Sokkie-ing my way through South Africa

Firstly, I would like to apologize for the delay of this new blog post, sometimes while I am traveling and meeting new people I tend to put updating my blog on the back burner but I am back and in action. Now time to get to the good stuff – spending 5 ½ weeks touring through South Africa, meeting new friends and exploring the safari land.

As soon as I arrived in South Africa, I took an Uber to the area of Johannesburg I was staying at, Soweto. Since I didn’t do any research before I landed in South Africa, I was not aware that Soweto is located 20 minutes outside of Johannesburg and a very unsafe area to stay in. I soon found that out when I decided to head to the grocery store to get my food for the week. During the course of my mile walk to the store, I was the only white person walking on the streets and kids would look at me funny, older black males would invite me into their houses and I even had one black older female ask if I wanted to nanny for her. Yes, this was all in the course of my 20 minute walk to the grocery store. When I got back to my hostel, I research Soweto online and found out it is a very dangerous township to stay in as a solo white female. Just my luck! Since I already paid for a 3 night stay there, I made the most of my time by visiting Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s house on Vilakazi Street and planned out the rest of my South African journey. It was nice to relax a bit after the long flight from India. I decided to head into Johannesburg to explore the city a bit before heading up to Kruger Park to visit a friend from Australia. Johannesburg was not my favorite city but as I explored the different small sub cultures and the museums, it allowed me a glimpse into the sad history of South Africa, the rise of Nelson Mandela and the break of Apartheid.

For those of you who are not familiar with Apartheid (not to worry, I did not know what that word meant or symbolized until I arrived in South Africa) here is some information:

  • The word, apartheid, originated in South Africa and means “separation”
  • Apartheid was the system of racial segregation in South Africa
  • In 1950, the South African government classified people as 4 different races: Blacks, Coloureds, Asian and Whites.
  • After nearly 50 years of racial segregation, hundreds of riots, thousands of deaths, the reign of apartheid officially ended in 1994 after Nelson Mandela became the president.
    • 1994 was only 23 years ago!
    • As a reference, racial segregation ended in the United States in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act.

I decided to head up north to Kruger National Park to meet up with a friend from Australia. He has been stationed next to Kruger Park at the Phalaborwa Copper Mine for the last couple of months. It was the perfect set up because I was able to stay at his apartment for free and also do a self-drive tour through Kruger. We woke up early the next morning to get to the gate by sunrise to start our tour through Kruger. Right away, we saw a pack of wild dogs in a herd together running down the street right next to our car, as soon as that happened we knew it was going to be a good day. We were on the lookout for the BIG 5 which consists of lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalos. While Mike drove around, I was on the watch out. During our 10-hour day driving around Kruger we saw approximately 200 elephants, water buffalo, wild dogs, springbuck, giraffes, baboons, zebras, warthogs, spotted hyenas, impalas, reedbucks, bushbuck, water buffalo and kudus. Unfortunately, we didn’t luck out and find any predators or big cats. I think it may have been because it was extremely hot that day and we saw a lot of the animals next to the waterholes. Also after 5 or 6 hours of driving, it was getting harder to spot the animals because my eyes were so tired. It was as if I was in a real live “where’s waldo” book for 10 straight hours! For those of you who do not know, Kruger National Park is one of the largest National Parks in the world with an area of 7,523 square miles so there was no way we were going to complete the park in a day….or even a week! It was such a wonderful weekend spending time with a friend and exploring the largest national park together, I was in awe at how big these elephants were and how much grace the giraffe’s had. Everything about this weekend was perfect with Mike! Thank you Mike for showing me around, allowing me to meet some of your coworkers and providing me a place to sleep for the weekend, cannot wait to see you when you come back to the states to visit.

