareness of social issues that different communities face each day. By traveling as a couple, they explore the world with a broad view, seeing it from two different perspectives.

Follow their adventures at The Planet D