Wednesday, July 11, 2012

An excursion to Port St Johns, Amapondo Backpackers and reflections on six months in Africa

As is usually the case out here, the past few weeks have been wonderful.  The farm in East London has continued to be everything I’d hoped and I’ve managed to take a side trip to Port Saint Johns in the Transkei region which has been simply stunning.  I’ll tell you all about it shortly, however I’ve recently passed a milestone that should require some reflection: six months on the road in Africa.

I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I ‘Yes’ to a 4x4 trip up Africa.  All I did was buy a one-way ticket to Cape Town, set myself a rough timetable of 12-18 months for the trip and hope for the best.  Without a doubt, Africa has delivered time and time again.  Driving flooded sand roads of Mozambique, scuba diving in Lake Malawi and watching the Africa Cup soccer final in a local sports bar, going on safari in Tanzania and seeing my first wild lions, diving off Zanzibar, the beauty of the Usambara Mountains, the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, hiking Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, attending Afrika Burn, staying on the farm and now my visit to Port St Johns have been just some of the incredible highlights I have been able to experience in this amazing part of the world. 

As I cross the six month mark, traveling solo through Africa feels totally natural, the obvious thing to be doing right now.  I was recently asked if I had one year to live how I would live my life and my answer was I wouldn’t change a thing.  It can be hard to be away from home for long periods.  I feel like I am missing out on a lot of things back in Seattle with my friends and family, but I can’t be in two places at once and right now Africa is where I want to be.  It was unfortunate that the original Cape to Cairo trip with Chris and Weon didn’t work out because it had so much potential, but it was a learning experience, it brought me to Africa and I have no regrets. 

It is funny how my time here has worked out.  I started in Cape Town, South Africa, drove through Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania; literally half way up Africa, only to return all the way to Cape Town where I started months later.  Very roughly, my plan is to essentially start the Cape to Cairo over again.  I’m sure it will end up changing, but my idea now is to ride through Botswana, Zambia, western Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya.  Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt are still problematic for getting overland visas so I may have to fly into some of these countries, but before I return home I expect to be stand at the base of the great pyramids, on the other end of Africa from where I began. 

Ah yes, a beautiful way to begin your day: fresh baked bread from Yoliswa, avocado from our own trees, eggs from our chickens and sweet chili sauce from our own guava trees. 

As usual, work on the farm continued.  After a very heavy rain we saw how the road into the farm can become a river in short order so it was time to make some water bars to divert the stream and send it into gardens for irrigation.  Ntskia decided to help us out for this task.

Through the magic of the internet, I was finally able to do a video chat with my parents (and my cat Jack) for my mother’s birthday back home.  It was the first time in 6 months I’ve been able to video chat with anyone and it was nice to see some very familiar faces, even if I had to stay up until 2am to account for the time difference!

One thing I’ve done a lot of out here is painting.  Rickety old ladders, bamboo painter poles and no taping edges, it’s house painting Africa style, haha. 

The farm is a constantly shifting group of people living, working, volunteering or simply visiting.  For a few days some friends were staying over, Tim and Annie, their kids Kai and Eden and their puppy Rex.  I guess you could say we got along well, and Tim invited me to come out to Port St Johns where they run Amapondo Backpackers ‘for the weekend.’  I had no idea what I was agreeing to, but that has never stopped me and I was getting an itch to have a break from the farm and see another section of the country.  We all crammed into the bakkie and took off.

Villages along the way, including passing where Nelson Mandela grew up and has a home.

Long drives with two young kids and a puppy necessitate regular stops.  We pulled off under a bridge to stretch our legs and across the river was a group undergoing a religious ceremony. 

Due to road construction that was supposed to be finished years ago for the 2010 World Cup and the poor workmanship of the sections that were completed the drive took five and a half hours, but we had finally arrived at Amapondo and I could already tell I was going to stay longer than I had planned.

Getting in the mood.

