Those who have read my blog in the past know that I recently returned from my two weeks of R&R leave. For my vacation holiday away from the Army I went to Southern Africa.
First why I went to Africa, the short and simple answer is because I could. One of the few benefits about being deployed for a year with the Army is that everyone, who is deployed for that long, is afforded the opportunity to take two weeks of leave. The US government will purchase for us a ticket to anywhere in the world that we want to go, so long as it meets certain safety requirements. Basically it has to be safer than Afghanistan or they won’t let you go. I would guess more than 90% of deployed soldiers go back to the United States to visit their wives and girlfriends, maybe not in that order though! During my last deployment I went to Australia and just had a blast. I was tempted to go to there again, but I wanted to see someplace new. Plus I really liked the idea of being able to check another continent off my list of places I’ve visited. When I decided to go to Africa, considered Egypt for about 2 seconds. I think it would be cool to see the ancient pyramids and such, however I have seen enough sand and heat for one year. Knowing very little about the continent of Africa I figured that South Africa would be as good of a place to visit as any. I knew that as a former British protectorate they would speak the queen’s English, so I wouldn’t have to worry about figuring out a language while I traveled around.
Before my trip I was given and purchased some southern Africa travel books. I flipped though them some, but truthfully didn’t read them as much as I could have or should have. The biggest help for my trip was that I met a contractor on my base who had traveled to southern Africa on vacation a couple years ago. He shared some pictures and gave some great ideas of things to see and do for my holiday.
For my trip to Australia a couple years back I had a couple nights in Kuwait before my flight out, so I figured the same might occur before I flew to South Africa. This would give me more time to plan for things that I wanted to see and do. Unfortunately I was wrong, and my ticket was booked the same day that I arrived to Kuwait. So I had little time to find proper lodging. When I traveled Australia I stayed exclusively at hostels, and for this trip I was completely fine with doing the same. My opinion is why spend the money on an expensive hotel room, especially if all I plan to do is sleep in the room. In the short time that I had, I emailed a couple hostels and fortunately one responded before my flight left.
After a nice flight on Emirates airlines I was picked up at lakeview backpackers, which fortunately wasn't too far from the airport, plus the host picked me up for free from the airport. My first full day in Africa was spent lounging and relaxing in the hostel. I emailed a travel agent I found on the internet and described my goals for the trip.
Per the recommendations of my friend back in Afghanistan, I wanted to visit one of the seven natural wonders of the world Victoria Falls, go on a game drive safari, go diving, and visit Cape Town. The package the agent designed for me was probably a bit more than I would have normally spent, but I figured I’m on vacation, plus I also realized for such short notice I would probably have to spend a bit more. My one bit of frustration with the agent I ended up working with was the time they took in which to get back to me when I asked questions. Magically though when it came time for payment on the package I selected, even though I was not near a computer in which to make a payment via the internet, they were calling me non-stop.
I asked my hostel hostess, Ronel, what she recommended for things to see or do in or around Johannesburg (Jo’burg for the locals). To my surprise she kept politely saying that she would just leave Johannesburg and recreate in other towns. I thought she was just jaded after growing up in an area that she felt that there was nothing to do, so I didn’t really believe. I was wrong and should have. I took a tour with a guide she set up to drive through Johannesburg and visit the Apartheid museum.
Driving through Johannesburg, and much of South Africa I witnessed a whole different world than I am used to back in the states. Basically a good sign of wealth in South Africa is how tall the fence is that someone has around their property. Every house or apartment complex has some sort of security fence around. The typical fence for middle class or better familiy is about 6.5 feet high, and made of brick or concrete. On top of the concrete fence will be one of three things, and three strand electrical fence, razor wire similar to what we have here in the military for force protection, or metal spikes. Additionally every property is protected by a security company like Brinks or ADT, except their yard signs all say “Armed Response.” Back in the states the security companies, as far as I know, only call the cops and hope you survive till the cops show up. After reading the Johannesburg newspaper detailing home invasions and carjackings, I can understand why everyone has security on their home or car. I’m generally a fairly adventurous person, however I don’t think that I would have felt comfortable walking down the streets of Johannesburg alone, at least as a wide eyed tourist. I was later told that private security is the largest source of employment throughout South Africa.
Visiting the Apartheid museum was enlightening, but also a bit frustrating. The guide that I was with had a time schedule, and that schedule didn’t include me being able to read and enjoy all the exhibits in the Apartheid museum. Much like slavery and the civil rights movement of the United States, Apartheid is a real black eye on South Africa and many of the wounds are still taking time to heal.