After such an incredible weekend, I got onto one of the local buses to make my way down to Durban. I had to take the local bus from Phalaborwa to Johannesburg and then Johannesburg to Durban which in total was 16 hours on the bus! Luckily I had my kindle with Long Walk to Freedom downloaded so I was able to kill some time reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and learning about the history of South Africa. Of course, not everything can go smoothly…as we were approaching Durban, our bus broke down 2 miles outside of the city. They told us we were allowed to get off and walk to our destination or wait 2 hours on the bus until they were able to get some help. I decided to take the journey with my backpacks and walk the 2 miles to my hostel. Luckily my maps on my phone were working and it was a pretty straight shot. When I arrived at the hostel, nearly drenched in my own sweat from the walk with my 21 kg (46.2 lbs) backpack, they told me the area of Durban that I walked though was an extremely dangerous area with a very high crime rate! Luckily with my confident stride, I was able to make it through the neighborhood with no problems, just a couple hundred catcalls my way. The only downfall of that walk was I had recently pulled my right shoulder from my backpack being too heavy and when I arrived, my left shoulder started throbbing. Unfortunately, that evening I was in immense pain and had to call my cousins from some medical help to subdue the pain until the morning (Thanks Marny and Dory for the advice!!). Finally, after settling down, I met a Marley from California who was full of information about Durban and her travels around South Africa. She was telling me that we needed to go to dinner and eat Bunny Chow which is an Indian dish that consists of a loaf of bread with the middle cut out and replaced with spicy potatoes and chicken curry. After swapping stories with her and only finishing half of our Bunny Chow’s we called it a night and wishes each other good luck since she was leaving the next morning at 4am for Mozambique.

 

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Bunny Chow!

 

During my time in Durban, I decided to spend most of my days on the beach reading and listening to podcasts. I became enthralled in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography which was over 800 pages long so that took up most of my week. It was great to have yet another week of relaxation under the sun, something that I missed while living in New York. I decided to head off to my next destination Port Elizabeth, early to meet up with my friend JP that I met in Thailand. Within the last 2 weeks I had already seen three different cities and traveled down the eastern coast of South Africa! I was excited to continue my journey on the overnight bus from Durban to Port Elizabeth, a quick 15-hour bus ride away. Little did I know that the best part of my South African experience was coming up.

 

I arrived early in the morning to Port Elizabeth and headed over to JP’s house to drop down my stuff. His parents were kind enough to invite me into their house to stay there while I was in Port Elizabeth. It was such an amazing and kind gesture that provided me with a sense of being home in the states and a comfortable bed to call my own for the week. This was surely an upgrade from the hostels I was staying at that were loud and disruptive. I dropped my bags off, talked to JP’s dad, John, about life and my travels and then ventured out to the beach to soak up some of the sun before the weather turned gray for the rest of the week. After the windy beach day, I made my way back to JP’s house to find him waiting for me to take me out to dinner. This was such a pleasant surprise to see him after 2 months.

The next day, his friend AJ took me around Port Elizabeth to show me some of the sights around town and explain the history around it. It was nice to have my own tour guide around the city while JP was out working. That night, JP introduced me to his friends while we all made personal pizza’s and played pool. This night was especially wonderful because it felt as if I was home with my friends and doing normal activities – some of the small things I miss during my travels. The next day, AJ took me to Addo Elephant Park which was another self-drive safari. This was a fun day but a bit unimpressive after my day at Kruger Park. Unfortunately, we didn’t see many animals but did get very close to some families of elephants and saw a ton of Zebras! Again, no trace of lions or predators, but for only $4 I can’t complain! That night, JP had his friend Michela over and we had a board games night which was so fun – NYC friends take notes, we need to start having game nights 🙂 That night, Michela asked if I wanted to join her for the weekend at her friend’s private game reserve. Unsure of what I was getting myself into, I said yes!

