Cape Town, South Africa
Arriving from Lesotho to Cape Town was as much of a culture shock as going from Zimbabwe to Johannesburg, but the vibe’s all positive: people walking around everywhere (this makes a huge difference), scheduled bus routes and safe minibus taxis, friendly locals, and a modern, heavily-organised atmosphere that feels vaguely European. It’s also clearly affluent. One of South Africa’s three capital cities (besides Pretoria and Bloemfontein) and by far the most visited one, most visitors tend to start their Africa trips here. Locals call it a soft landing: for me, it’s a soft readjustment, a one-week staging area for me to get used to a more Western style of living again, while still having small bits of the African hustle and bustle I’ve grown used to. Even the demographics don’t feel quite African, with people of myriad races and mixes represented, and a whole lot of white people: you could mistake it for an American city, if you didn’t hear the telltale click sounds in the local African languages all over the streets. South Africa calls itself the “Rainbow Nation”, and I guess this is what it means.
This is the last stop of my Africa trip! It took a few hours to sink in. I wandered around the ultra-modern Waterfront area (not unlike a kitschier Granville Island or Halifax’s harbourfront, but supersized and with big malls) in the early morning. Table Mountain loomed overhead, as it always does, but my mind wasn’t even on that: I had just made it all the way down from Ethiopia; Kenya by land! While I can’t say it was all that difficult, I did feel elatedly proud of myself, having a moment of disbelief as I ran into a sign pointing to Vancouver: I’m finally going home!
Semonkong and Malealea, Lesotho
Bouncing up and down on a friendly and cooperative but overly eager donkey after taking a single shot, joined by four other travellers who did the same with me, I thought: What in the world am I getting myself into? My donkey’s owner, Bafuke (who also named his donkey Bafuke), was all laughs as he ran after me, trying to get my donkey to go in the right direction without the aid of reins or even a stick.
Three bars, three hours, and three beers later (and most of you know that’s far more than I can normally take), I had a permanent grin plastered to my face, waving to every villager I passed (who all waved back), giggling as my donkey broke into a run and I was a little too tipsy to hold on tight.
Yes, I made it back in one piece. But this is Lesotho — real, tough, and yet a total riot. We were joined by other patrons at the bars who arrived on horseback! They spent the night playing pool, dancing along to whatever they could find on the jukebox, playing slots, and chatting with us.
Sani Pass to Maseru, Lesotho
“How do you know Lesotho?”
I didn’t, actually, beyond the fact that it’s a country completely surrounded by South Africa. But boy, this is a fascinating place.
Lesotho (li-su-tu) packs a punch despite its tiny size, and doesn’t feel at all like any other country. I first did a daytrip to the village of Mafika-Lisiu (di-si-ew; the orthography is weird) from the northern Drakensberg, just past a remote border post and relatively inaccessible. Enamoured by the rolling fields of purple cosmos flowers, the resolutely traditional but friendly people, the fact that it’s the highest country in the world (its lowest point is at 1400 m, and most of the country is above 1800 m), and the story behind its survival as an independent state — the largest of the four enclaves in the world, ahead of San Marino (within Italy), Vatican City (Italy), and Monaco (France) — I resolved to return, minus the unwieldy daytrip tour crowd of 20 people.
Besides, given my frustrations with South Africa’s lack of public transit, returning to a land full of minibus taxis and leave-when-full vehicles was more than welcome, and a last hurrah to being in a part of “African” Africa. I don’t know why Lesotho gets skipped over for its reputation of being difficult for independent travellers — it isn’t terribly so, and deserves far more visitors than what it’s got!
uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, South Africa
It’s not so easy to get around South Africa without a car. The distances are long and — for once! — underpopulated, with lots of empty space. There are minibus taxis that run to various towns, but they’re infrequent. Long-distance buses run maybe once a day. And even if you get to a town, the interesting places to stay all tend to be well outside of it, requiring odd transfers. Take the Drakensberg, for instance. The places to stay don’t even have proper addresses, since they’re some 15-20 km out of town! There’s a backpacker-oriented bus that runs throughout the country, but it doesn’t run every day, it’s expensive and you may have to pay even more for a connecting shuttle, and without a car, you’re basically trapped at the accommodation they take you to.
That’s not to say that it can’t be enjoyable, though. The Drakensberg range, spanning a whole bunch of national parks, has scenery that rivals the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia in its grandeur. Reaching the northern end after a spectacular bus ride through large-scale farmland, I was stunned by the Amphitheatre, an 8 km cliff wall rising suddenly and dramatically from the rolling hills. The eponymous backpackers’ lodge I stayed at there was a lovely retreat, complete with 10 km of its own walking trails on their estate. Seeing the morning, afternoon, and evening light on the rugged Amphitheatre walls, then the Milky Way at night, was a great way to pass the time, and I spent nearly two days idle there just enjoying the atmosphere without doing any real activities.
Johannesburg, South Africa
Joburg is a shock to the system.
Having felt a slow and gradual change heading south from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe, waking up in Joburg to see skyscrapers, perfect roads, and a Western standard of living is jarring. But at the same time, Zimbabweans on my bus were jittery, and so was I.
Joburg has a reputation for being quite unsafe, and arriving into town at 6 am, passing empty streets full of garbage (turns out there’s an ongoing garbage strike), homeless people everywhere, graffiti, buildings left to crumble, and a general sense of unease in the city centre… well, let’s just say that that was the first time in Africa I felt nervous.
Bulawayo and Masvingo, Zimbabwe
There are two things that Zimbabwe is generally known for, at least in the past 15 years: Robert Mugabe and hyperinflation.
It’s a little unfair. Well, yes, Mugabe is 92 and has been clinging onto power in such a way that it’s caused political instability, and by late 2008, transactions were conducted in quadrillions of Zimbabwean dollars (that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000) with prices of everything doubling per day and zeros added by the week, but we can put that aside for now. (Not to say I didn’t help myself to a $10,000,000,000 bill!)
What should Zimbabwe be known for? These people are the most smiley I’ve ever seen. It goes beyond pleasantries and politeness — I’m never met with just a gentle smile, but a teeth-bearing beam, and conversations extend and extend as neither party wants to stop talking. They’re super warm and super friendly, and they really, really laugh a lot. People on the street randomly ask me how I’m enjoying Zimbabwe. Some go well out of their way to help me along with directions. They really love their country and any visitors they get — and that number is thankfully beginning to increase again, outside of just Victoria Falls.
Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe
One of the original Seven Natural Wonders of the World and deservedly so, Victoria Falls straddles the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and can be visited from both sides.
Coming in from the Zambian city of Livingstone, 10 km away and named after the British missionary-doctor-explorer who was the first European to discover the falls, you can hear the telltale thunder as you approach — no wonder it’s called Mosi-oa-Tunya (“the smoke that thunders”) in the local Tonga language. (For reference, Zambia’s largest indigenous language is Bemba, and Zimbabwe’s are Ndebele and Shona. Formerly the British colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia respectively, they both have English as their official language.) It’s the end of the wet season now, which means the falls are at their fullest. Though I chose not to visit the Zambian side of the falls, I did visit some hotels lining the Zambezi River (which gives Zambia its name) just before the falls. On the Zimbabwean side, there’s a colonial-era hotel that has views of the border bridge.