South Africa: Coffee Bay to Cape Town

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An early start in Durban and a nine-hour Baz Bus trip or something got us to Coffee Bay on August 4. I’ll say again that I love the Baz Bus, but it only stops at gas stations along the way, all of which feature a branch of the South African fast food restaurant Steers. For some reason, every time it stops, most people feel compelled to grab something from Steers and then visit the shop, you know, just in case. For me this meant FAR too many French fries and if, in South Africa, you are in the hellish throes of a Kit-Kat shortage currently, I must own up and say that it was I who consumed every last one of those delectable treats.

In Coffee Bay we were booked in at the Coffee Shack, which is the place to be in the area. Coffee Bay is on South Africa’s Wild Coast (or the Transkei), and is so named because in 18 hundred and something a ship carrying coffee beans ran aground there, spilling, um, all the beans! After some welcome drinks and before dinner, we watched a few of the local girls perform a traditional dance for us, which was a great introduction to the local culture that I actually came to know rather well by the end of our three days!

After dinner it was a fairly standard evening of getting to know folks and making new friends, enhanced by a lively game of “killah” pool. Everyone plays, and the only rule is to pot a ball, any ball, and save yourself a life. If you win the whole thing, you get a free day out or a free cocktail. Knowing how incredibly coordinated I am NOT, you can imagine that I didn’t even come close to winning, but I did improve my pool skills overall in South Africa- they seriously love that game!

The next morning after breakfast we set off on a hike to the Mapuzi cliffs and caves. After a long walk we were promised a dip in the natural Jacuzzi. Brill, I thought, my back has been killing me! Well, be warned! This little rock pool cave thing might be Jacuzzi shaped, but it is NOT Jacuzzi temperature! False advertising! I couldn’t even get to my waist. Still, we kept on hiking through caves and things, and on our walk back stopped at a local village coming-of-age ceremony for two local boys.

They had just returned from two months away, after being circumcised and then sent out into the forest to live off the land. Their return thus confirmed that they are now men and able to get married and so on. The people in the area are the Xhosa people – Nelson Mandela is from there – and our guide Silas grew up there and knows everyone around. He said it was no problem for us to join the party, so we sat down with a few of the mamas (or, the ganja grannies, as all of them were totally high) and the children swarmed us! They were totally adorable, wanting photos of themselves and things. About four little girls were absolutely entranced by my hair and for twenty minutes they stroked it, pulled it, put it up in ponytails. The mamas also passed around the local home brew, an odd tasting beer made out of maize. I thought it was rancid and could barely take a sip but bro (surprise surprise) loved it as did a few other folks, and they promptly drank that dirty old bucket dry!

After leaving the ceremony, we set off back for lunch- toasted sandwiches made over a bonfire on the beach. Then it was time for cliff jumping- eek! The original plan was to do the jumps into the sea, but it was far too rough (phew), so we did them into the river instead. Talk about Jelly Knees!! It took me FOUR tries to actually do the jump (which was pretty high- some large number of metres), but I was one of the few girls to do it and it was a blast!

In the evening, as if we could hike anymore, we climbed a massive hill overlooking the bay to watch the sun go down. It was absolutely beautiful, and a few local mamas were up there selling beads which we bought as it’s a great way to support the community. The night continued with another epic game of killer pool, which I expertly botched for the second time, and a few more games of pool with some hammered South African guys called Gus and Adrian. Total loons. I was hanging out with my new friend Klaus from Germany- lovely guy- when Gus comes over to introduce himself and ask where we’re from and whatnot. “Ah, Germany,” he says to Klaus upon learning his nationality, “Hitler!” Um, what? Klaus and I seriously just stared at him for about a minute. It makes me glad to be continuing to expand my world view, undoubtedly protecting me from walking up to someone in Cambodia and saying, “So, how about that Pol Pot?”

Anywho, the next morning we were up and at ’em for another hike (is there any stopping me??) to the Hole in the Wall, a free standing natural rock formation where the battering waves have created a huge archway. It’s really beautiful, and after being dropped off there, we hiked about three hours back to Coffee Shack. Now, you’re likely familiar with the African big five- elephant, rhino, lion and so on. Bro and I managed six weeks or so in Africa without seeing one of these, but the villages of the Transkei have their OWN big five, and we couldn’t hike more than three minutes without seeing one of these wild and wonderful creatures: pigs, sheep, chickens, horses and goats! At one point during our hike we even walked past Silas’ own sheep! However, he told us, if he is to find a wife (and he’s 25 so he’d quite like one- he’s done his circumcision forest ritual etc.), he needs to have ten cows, for this is what you pay the father of your bride. Until then, it’s the bachelor life for him!

For dinner that evening we had a seriously amazing treat. We (those of us staying at Coffee Shack) were invited to dinner in the home of the chief of Silas’ village. We walked up there to find the local mamas preparing us traditional food known as ‘pap’ which, like most things in the area, is made from maize. They were cooking it in huge cauldrons outside their mud huts, but before supper we all piled into the little circular hut (lit only by candles- there’s no electricity in the village) for a performance of traditional dancing by the mamas. They had their beads on, faces painted and sticks in hand, and before we knew it we were all up and joining in, traditional headdresses and all! There was a lot of clapping and jumping up and down and just general merriment and celebration just about being alive, I suppose! In those moments I was truly, genuinely, fiercely happy, and the love I was already feeling for the continent of Africa and its people increased hugely. I have but scratched the surface of it and as I’ve said before, I WILL be back!

