South Africa is not like Asia. That statement shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but the fact creates a problem for travelers: the public transportation is nearly non-existent. We were spoiled by the easy access to trains and busses all over Asia. In South Africa, just like in the US, the best way to get around is to drive. Our basic plan for seeing the country involved renting a car and figuring it out from there.
Miles driven: 3888 (6255km)
We drove. And drove. And drove. For those looking for a comparison, Los Angeles to New York is only 2789 miles, and Seattle to Key West is only 3491. The closest route in the continental US that we found is Seattle-Austin-NYC at 3873 miles; even that falls just a bit short. The roads have interesting hazards, like baboons, turtles, and Guinea fowl with turquoise heads. (We started calling them “Jacque Turkeys” since they look like turkeys and their heads are Jacque’s favorite color.) Then there’s the expectation that you’ll drive on the shoulder to allow people to pass. It works well until a huge truck driving in the shoulder suddenly realizes there’s an obstruction and swerves back into the lane. The obstruction is usually one of the ubiquitous share taxis, terrors of South Africa, stopped to pick up a passenger or two. The share taxis rule with an iron fist: yield or get pushed off the road. The drivers don’t care about much.
The best part for us Americans? All of this happens on the left side of the road. Driving down a winding cliff-side road in Cape Town, we had a scary reminder of what it’s like to forget that fact: a car pulled out in front of us, proceeding on the right side of the road around a blind corner despite my honking and flashing lights. A car appeared around the curve; the errant driver locked up the brakes and skidded back to the left side of the road. I imagine both drivers had a minor heart attack.
Flat tires: 1
A slow leak. No drama. I wish it had been a massive blow-out at low speed, preferably near a herd of twitchy-as-hell impala. They seem to have only two impulses: 1) graze; 2) run like hell. You would too if cheetahs were always stalking you. Anyway, after the abuse of South African roads in and around Kruger – they can be, shall we say, less than ideal – we woke up to discover our car was sitting on a rim. We put the spare on and returned the car to Budget at the Durban airport. Big kudos to them. They replaced the car, gave us a better one, and didn’t charge for the tire fix.
Nights camping: 18 (of 27 total in South Africa)
During the month of December, all of South Africa takes a holiday, packing off for their favorite campground. Heard of “glamping”? It’s an art form for South Africans. Campers pull up to their spot and start to spread. Over the course of several hours, the camper transforms into the center of a good-sized house, complete with kitchen, bbq (braai), bedrooms, and flat screens with DirecTV dishes. Then they would watch us from their screened-in patio with pity as we pulled up in our tiny hatchback and set up our micro 2-person backpacking tent.
It may have been over two weeks of camping, but it hardly felt like it. South African campgrounds are well-equipped, with shared kitchens, braais, nice bathrooms, and beautiful, manicured grass for the tent. I often didn’t use a sleeping mat; the grass was plenty comfortable, particularly after five months of Asian “beds.” Hostels in South Africa provide space for camping, too, making it a good option for those who are too cheap for even dorm rooms. Each night camping was usually around $20.
Perplexed South Africans who asked, “why are you here?”: 2
Not as bad as it sounds, they were just surprised to see us in very out-of-the-way places. The first time was a grocer near Nelspruit. We were stocking up on food for camping, and he went out of his way to make sure we were set. On the way out, he threw the question at us. The second was a kid at a campsite between Bloemfontein and Johannesburg. He didn’t speak much English, but like the grocer, he was surprised we were in the middle of the country. I don’t suppose they see many foreigners away from Cape Town and the Garden Route. I consider it a badge of pride to get the question in any country.
Nights spent in “dangerous” places: 9
It’s difficult to camp in the middle of Johannesburg or Cape Town, so we didn’t. Airbnb came to our rescue as usual. In Jozi, we stayed in the Maboneng district, an urban revitalization project downtown; and in Cape Town, we stayed in Woodstock, a formerly seedy part of the city. Neither place turned out to be the hive of drugs and murder that we were warned about. We took common-sense precautions, but we never had any issues whatsoever. Please don’t take this to mean that they’re safe like Tokyo – clearly both Jozi and Cape Town have crime, the statistics are easy to find – but we never felt unsafe. Bottom line: don’t ever not go somewhere because you’re told to fear it. Make your own judgment, and, like us, you may find some wonderful hosts in downtown Cape Town to share Christmas dinner. Speaking of the holidays…
Holidays spent with new friends: 2
South Africans are some of the friendliest people in the world. Christmas was in Cape Town. Then, on New Year’s Eve, we found ourselves driving into the outskirts of Johannesburg, desperate for a campground before our flight to Tanzania on the 1st. Jacque called several places, finally getting a sympathetic ear on the other line. Her name was Marion, one-half of an Irish immigrant couple in their 70’s. Their guesthouse/campground was officially closed that day, but she heard Jacque’s foreign accent and decided we needed rescuing. They opened their doors to us as the only guests. When their plans for the evening fell through, Marion and David showed up at our small campfire with a cooler of wine and champagne. We spent the next few hours until 2015 sharing stories and solving the world’s problems. As the clock struck midnight, we raised a champagne toast to the vagaries of travel and new friends – generation gap be damned.