That weekend, we headed to eZulu Private Game Reserve to meet up with her friend Chad to have an adventure filled weekend! Little did they know, they made my 25th birthday so memorable and unique, so much more than I could have ever asked for or dreamed of! Chad took us on a private safari ride with his open safari vehicle around the private game reserve. This was surely a step up from the other self-drive tours I embarked on. The seats were higher up so you could see in the distance and it was a much bumpier ride which increased my adrenaline pumping through my veins. After getting up close & personal with multiple Rhinos (they have 8 on their property) and chasing the springbuck and water buffalo around, we headed home to start a Braii. This is the traditional African dinner, basically our version of a BBQ. That evening we made fresh lamb chops, game from the reserve, salad, garlic bread and Rooibos tea. We decided to call it a night early to get ready for our adventures tomorrow morning. The next morning, I was woken up with some birthday pancakes with passionfruit curd on them. These were so delicious and the perfect start to our day. Chad brought us to the shooting range to try out some different guns, I was awful which was surprising since I have been shooting before but these rifles were more powerful than the guns I have shot before (here is a funny video of me shooting below). After shooting, we decided to take another off-roading trip through the game reserve. Here, we followed the giraffes, walked around and went up some massive cliffs with our 4×4 safari cruiser. That vehicle has some serious skills and is so fun to drive in. I learned that an American guy invested $40 million in purchasing this property and making it into a 5-star private game reserve for hunting. People from around the world bring their family to this reserve to hunt the different species of animals. Depending on which animal they kill, they pay for that specific animal and then they are welcomed home with a trophy of the animal they killed (ex: a stuffed head of the animal). This private game reserve is around 30k acres and has everything from water buffalo to rhinos to zebras. They also have a helicopter and private jet to fly in their visitors – nifty! I still can’t believe we were invited to this gorgeous private game reserve free of cost! Chad was extremely knowledgeable about all the animals on the reserve, where to go to see the Rhinos and about hunting in general. I couldn’t believe how exhausted I was at the end of each day but the weekend was so perfect and I cannot thank Michela and Chad for having me join you that weekend, it meant the world and something I will never forget!

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Our open safari truck!
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Giraffe crossing!

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Traditional Afrikaans Braii
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Enjoying life!
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Our suite at eZulu!
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Suite at eZulu!

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For my last week in Port Elizabeth, I spent most of my time with JP, his friends, and family. His family was so welcoming to me and made me feel like I was at home for the week with my own family. It was wonderful to have breakfast and dinners with them to get to know their stories, learn about the South African way of life and the political crisis going on with their president, Zuma. We spent a lot of nights out in the town of Port Elizabeth singing karaoke, trying out new restaurants and playing board games with friends. Since the upcoming weekend was Easter Break, JP invited some friends out to The Wilderness to enjoy the long weekend. Luckily for me, The Wilderness was the halfway point between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town so it allowed me to break up some time on the bus. JP’s friends, Franchesca and Brittany joined us for the weekend. Another wonderful, adventure filled weekend with new friends! We went on a couple of hikes through The Wilderness (literally!), explored Kynsna, admired The Map of Africa, hugged the largest tree in South Africa, Sookie danced, sang my favorite Afrikaans song, cooked a proper Braii as my going away dinner and enjoyed each other’s stories. The highlight of the weekend was when Brittany and I rode went Ostrich riding…yes, you read that right. We drove to an Ostrich Farm where they allow you to ride an ostrich and allow the employees to race them. These animals are huge and run very fast, so don’t let them fool you! As soon as I straddled the Ostrich, this animal just bolted around and you had to hold its wings to avoid falling off. Even though I only last a minute on the Ostrich, it was a very cool and funny experience. The entire week and weekend were filled with so much love, sharing new stories and making new friends. Below are a couple of pictures that Franchesca captured from the weekend as well as my favorite Afrikaans song.

A big THANK YOU to JP, Jessica & Paul, Michela, Chad, AJ, Franchesca and Brittany for allowing me to spend time with you and welcoming me with open arms!