That weekend happened to be the ‘Annual Doobie Rally’, a motorcycle rally just down the road.  A number of bikers were hanging out and after some chatting, I hopped on the back of a member of the German ‘Living Dead Motorcycle Club’s bike and off we went.  The story from here has been somehow built up by others, but we did have a little accident on the bike when he steered into a small ditch…

I had a lot of fun at the event, chatting with a mix of old bikers, other travellers and a few young people who came along for the party.  I was told this rally in particular was very interesting because how diverse it was.  As opposed to other events that are nearly all white, this one is more like 80% black/colored and everyone gets along.  It must have something to do with the ‘doobie’ part of the rally eh?

Tim and Annie frequently invited me to tag along with them around the area, which often involved trips to the beach with a whole gang of kids.

Second Beach, Port St Johns, South Africa.  Simply stunning.

After a little swim and frolic, we all headed to a restaurant called The Wooden Spoon.  This is a place that was started by a Swiss couple, who drove from Switzerland to South Africa in this old ambulance Land Rover.  They bought a trailer, converted it into a kitchen, and a restaurant was born. 

Danny, a ‘local legend’ and the kitchen in the background.

Port St Johns used to have a military base, part of which involved an airstrip on the edge of a cliff towering above the town.  Amapondo offers regular trips up to the airstrip to watch the sun going down, and it is not something to miss.

The next morning two other guests and myself went off on a walk into the village to visit the mother Zulu, of one of the locals who runs the bar.  We walked through the steep and winding roads asking people which way it was, and eventually arrived at his place, music pumping, beers out and friends hanging around chatting. 

Mom’s kitchen and an important lesion: If you want to get off the tourist track and into ‘real Africa’ all you need to do is say hello to people and walk a few minutes to where the people live. 

“African salad.”

That night, we were hanging out around the fire and Maz, Tim’s sister suggested I cut off half my beard.  I decided it was good for a laugh and agreed, I didn’t need both halves anyway. 

Life on the farm is usually pretty quiet as was my time in Cape Town.  Arriving at Amapondo dropped me right back into the ‘backpacking scene’ and the frequent parties that often involves.  It also involves having to share the same ‘what’s your story’ spiel dozens of times but it is wonderful for meeting new people.  Also, I just want to point out I shaved half my beard off before shots, not after ;)

Andre partied a little too hard and a few of us got to play medic. (He was fine by the way, just a knock on the head)

The next morning I set off on my own for a walk to take in some of the scenes.  This is overlooking Second Beach and what a sight it is.

I was headed to the fearsome blowhole, a spot where the waves cause a spout of water and spray that comes from a hole in the rock, but first I had to pass a few gravestones.  The path alone is a bit of an adventure for some but more seriously, numerous people have drowned when they fell into the water and were essentially beaten to a pulp on the rocks by the violent water. 

Heading down one of the ladders, half beard in its full glory!

When I got to the blowhole, I saw just how easily one actually can be killed here.  It is a huge, steep and slippery bit of stone, like a 100 foot wide slide, that can send you straight into the water and against the rocks, as well as the freak waves that can take people by surprise.  Not the safest place to hang out by myself, but I watched the water for about an hour before turning back to safer ground.

Even the cows like the beach.  (I was told this is done to help purge their systems before slaughter)

Hula hoop the night away.

Swimming sure is a great way to start your day.  With Tim, Annie and crew again.

After a little beach fun, I joined a group on a hike through the forest behind Amapondo where we stopped at one of the 3 rope swings first.  It’s a good size swing and I decided it was best done upside down.

Thick, lush, coastal forest. 

After about 45 minutes you arrive at the waterfall and pool.  The falls is just a trickle this time of year, but the important thing about this place is the huge depth of the pool and the numerous different platforms to jump from.

Naturally I headed for the highest spot (25 feet maybe?) and took the plunge.  The water is cold but very refreshing.

