A Travellerspoint blog

The confined safety of Pretoria

Pretoria was fun. Strange, odd and like I remembered. We raced to leave Lydia, our car, at the airport, and piled our tents, sleeping bags and grocery bags into Therese's car, who had kindly offered to pick us up. She's an old friend from my early days in London, and I see her fairly irregularly every three or four years. And she's lovely- we basically had her car, house and friends at our disposal for two days.

And we had a nice time. We saw a fair share of gay bars, clubs and various other establishments, and met lots of people whose names I cannot pronounce or even write as they involve far too many harsh Afrikaans h-like sounds. (Really, it is the most unromantic language in the universe.)

Terese and friends

Terese and friends

Pretoria is a tad safer than it's neighbouring Jo'burg, and prettier. The jacarandas were in full bloom, which meant that every street was lined with a lovely purple haze of tiny flowers. But the reality's a bit more blemished. As we drove down, Therese said that she chose her current car for safety reasons- it only has two doors, which makes it harder for carjackers to get in. She was absolutely shocked that we'd walked to a nearby supermarket. It was about three blocks, in daylight and in a good area. I ended up spending so much time in a car and in sanitised shopping centres (where there's good security and gates and alarms) that I don't particularly want to see another shopping centre for a good while. I didn't feel unsafe at any stage, but the warnings from everyone made me think twice before walking down anywhere again. And altough a pretty town, I don't think I could ever live in a place where I have bars in my windows, an electric fence and a full-time security guard. Naive, maybe, but I never locked my house when I lived in a Zambian compound, despite the fact that pretty much everyone knew I had a nice camera and other luxury items. I need to trust people, just sometimes.

Jacarandas in Pretoria

Jacarandas in Pretoria

Pretoria street scene

Pretoria street scene

Posted by Ofelia 07:56 Archived in South Africa Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Looking back on the early days of travelling

The little coastal stretch from East London to Kokstad

Travelling messes with your head. Seriously. I'd been in South Africa three years earlier, sort of on my way to Australia, and had never really expected to come back, especially to the same areas I'd visited on my first trip. But as we had a car, and had seen some of the more remote areas of the country, it made sense to drive around the way we hadn't gone yet, around Lesotho, which I didn't mind. It meant I could see the Wild Coast again.

Wild Coast is a stretch of coast roughly between East London and somewhere just before Durban. I remember bussing through it, almost precisely three years ago to the date, and thinking it was one of the most fantastic sceneries I'd ever seen. I'd spent some time in few of the backpacker epicentres of the area, and remember I'd had a brilliant time. We'd decided on two or three nights, and I picked Cintsa, for it's gorgeous beach, and Rich chose Coffee Bay, which he'd heard good things about. But three years is a long time, and a lot of things chance. Including you.

Driving through the winding road to Cintsa was pretty, sure, but it wasn't quite how I'd remembered. The hills were just not quite as winding and steep and impressive as I'd remembered, and the lack of rain meant there was no luscious green stuff around- just brown barren earth. The backpackers in both towns were nice and friendly- most of them had arrived by the Baz Bus, the door-to-door backpacker shuttle which is pretty much a party bus that takes kids from one hostel to the next, where they drink obscene amounts of booze and move on. But I couldn't get into the conversation- so much of it was about ticking things off an unwritten list; have you done shark cage diving yet? No? What have you done? Or: I went on a township tour, and you know, people are really poor here!
It felt inane and when everyone moved into the pool room for a loud, rowdy game of killer pool, I followed cautiously. The silly bar rules felt embarrassing (such as if you drink with your right hand, you must down your drink in one go) and suddenly it hit me. I was old. I glanced at Rich and the look on his face told me he felt the same.

Three years ago I took part in every single pool game, drank the shots, urged people to down drinks and spent the next day doing nothing with a hangover. I used to admire people who'd taken overland tours from Nairobi to South Africa, and thought they were so cool and brave. I never, in a million years, thought I'd do such a trip. I remember looking at the huts and houses along the road thinking I'd never understand how people live there, what their world was like. The road to Coffee Bay was incredibly pot-holed and bad and I couldn't understand why they didn't fix it.

But no, the road to Coffee Bay seems fine. I have travelled on much worse ones. And I felt different about pretty much everything else as well: I don't think overlanders are cool, I don't get involved in forcing people to drink, and I hate wasting time with a hangover the next day. I know what life is like in compounds and townships and small huts in the middle of nowhere; I lived in one for six months. And I am old, maybe, but kind of in a good way.