 

I said my goodbyes to my new South African friends and headed 6 hours south to Cape Town. I was excited to explore a new city but sad to leave my new friends behind. The last two weeks felt like I was home and it was such a comfortable feeling knowing that I had people surrounding me with love. The first day in Cape Town I explored the markets a bit and got prepared to wake up at 4am to go GREAT WHITE SHARK CAGE DIVING in Gansbaai!

A group of us were picked up in the early hours of the morning to head 2 hours east towards Gansbaai, which is an area that is known for their dense population of great white sharks and whales. We were given breakfast as soon as we arrived thinking this could be our last meal…joking! After breakfast and watching the safety video, we all walked together towards the boat that we would be heading out to the ocean on. On this boat there was a pungent smell of fish heads, these were used to “chum” the water. The sharks would smell the fish heads and start to circle the boat to wait for their food. The cages we were placed in were actually very large and held 6 people in them. We were given a full wetsuit with boots and a hood because the water was frigid (-1.6 °C or 29 °F). Not sure how this happened but I was somehow the first one to get into the water and in the cage. My friend Laura, from Australia that I met on the boat, joined me and we were able to see the first sightings of the great whites that surrounded our boats. When the great whites started to approached the fish heads that were used as bait in front of the cage, our instructors would yell DOWN and we would have to hold our breath and make sure not to put our feet or arms out of the cage. We were able to see the great whites up close and personal, eye to eye! Whenever the instructors said DOWN, you would have to go down because if you were to stay up, the shark could actually breach the water and grab ahold of your head if you weren’t careful. During the course of 30-45 minutes while we were in the cage (and freezing our butts off) we saw a total of 6 great whites of all different sizes. The largest one we saw was 4.5 meters (14.7 feet)! I was able to stroke the sharks tail since when he turned around to leave the boat, his tail went into my part of the cage. This was such an exhilarating time and actually allowed me to gain a new perspective of Great White Sharks. Jaws and other movies depict great whites as ferocious sea creatures when in reality they are actually very graceful. When they would approach the food, they would swim with such grace and very slowly. When they were close enough o the fish heads, they would breach the water and chomp down and swim away. The teeth and the inside of their mouth were INSANE but other than the look inside their mouths, they seemed like very gentle giants but I guess I wouldn’t be saying the same thing if I wasn’t protected by a metal cage. After my time in the water, I admired the sharks from a different point of view, on the balcony of the boat. This was awesome to see because you could see when the sharks were approaching the bait and how they attacked the fish head. During one instance, there were 2 sharks that came for the bait and it was interesting to see the other further shark back off from the bait to allow the first shark to grab hold of his food. Overall, the three hours out on sea was well worth the money and experience to see Great White Sharks face to face and interacting in their natural, wild environment. It allowed me to leave with a new perspective of how gentle these giant sea creatures are. Yet again, another experience I will never forget.

Since I still had the rest of the day to explore Cape Town, I decided to head to Robben Island to get some historical background on where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years along with the other ANC political prisoners. Robben Island used to be a prison off the coast of Cape Town where the South African government would keep political prisoners. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a museum. During our tour, we were able to see the different prison spaces, where the villagers and workers lived and listen to some of the prisoner’s stories. Usually they will have former political prisoners leading the tour but unfortunately that day we had a regular tour guide but honestly, I cannot believe the former prisoners want to come back to a place they were treated so badly at.