After the dancing, we settled down to eat our pap (delish, actually!) and drink more maize beer (still yucky), dance some more and then have a Q&A with the mamas about our lives. They only speak Xhosa (impossible to make sense of, lots of clicking sounds and things), so Silas had to translate, but they wanted to know where we were all from (the UK to the US, Ireland to Israel) and if the young ladies were married (none of us were), and we wanted to know about daily village life and what they hope for the future. It was an incredible exchange, and I felt so privileged to hear the information first hand and be given a glimpse into a life that I really had no concept of before.

After dinner it was back to the hostel for more killer pool (nope, no luck again!) and lots of chatting and travel tale-swapping around the bonfire before bedtime, as in the morning it was back on ye olde Baz Bus!

We set off the next day at the very civilized hour of 11am, headed for Port Elizabeth which is a mandatory stop on the route. We arrived at 10pm and left at 6 the next morning, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything about PE, but I’m sure it’s lovely.

Our next stop was Knysna (silent ‘K’) where we had two nights planned. It’s a beautiful area where there’s loads of outdoors-y things to do, but just our luck it absolutely POURED with rain the whole time we were there. Luckily we met another lovely brother/sister team from the UK and we went to the supermarket and the video shop with them and rented a whole bunch of movies! It was actually a nice relaxing time. It was also ‘Woman’s Day’ in South Africa, on which everyone gets a day off work (I KNOW!), so there wasn’t much open and happening anyway.

On our last morning in Knysna I managed to fit in a quick hike before the Baz Bus came with a new friend Claire and our guide, Orin. The rain had stopped, and Orin took us on a gorgeous walk through a rainforest and down to a fantastic beach where we scared off a family of baboons (considered a pest in the country- there are loads about, nicking everyone’s lunch and whatnot). I was glad to at least see a little bit of the area, especially before another long road trip.

The rest of the day was spent Baz Bus-ing our way to Cape Town, which took about eight hours or so. We were dropped off at a hostel on Long Street, which is THE place to be (it’s like Marshall Street or Polk Street or whatever, for those to whom those mean something). After a long day, it was basically dinner and bed, and we were up the next day for a walk around the city- the V&A waterfront, the planetarium, the South African museum. Cape Town is truly beautiful, nestled at the foot of Table Mountain. After a supermarket supper of beans on toast in the evening, it was time for a big night out with more new friends, which culminated in some serious dancefloor action at a bar called Zula. It’s possible that the ten of us from the hostel were the only patrons, but with classic 90s tunes like ‘California Love’ and ‘Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems’ burning up the speakers, what else could we do but jam?!

The next morning we were up (too) early for the hike up Table Mountain. Though I was feeling a bit worse for wear, I powered through the two-and-a-half hour hike up and it was INCREDIBLE! We actually did stop loads to sit and chat (about six of us were walking up) and I probably would have been a bit quicker if my new friend Adam and I weren’t lagging so far behind having an intense chat about our favorite books. Anyway, the views were absolutely amazing and after getting up there at about 2pm, we ended up staying the entire rest of the day climbing rocks, eating snacks and all enjoying a drink as we watched the sun start to set before we caught the last cable car down the mountain. That evening I was absolutely exhausted and after a couple of drinks I didn’t join the rest of the crew going out for the night, which turned out to be a good decision because the next morning I had the beginnings of a nasty cough and sore throat, but luckily that didn’t affect our trip to Robben Island the next morning.

As you probably know, Robben Island is where Nelson Mandela was a prisoner from 1963-1990. It’s about a 30-minute ferry ride from Cape Town, and once off the boat we were greeted by another former prisoner who was to be our guide. Itumeleng Makwela was a prisoner from 1983-1990, captured because he was in charge of the miliary wing of the African National Congress (ANC) and knew the location of illegal weapons. ‘Itu,’ as he’s known, first showed us the group cells where ‘regular’ political prisoners like himself were kept, then the kitchens and then took us to Section B where the leaders were imprisoned, including Mandela. We saw his cell and the place in the wall where he hid the original manuscript for A Long Walk To Freedom. Later on a bus tour of the island we saw the limestone quarry where the prisoners were forced to work each day, but which also became the place for them to discuss and exchange ideas for the future of the country- much of how South Africa is today originated in that quarry. People still live on the island- former prisoners, the staff that keep up the prison as a museum, etc.- so our tour also included a look at the little local school, shops and post office, as well as a stop to look at the great views back to Cape Town.

After our ferry ride back I was coming down with my sickness fast, so after lunch at the waterfront we headed back to the backpackers for a rest. I again wasn’t up for a night out, but felt much better the next morning for the LAST DAY WITH THE BROSEPH!!!

We spent our last day together souvenir and gift shopping at the Pan African market, backing up photos on CDs and generally looking for ways to get rid of our Rand! In the evening we treated ourselves to a real slap-up meal- the last supper- and reminisced about all the fabulous things we’ve seen and done since our journey began in May. I am really missing him, and truly appreciate the time we spent together and am glad he was with me for so much of the fun! Siblings are fab- treasure yours if you have them.

The next morning we were up for a 4am taxi to the airport- I was headed to Jo’burg to meet up with my dear mama for an onward journey to Madagascar, and the bro was New York-bound via Abu Dhabi.*

So, so long mon frère, so long Africa- it won’t be long until I see either of you again…

*Happy to report he made it back to Connecticut in one piece after 36 hours in transit!

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