My first destination upon leaving Johannesburg was flying to Victoria Falls Zimbabwe. Because I booked my trip in such haste I didn’t realize that I was in the same country of Zimbabwe with the dictator Robert Mugabe. Fortunately visiting the city of Victoria Falls, there was little evidence of a country run by a corrupt individual. An entry Visa for Zimbabwe would cost $25 US dollars each time that I would cross the border. I got a little bit of a surprise on the shuttle drive from the airport to my hotel, the Kingdom Hotel, the driver recommended not walking very far off the grounds of the hotel after dark as there literally is wild animals that might not be very friendly at night.
After I checking into the hotel I wanted to walk around and check out the area. I walked to the National Park entrance to the falls, however the sign showed that it cost $30 each time to enter into the park. Since I had already arranged for a guided tour the next morning, I decided to wait to enter. The short walk back to the hotel was a bit of an adventure as I was followed and hounded by teenagers desperate to have purchase some wooden souvenirs which they were walking around. They would stand by the entrance to the park or near the hotel grounds and wait for anyone that looked like a tourist and try get them to purchase something. If that didn’t work they would resort to begging asking for money for food, additionally they would take in trade anything that I was wearing. I got several offers for the Nike shoes that I had on. On the flight I was told to avoid kids who will try and sell local currency. I was amazed to see kids’ trying to sell the local Zimbabwe currency, with 100 trillion dollar notes the highest currency that I saw. I fortunately did not purchase any of their dollars; I was carrying around enough worthless paper.
I started conversing, and then later having a meal with a couple young ladies from Pennsylvania who were also on a two week vacation holiday. I kind of had to laugh as they had found out the hard way that cash is king. They had brought a bunch of travelers checks and no businesses wanted to accept those. Worst of all they had MasterCard as their main credit card, and few places in Africa would take MasterCard. One of the gals had a Visa check card she was reluctant to use, but was forced if she wanted to use a credit card she had to use her check card. I was surprised to discover that in Zimbabwe the US Dollar is basically the only currency accepted. Throughout much of Africa, if places do take a credit card, forget about American Express and don’t count on places taking a MasterCard either.
The next morning I took my walking tour of Victoria Falls. Fortunately flying to Zimbabwe to view the falls was worth it. I also, fortunately, picked a good time of the year to actually be able to see the falls. When the summer rainy season begins on the Zambezi River so much water falls over the falls, that the mist created literally makes it almost impossible to see the actual falls. There is a reason as to why the locals called the falls The Smoke that Thunders. Walking the pathway on the Zimbabwe side I had a great view of the falls. Most of the actual falls are in the country of Zambia, however to actually see the falls a person needs to be in Zimbabwe. I was tempted to cross into Zambia to check it, however it would have been a fee to enter Zambia, plus a fee to enter the park in Zambia, followed by another fee to walk back into Zimbabwe. What was most tempting about going to the Zambia side was the chance to take a dip in the Devil’s Pool.
The evening of the same day that I took my tour of the Falls I did a very touristy thing and went for a ride on a Elephant. $100, but I figured ‘hey, I’m a tourist when am I ever going to ride an elephant.’ I think perhaps what was most interesting was literally how quiet the giant animal could be while walking. Their feet are like giant pads. If they are not stepping on an old tree, or making any noise they can sneak right up on something. On this little ride I saw my first real wild African animals, some Impalas as well as some African or Cape Buffalo. My first sighting of one the African Big 5 animals in the wild!
My second day at the Kingdom hotel found me just relaxing by the pool most of the day. In the evening I went on a sunset booze cruise along the Zambezi River. One of the highlights was getting to see my first group of Hippos. The best part though was just watching an African Sunset from the river.
After three nights in Victoria Falls my next destination was the Muchenje Safari Lodge in northern Botswana next to the Chobe National Park. It was about a three hour ride from Victoria Falls to the Lodge, with a stop at the border to get my passport stamped. In order to get to the lodge we had to drive through the national park, which reminded me a lot of driving through Yellowstone National park, only instead of buffalo near the side of the road we saw Elephants, and lots of them.
The Muchenje Lodge, and similarly for the Kingdom Lodge, I felt a bit out of place. I could tell that both catered a bit more for either newlyweds or retired couples. My chalet at Muchenje was probably the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in; a private building, a private bathroom, a king size bed, and a view more than worth the cost of the room. In addition the resort was all inclusive for all meals, drinks and park fees.
To try and describe the variety and multitude of animals that I saw in the Chobe National Park would not do it justice. I hope that if you haven’t already that you are able to check out the slide show on the right side of the web page showing pictures from my trip. I think that I lucked out and picked the right time of the year to visit Africa and do wildlife viewing. Because it was still a month or so before the rainy season begins vegetation is very low, and many of the water holes have dried up. As a result all the animals are forces to hang closer to the river to find their necessary water and fresh vegetation. I lucked out and was able to see, in the park, four of the five Big Five; wild elephants, cape buffalos, lions, and leopards. Unfortunately or fortunately I will have to come back to visit Africa again if I want to see a rhino. It was amazing to see the giraffes, the numerous different types of antelopes, the zebras, as well as hundreds of birds.