An interesting tree along the path.

And some political advertisements.

Stopping at The Wooden Spoon for a little post hike lunch.

Oh, did I mention Second beach is supposed to be one of the most dangerous shark beaches in the world?  They have had something like six fatal attacks since 2005.  Most people choose not to swim here which I understand.  In the ‘developed world’ we have managed to protect ourselves from essentially every natural predator there is, but sharks are one of the only creatures that manages to pick people off and that seems to give people an irrational fear of the true danger.  After, have you drive on the highways in South Africa? Far more dangerous than the beach and a few sharks.

In the evening, I joined Ron and Tamir two Israelis who had a rented 4x4 for a little journey.  We wound our way along the coast for a while, and then decided to follow a grass track on the hilltops. 

More of the coastline,

And more rural Africa. 

As we reached the top of one of the hills to admire the view for a while, a small crowd of local boys gathered to check us out.  This happens all the time, and so does the part where they chase after you for as long as they can as we drove off.

A game of soccer, on a hillside, between cows, in the last minutes of sunlight.

That evening we bought food at the grocery store and ate dinner together, huge steaks and fries.  Thanks for cooking dudes!

Haha, this was classic.  Here is the setup: You tell everyone you have a came to play, ‘Oxford vs Cambridge.’  You have a tub filled with water, then float a few bottle caps in it.  You tell everyone it is a race where you have to blow your cap across the water, etc etc, and let them practice for a minute.  Then you tell everyone the race is about to start and when everyone gets their faces close to the water in order to blow their respective bottle cap boats, you slap your hands into the water, drenching everyone who agreed to participate!  Try it on your friends.

Another picture perfect day on the beach.  Can you believe this is supposed to be ‘winter’??

That afternoon a large group of guests wanted to hike to the waterfall and while the two dogs are actually trained to show the route, I thought I’d play tour guide and take the group myself.  The bulk of the trail follows an aboveground waterline, which sometimes means a bit of a balancing act.

At the waterfall I showed everyone the swing and the different places to jump from.  It took some coaxing to get others into the water, but in the end many people did and we had a good time.

This is what a cloudy winter days looks like.

I had no idea when I came that Port St Johns is the jumping off point to seeing one of the world’s largest migrations, the sardine run.  Due to conditions on the ocean floor off the coast of South Africa, this is a site where billions of sardine move through.  According to wiki; “The shoals are often more than 7 km long, 1.5 km wide and 30 meters deep and are clearly visible from spotter planes or from the surface.”  This attracts huge numbers of dolphins and sharks and you can witness this event via snorkelling or scuba diving.  It all sounded pretty great, so I signed up for a trip.  We all donned wetsuits and snorkel setups so we were ready to go at any moment.

Our captain.

What happens is groups of dolphins scare off bunches of fish and group them into what is called ‘bait bowls’, swirling masses of fish, then dolphins and sharks take turns diving in for a bite.  Meanwhile, on the surface the birds gather and catch fish from the top by diving into the water.  By following the birds, you can get an idea where a bait bowl is forming and everyone gets ready to dive in.  

The captain shouts ‘Go!” and you all jump off the boat swimming towards the action in hopes of getting to witness the bait bowl and the hunters go at it.  It is quite intense actually, and you are in water 100 meters deep essentially staring into an abyss.  Unfortunately, we never were able to catch a view of one (and it wasn’t for lack of trying), but naturally the day before was a great day for it!  Oh well, so it goes.

The dolphins here are quite amazing, showing up by the thousands.  They are constantly swimming around the surface, and often around the boat.  This was the first time I’ve had a chance to swim with these amazing creatures and it made quite an impression.  Floating in the ocean, looking down into the darkness, listening to the high pitch squeal the dolphins make and having them effortlessly zoom past you is a pretty neat feeling. 