The next couple of days I spent exploring the city views from Table Mountain. I attempted to hike Table Mountain from an advanced trail by myself the next day and failed miserably. I got very close to the top of the mountain after rock climbing my way up and unfortunately, I could not find the path to the next level of the mountain and after passing several snake holes and other interesting animals I decided to turn back. I don’t usually quit when I go hiking but because I was alone and had minimal water left and saw many snake holes, I thought it was best to turn around. Luckily. The next day my roommates Hayley and Isabella wanted to hike Table Mountain with me. Since Hayley had done the intermediate trail the day before, we decided to try that one out. Little did we know how hard it was going to be. To get up to the top of Table Mountain, it took us 3 and a half hours!!! I was not expecting such a long and tedious hike. We crossed over two different small mountain peaks to get over to the top of Table Mountain. By the time we reached the top, I was praying to God that I made it alive even though we all didn’t have any water left and drenched with our own sweat. When we reached the top, the views of Cape Town, Hout Bay, and the coastline were gorgeous and made the hike worth it. I learned that 2 months prior, Hayley hiked Kilimanjaro so I was clearly not at her level. Isabella, my other roommate, absolutely killed it and got to the top of the mountain before us! This hike really opened my eyes to how out of shape I have become while traveling so I decided to hike it the next couple of days that I was there to gain stamina and endurance. There are a couple hikes you can do up Table Mountain but the next day I hiked up the regular touristy hike that zigzags to the top of the mountain. This hike was way easier and I got up the mountain within an hour and 15 minutes. Of course, going down for me is always the harder part because my legs tend to give out on me. While I was heading down from the 3rd hike up Table Mountain that week, I took a big tumble and cut my leg open to my shin bone. Just my luck! Anyways I still had to hobble down 45 minutes to get to the bottom. Luckily the pain wasn’t as bad after the first five minutes and when I arrived back at the hostel, the owner who was first aid certified bandaged me up.

After hiking Table Mountain 3 times, I decided to take a day trip to Boulder Beach to see the African Penguins. Boulder beach is known for their African penguin conservation area. Boulder Beach and Robben Island are the only areas where you can find these African Penguins. Unfortunately, due to global warming and poachers, there are only 26,000 African Penguins left in the whole world! This site allows the penguins to mate in a safe area. I decided to wander across to the beach where you can swim. While I was there, I noticed that you can climb over a couple of the rock formations and get to a small island where you can get up close and personal with the African Penguins off of the conservation site. After rock climbing a bit with my GoPro and swimming in the frigid water, I reached the small island with the African Penguins. Here I was able to get a couple photo and videos of the penguins. Of course, I didn’t get too close because I didn’t want to get bitten but it was great to see them interact with each other, waddle around and go swimming.

To wrap up my time in Cape Town before heading to Stellenbosch, I decided to go on a free walking tour to understand the Bo-Kaap neighborhood. Bo-Kaap is one of Cape Town’s most distinctive neighborhoods for their colored houses. This neighborhood has become more gentrified in the past couple of years but they continue the tradition of painting their houses different colors every year or two. The houses are a mix of Cape Dutch and Georgian architecture with each house being a different vibrant color. There are many myths surrounding why the residents started to paint their houses different colors. Our tour guide mentioned that when South Africa reinvented itself as the rainbow nation and apartheid was lifted, blacks and Muslims who lived here painted their houses bright colors to celebrate individualism and freedom. After talking with some of the residents, they tend to re-paint their houses every year or two during big celebrations such as getting engaged, married, birthdays, welcoming a baby, etc. Before we left the town, we each tried Koeksisters which was a doughnut soaked in syrup with coconut shaving and that was excellent!