There were times in which the horizon was just black from all the elephants that we saw. The guide our group had shared with us that it is estimated that there are 120k to 150k elephants in the park. It is amazing to witness but the elephants destroy almost every area that they come through. Many of the trees in certain areas are no higher than six or seven feet, as elephants have broke off the tops of the trees and consumed all the leaves on the trees. Also amazingly the elephants and most of the animals in the park were not intimated by humans. Since there is no hunting in the park, the animals do not necessarily fear humans. There were times in which it seemed we were probably less than 20 feet from an elephant.
My one major regret for my time in southern Africa, especially while I was in Botswana, is that I did not have my SLR digital camera. My good camera is back in the states, and I would not have had the space in which to pack it along in my bag. There were so many photo opportunities, especially with a nice zoom lens. On one of the afternoon safari trips that I went on one of the girls that I met later admitted that her regret was she wished she had brought a sports bra. The safari vehicles are not exactly luxury cars, they essentially are one ton four wheel drive pickups with seats mounted in the box of the truck. So bouncing around along the trails of the park my but got a little sore by the end of the day also.
After my three night in Botswana and the Muchenje lodge were complete I had to make the land journey in reverse back to Victoria Falls and the Victoria Falls airport. My next major destination was to travel to Cape Town South Africa. It literally took me all day to travel from Botswana to Cape Town. One of the highlights of this day was meeting a young family Pennsylvania who now live and work in Cape Town. Their children had the South African equivalent of spring break so they also took a vacation to Zimbabwe. Waiting in the long line to check in for the airline they eventually invited me to join them for dinner one evening during my time in Cape Town.
In Cape Town I decided to stay in a hostel, and I think I lucked out and made a pretty good selection choosing Atlantic Point Backpackers in the Green Point section of Cape Town. Less than a kilometer away from the soccer stadium, it would have been the perfect place to stay and party during the world cup.
My first morning at the hostel I made friends with a young woman from Canada who had come to Cape Town simply to take a break from her job as a volunteer teacher in South Africa. Her main goal was to visit Table Mountain, and then sight see throughout Cape Town. Advice I had received from others said that the first good day in Cape Town go directly to Table Mountain, because the weather in Cape Town can change so quick and the mountain might be socked in for several days. So traveling with my new friend seemed like as good an idea as any. So we took a tourist bus to the base of the Table Mountain cable car. There was a forty minute wait to take the top of the mountain, so I presented to her that I was game to take the walk up the mountain if she was. The brochures said that it is a 2.5 hour walk to the top from the base of the cable car. The walk to the top of the mountain is not for the week of heart, or spirit. To walk to the top a person had better have good shoes, and plenty of water. I made the mistake of wearing blue jeans, not thinking that on vacation I would be ascending almost 1500ft along the side of a mountain. I can proudly say that we made it to the top in about two hours, many times pondering aloud what the heck we were thinking by wanting to walk up. While the walk up sucked, most everyone said that walk down is even worse. The view from the top of Table Mountain was truly spectacular, and I lucked out in that it was a clear day and a person could see for miles and miles in any one direction.
We decided that we had had enough physical excitement and took the cable car down off the mountain, which was also pretty cool. We decided to walk along the beach and feel how cold or hot the Atlantic Ocean was. The ocean wasn’t freezing cold, however it was nowhere near as warm as I was hoping that it would be. Earlier in the day I heard on the tourist bus that near Cape Town the ocean water gets about 10 to 15 degrees Celsius cooler in the summer than it is in the winter. The beaches and the beach front properties I felt were better than pure party atmosphere of Panama City Beach Florida, yet not as expensive or fancy as Sarasota or Ft Myers beach Florida. The area was still very nice none the less though.
Day two in Cape Town had me walking along the waterfront and checking out some of the shops of the area. I purchased a ticket to go to Robben Island in the afternoon. There is a water taxi that goes every hour to the island every couple hours, weather permitting. Because of demand people often book days in advance, I luckily was able to go in the afternoon. Robben Island was the prison home of many political prisoners of Apartheid, including former president Nelson Mandela. It is now considered a national historical site. Unfortunately many people considered it an amusement park or something. As a single man, who really enjoys culture and history I was really frustrated at the number of tourists who brought their young toddlers and babies. There are two parts to the tour of the island a short trip in a bus showing many of the different buildings and features of the island. The second half was a guided tour with a former political prisoner of the main prison. Several times there were instances in which the kids were just being kids; unfortunately it made it very difficult for the rest of us to hear what the tour guides were trying to share. None-the-less the island was very interesting, and it was cool to peak my head into the cell which Nelson Mandela called home for the 18 years that he was on the island.