Things chance, situations change, people change. The small enclaves of the coast were still fine, such as the lovely little town of Morgan's Bay, where we took a detour to, but a lot of these backpacker places are a bit too much for me. I think we were both glad to head inland again, and towards the Drakensberg once more, for a short stopover before Pretoria.

Traditional Rondavel

Traditional Rondavel

Cintsa Beach 2

Cintsa Beach 2

Cintsa Beach

Cintsa Beach

Rich at Morgan's Bay

Rich at Morgan's Bay

Coffee Bay beach

Coffee Bay beach

Potholes along Coffee Bay

Potholes along Coffee Bay

Posted by Ofelia 07:47 Archived in South Africa Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Driving Into the White

“it never rains in the Kalahari”, said the woman at the lodge. I was leaving wet footprints all over her kitchen and generally dripping with water as I followed to collect the keys from her, while she waved her arms towards the sky, apologetically. “But the rain is good. You'll see something most people will never see; a wet desert.”

We were in Askham, a one-pump petrol station close to Namibia. We'd driven hours to get from Kimberley to the remote town of Upington, far up in the north, a connecting hub for South Africa with Namibia and Botswana. A border town with no border, I half expected to see tumbleweed on the high street. We stocked up on drinks, food and petrol and started on the long, straight road to the Kgalagadi National Park, which continues up north past the border and becomes the Kalahari in Botswana.

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About an hour into the drive, the sky darkened and the pressure in the air was almost tangible. It was odd- the sky was white, and foggy and luminous at the same time, with sunshine still peeking in the horizon and dark, heavy clouds hanging behind us. In Africa the sky seems endless, and we drove straight into it, with flashes of lightning all around us.

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At the guest house, we offloaded the grocery bags and, slightly oddly, had a braai in the garage since the yard was flooded. Rich had cleverly reserved a bottle of sparkling wine in anticipation of my return, and as we ended up in a guest house instead of camping, decided to celebrate our six-month anniversary....only a month or so late. Oh well.

The Kgalagadi was not quite what I'd expected. Although, really, I have no idea what I'd expected. The only reason I'd chosen it on our itinerary was because a guide book had called it “otherwordly”, but I might just add that to my list of “lies you find in guidebooks”. It wasn't unpleasant or uninteresting, but it was very similar to the landscape in Namibia and Botswana, both which are very familiar to me, and I suppose I was thinking it would be something a bit more. We spotted lots of antelopes, a lion and a leopard, and lots of birds. Sometimes I feel like I should write raving reviews of every place I go to, and yes, probably if this was my first ever national park in Africa, I'd be a bit more enthusiastic, but seeing as I've been to about a dozen or more, I couldn't get excited about springboks anymore. Apologies if it sounds like I'm world-weary or bragging. It's mostly unintentional.

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We camped in the pitch black and started off the next day just after dawn. I loved the early morning light in the Askham area, and repeatedly made Rich stop for yet another (identical) photo. But it was always going to be a long day anyway; after breakfast in Upington, we set off for New Bethesda in the Karoo area.

And 840 kilometres, no arguments and a cheesecake later we arrived. And Karoo is stunning.

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Oh, and it never rains in the Karoo. It hasn't rained in six months. But I guess the rain of Kalahari stuck, and we brought them down with us. Imagine winding roads circling arid but colourful mountains with amazing sunsets and cute little settler towns sprinkled every few valleys apart. We found the only hostel in the area, realised we were the only guests, and spent the evening wandering about the little town (touristy but charming), taking photos (me) and looking at maps (Rich), plus drinking some red wine (Rich, Fred and I) and having serious conversations (Rich and Fred).

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We spent the only full day in Karoo strolling around the town of Graaf-Reinet, an oddity of a village; full of white-washed posh houses, scrupulously clean streets and...a miniature African market in every corner. It almost felt like the Europeans established the town, then thought, ah, no, and left, leaving the town to look European but feel African.

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We climbed up to the Valley of Desolation, in the slight drizzle that seems to follow us (my hair keeps getting frizzy but no one seems to understand the problem here. Sigh.) to the absolutely gorgeous views over the area, pretty much as far as the eye could see- jagged ridges of reddish stone. I longed for my paraglide as the top is a perfect jump-off point.

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The one downside of having a car is that you feel the need to move on everyday; the car rental is just too pricey to keep Lydia standing still. Oh yeah, in the grand tradition of things, the car has an old English female name- in honour of Imogen and Edith of Namibia.

Posted by Ofelia 05:49 Archived in South Africa Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

It's all about the wedding...