After a great week exploring Cape Town, I headed on the train 45 minutes away to Stellenbosch, the Napa Valley of South Africa. I decided to sign up for 2 wine tours back to back so I could educate myself in the different wines around South Africa and enjoy my last two days. The first day, I went on a full day wine tour to 4 different wineries. Our group was very friendly, there was a couple from Wales, two ladies from NYC and one guy from Chicago. Even though I was alone on the wine tour, I instantly connected with everyone and we had wonderful conversations, mostly around my travels and how I was exploring the world as a solo female? The ladies from NYC even mentioned that they wanted to follow in my footsteps when they were older (even though they were both 28). The first stop on our wine tour, Thelma, absolutely killed me. At 10 am we started off with 10 glasses of wine. This sure set the pace for the rest of the day. Feeling a bit buzzed, we headed off the next stop, Rustenberg. At this winery, we tried different Champagnes and an incredible dessert wine. After a couple more glasses of wine at Rustenberg, I was really starting to feel it. We headed to Simonsig, where we enjoyed a couple more glasses of wine and ate lunch here. We each ordered a Rib Eye steak and made the mistake to pair it with a glass of red wine. The thing I have noticed in South Africa is that they have a very heavy pour so when our red wine came out with our steak, the glass was probably equivalent to 3 glasses of wine. When we left Simonsig to head to our last stop, we were all experiencing a nice wine drunk. Our last stop was L’avenir where we enjoyed a couple glasses of Champagne and White wines. Each of these wineries was different in their own way and the scenery was gorgeous at each place overlooking the vineyards and the mountain ranges in the background. We finished tour around 7 pm and I went straight to sleep so I could be ready for tomorrow’s wine tour with my friend Isabella. Waking up the next morning, I was questioning why I thought it was a good idea to sign up for 2 full day wine tours back to back? Luckily I was greeted by Isabella who brought me 3 croissants and brought me back to life. Another day, another wine tour! Luckily I had a good friend with me and bread coating my stomach. We started the next day back at Simonsig where we learned how to open a bottle of champagne with a sword. We were then given a tour of where they crush the grapes and ferment the wine. We started a bit slower this day with only 6 glasses of wine. I enjoyed how our tour guide set up each tasting because we were given all the whites together and all the reds together which allowed us to taste and see the differences between each wine. The next stop was Fairview and my favorite stop of the two wine tours. Here they allowed us to pair the white and red wines with different cheeses. The cheeses were outstanding. It was great to sip the wine before eating the cheese because it allowed the flavor of the cheese to be more intensified. It was also good to break up the wine tour with some crackers and cheese to pace ourselves. We then headed towards Dieu Donne Vineyards where we had an excellent view of the Frankshoek, mountain range. After the quick four glasses we were served at Dieu Donne, we , ere all ready for a bite to eat. After lunch we headed to our last winery, Grand Providence, and enjoyed the sculptures, views of the mountain range and our conversation. Another wonderful and successful day with Isabella and our new friends from Germany and Abby. After 2 full day wine tours, I was ready to head to my next stop of my worldwide trip, Dubai!

 

I would like to dedicate this blog post to my Granny who passed away on April 3rd, 2017, just a week shy of her 92nd birthday. I wish I was there with my family during this hard time but happy that I was able to say goodbye to her in December and have her follow my travel blog! She was always the one who told me to follow my dreams of working and living in NYC and supported me traveling around the world – this is for you. I love and miss you!

Observations of South Africa-
  • Very lazy workers, you will pass people sleeping while on the job all the time on the streets or next to construction zones.
  • The only city with good public transportation was Cape Town. All of the other cities you either have to use Uber or the white death cabs. I call them white death cabs because the fare is very cheap but these drivers try to fit 20-25 people in a small van that should only hold 10-13 people and they drive like maniacs.
  • Seems like the entire country is protesting against Zuma who is the current president. If anyone thought Trump was bad, this president can’t even say numbers correctly, is extremely corupt, has a 5th grade education and has divided the country again. More people are uniting with each other to try and get him to step down.
  • I learned that South Africa is a 3rd world country, since I was visiting more of the developed cities I was unaware of that fact.
  • Biltong was amazing and so fresh. JP’s mother bought me some while I was in Port Elizabeth and I ate it on a weekly basis. Boltong is basically a fresher version of our beef jerky.

2 thoughts on “Sokkie-ing my way through South Africa

  1. Wow! I keep worrying that you won’t be around to write your next blog…wandering the roads in the reserve where lions live (even if you didn’t see them), wandering high-crime areas alone, swimming with sharks and then swimming in waters filled with penguins when you know that great white sharks are in the vicinity! Are you mad?!? Must be Granny keeping you safe.

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