My third day in Cape Town I spent walking around the heart of downtown Cape Town. Much like Johannesburg all the houses and apartment buildings had tall imposing fences. Unlike Johannesburg I had no problem walking throughout Cape Town, at least during the day. For me the one of the interesting points was walking through the Castle of Good Hope, the oldest building in South Africa. The entrance fee was about $3.50, which I felt was very affordable. I happened to luck out and enter at the same time that a free tour was beginning. After my couple hours at the Castle, I just wondered through the heart of the town, walking up Long Street (the main bar district), St George’s Market, the Natural History Museum and Planetarium. I found the Natural History Museum very average, and the Planetarium presentation kind of boring (I think I fell asleep for 5 minutes during their show). The highlight though of the day is I was able to enjoy a nice traditional American meal with the family from the states that I had met on my flight to Cape Town. Their kids are about the same age as my niece and nephews so it was fun to interact with them for a few minutes before they had to go to bed.
Day four in Cape Town had me experimenting with their public transportation. I took the train and bus from downtown Cape Town to an area called Glencairn for a SCUBA refresher course I had arranged. I lucked out when I got on the train to find a seat, otherwise for about 80% of the time on the hour long ride it was standing room only. I was fortunate that I knew that my stop was the end of the line for the train otherwise I do not think I would have found my station. There were no maps on the inside of the train, nor announcements of what the upcoming station was. Fortunately I do not think many tourists take the train as I think a lot of people would be getting off at stops in neighborhoods in which they probably don’t belong. Even though I said that I felt safe in downtown Cape Town, the train travels though a lot of poor areas and neighborhoods in which outsiders do not belong. My refresher scuba course wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped it would be. The water was quit cold, but mostly it had been a long time since my last dive (08 Australia) and I just didn’t have a high comfort level.
My last night in Cape Town found me just relaxing around the hostel, walking along the beach boardwalk, and generally taking it easy. I was invited out to a bar with some of the other guests from the hostel. The bar, Knoxville, had one of the coolest scenes for a Wednesday that I’ve seen. I don’t think I have ever seen a collection of more women wearing their Friday or Saturday night party clothes on a Wednesday.
Leaving Cape Town I flew on British Airways of South Africa. What a refreshing airline compared to the airlines back in the states. No charge to check my luggage, an actual heated meal was served, and free booze. I don’t know what foreign airlines are doing to treat their customers great, and still make a profit; but I wish they would share a few of their secrets to carriers back in the states.
Upon arriving at my hotel in Johannesburg which was near the first hostel I stayed at when arriving to Africa, I got settled and realized I had plenty of day left. I had arrived early enough in the day that I asked the hostess if she had any recommendations of things to do in the area? She set me up on a guided township tour of Soweto. I thought that it would be unique, I hate to say it though, but I have seen enough poor places throughout the world and it was nothing unique. It was a Township which is still predominately black, and was one of the areas black citizens were allowed to live in during Apartheid. The one highlight was visiting the former home of Nelson Mandela before, and after, he was imprisoned. The funniest part is I was stopped by a bunch of men from Nigeria who were also touring the small historical sight. When I said that I was from the United States they thought this was the coolest thing, so I got to have my picture taken with a half dozen different men from Nigeria. The worst part of the day was that they guide that I hired basically started doing laps around the area to try and justify the amount of money that I was paying him.
After 15 days in Southern African it was time to start my journey back to Afghanistan. I had budgeted my money such that I had about $10 dollars worth of Rand (South African currency) left to spend in the airport. It was easy for me to find some post cards and knick knacks to spend my money on. Thinking back on the different souvenirs that I purchased I think that I overspent on just about each item. I bought some items from little street shops or vendors, I would have a fun time haggling with the chaps to get a good price. Invariably though I would find the same item a few shops down, or the next day for a price cheaper than what I paid for the item had I just purchased. I figured if I can’t overpay for a ‘cheap crap’ souvenir in Africa and have a good attitude about it, then where can I? I’m glad I got the chance to visit Africa. I made a few new friends that I hope I will be able to stay in contact with. I would recommend visiting Africa to most anyone who is a bit adventurous in a second. If you go to Africa bring plenty of US dollars, and bring a Visa Credit card. I would only go through Johannesburg to use the international airport. I heard many great things in the Okavango Delta Park in Botswana, and Krueger National Park in South Africa and there are a lot of great animals to be seen there. I also wish that I would have had the time to visit the countries of Mozambique, or Kenya.
Amazingly it seemed like it took about half the time for me to get back to my base in Afghanistan compared to how long it took me to get down to Africa to start my vacation. Now if only my last few months in Afghanistan go by ask quickly as my two weeks in Africa seemed to fly by!