The water here is also a prime whale watching site.  We frequently saw multiple whales swimming together and at one point saw two huge ones breeching at the same moment.  No one was able to get a photo of that, but trust me it was a beautiful thing to see.  We also worked to swim around the whales, getting ahead of the course of some and jumping in the water to see them swim past. 

They must be having so much fun.

We kept at it, hoping to spot a bait bowl until the light began to fade.  It was disappointing not to see this phenomenon in person, however it was still a great day of dolphin, whale and bird watching and I had a great time.  Highly recommended. 

I’ve spent almost no time around kids in my life, until this trip.  On the farm in East London of course I’ve been around Ntsika for more than a month and there has been a regular rotation of other kids passing through with their parents.  Hanging out with Tim and Annie so much at Amapondo has meant I was around their two kids and all the other friends in the area.  It was a new and interesting experience for me.  They can be funny and interesting and annoying and enjoyable and stupid and brilliant all at the same time. 

A large group of us went out to visit a permaculture farm just outside of town where a friend Uprise lives and is fixing up.  We got the full tour, and like the farm in East London it has been a bit neglected and overgrown, but they are cleaning it up and it is an amazing place.

Huge yellow bamboo.

The barn and old windmill.

Annie in a tree. 

This is the play area at The Wooden Spoon restaurant again!  It turned out the couple who drove from Switzerland and started the place were in town again, so there was a big dinner with all kinds of Port St Johns characters.  While many of the ‘adults’ talked, I hung out with the kids and helped them with the swing.  Oh, another thing about the playground: It has a teeter-totter.  Doesn’t sound like anything special, but it is built so when kids play on it, water is pumped up the hill to the holdings tanks, clever stuff right? 

That night was the birthday of one of the locals, and a big party was thrown at Jungle Monkey, another lodge in town.  One of the performers was a local woman (and quite a character as well) who is one of the contestants in South African Idol.  She put on a great show and as it reached midnight and July 8th it was also the start of my birthday.

Another beautiful day, another swim at the beach (cows and all).

Tim and the gang.

Once we returned, Tim wanted to go on a little motorcycle adventure.  I still don’t know how to ride one, so I hopped on the back.  Andy, another friend of Tim’s came along as well.  Tim and I were on a 600cc dirt bike, Andy was on a brand new 1000cc KTM with street tires.  This was going to get interesting!

We drove out into a village and stopped to visit a local Sangoma (some would call them ‘witch doctors’).  We chatted over tea and bread, learned a bit about what Sangomas do and how she is a teacher for people who want to become one.

The area we were riding through.

Tim and Andy with the bikes as we passed through a gum forest.  Check the tires!

It had rained last night and some parts of the route were VERY slippery.  On one hill in particular (‘snot hill’) all three of us had to help walk the KTM down the hill because it was so slick. 

Looking out towards the sea.

And finally back to real roads and a world-class view. 

It happened to be just about sundown by the time we finished the trail so we headed up to the airstrip for sunset again. 

The Pondoland River emptying into the ocean, Port St Johns in the distance. Not a way to spend your birthday huh? 

The next day it was time for me to leave Amapondo and Port St Johns. I’d come ‘for the weekend’ and ended up staying 10 days it was so much fun!  Alas, my visa for South Africa expires on July 17th, so it was time to get moving.  I took local taxis the whole way and while it was somewhat uncomfortable, it was cheap and worked very well. 

Alex picked me up back in East London and we returned to the farm, where it felt good to be back.  That said, my time is short.  After two nights on the farm to gather my things, do some sorting and take care of some business, I will be helping Tim’s mom drive from East London back to Port St Johns for my last days in South Africa.

So what’s next?  I am prepping for a bicycle trip.  I am headed to Gaborone, the capital of Botswana where I hope to buy a bike and start riding north, towards Victoria Falls into Zambia and then......?  I don’t really know what I might be getting myself into and it’s going to be a serious adventure I think, but I am ready for a challenge and I love the idea.  Let’s see how it goes.