Around 10pm in Abu Dhabi airport it finally hit me, a bit late, but then again, I blame my sluggish Finnish genes.
I was going back to Africa. And yes, I told everyone about this months ago, and yes, I even booked the tickets back in June. I just never really expected to actually come back. I blame Michaela (are you reading this??) and her conventional idea of getting married, out of all things.
I'd planned it well. It was pointless to come for a wedding only, so I might as well come for a few months. I might as well visit Lesotho and Mozambique, the two Southern African countries I'd missed out on before. I might as well recruit a driver again and rent a car. Might as well see some of the most isolated parts of South Africa and some of my favourites again.

Careers are over-rated anyway. Right? (except if you are my new potential employer googling me, in which case I'm totally into my career and working.)

I'd left Jo'burg three years earlier, on my way to Sydney, and back then, the airport and the whole city had felt impossibly African. This time, I felt like I'd suddenly landed back into London. I was picked up by a slightly confused-looking Rich, and we immediately set off towards the Drakensberg mountains in a rental car he'd had the foresight to arrange beforehand.

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We stayed at the upper part of the Drakensberg, close to Lesotho, driving around the surrounding areas, until we realised that something was very wrong with Abigail, our rental car. She had to be, sadly enough, swapped for another car, which required a trip to Estcourt on a rainy afternoon. We consoled ourselves with a bit of red wine and a pool tournament at the hostel, and as the weather didn't seem to clear up and we couldn't actually see the mountains, we made a snap decision to head inland instead of the coast. And that's how we came to be in Kimberley.

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Kimberley has a big hole. It's right in the town centre, and like all good businesses, it has made a whole market around what is essentially only a big (admittedly hand-dug) hole in the ground. There's a whole little town around it, partly historic, partly fake, with the Hole Cafe and the Hole Gift shop and suchlike. A bit nerdy, but you can't argue with the driver too much about the things he wants to see. Otherwise he'll leave you in the desert.

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We camped, for the first time, with my friend Sue's impossible pop-up tent (are you reading this as well??) freezing. I pulled on my leggings, thinking I'd left a perfectly sunny England for a positively cold and rainy South Africa. This wedding better be bloody awesome.

And the hardest task still remains.
I have to get Rich to wear a shirt.
Hence the pained expression on the poor man's face.

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Posted by Ofelia 05:28 Archived in South Africa Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The City Within a City

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When I first moved to London, I lived in South East London for a good few years, for reasons unknown to anyone but my flatmate Kerry. She bought and sold houses and flats in the area, and I traipsed behind, mainly because I was lazy and because she under-charged me on rent. Over the years, especially during the change in the millennium, I watched new Jubilee line tube stations sprout up as it was extended all the way to Stratford; and everytime I went for a run along the Thames path, a new building seemed to have emerged, almost overnight, in Canary Wharf. They were exciting times- London was changing, the City's domination as the epicentre of Europe's banking world was over as companies moved their headquarters to the fashionable E14, and a whole new city within a city emerged on the bank of the Thames.

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I, as a nerd, went to visit Canary Wharf when the tube first opened; the station was hailed as the most aesthetic in London, the architecture was new and innovative- long gone were the grubby, box-like stations on the older lines- this one was all shiny metal with lots of light and a huge ticket hall.
After that, I didn't have a reason to visit Canary Wharf for about eight years. Until this week.

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And it's an odd place. Completely self-contained, impeccably clean, running on a minute-schedule. Flashing screens, clocks, market updates everywhere. Every inch of the area is covered in CCTV's, and people waving cameras are treated with suspicion. Hence why I only took a few photos. People stride confidently; no-one lingers, everyone has a purpose and a destination and they're in a hurry to get there. I, wearing a purple dress and green tights, stood out in a sea of grey suits and black leather high heels. And I stood and looked at the gleaming buildings which in itself was an odd thing to do. And I felt creepy; there were no beggars, no litter, no graffiti, nothing out of place, nothing that didn't match with the rest of the surroundings (but me) and it all felt just a bit too orwellian for me.

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My friends, Sam and Sue, work in Canary Wharf, and although they both like it, they agree that it's all just a tad odd. We went to a few restaurants and bars, all with slightly identical menus, full of fashionable ingredients such as sun-dried tomatoes and goat's cheese. Big cocktails, imported beer and of course champagne is set on most tables. There was a slightly forced feel to everything, even the after-hours drink. Under the highrisers, there's a whole shopping mall- you can buy at least 50 different black suits, but you'd struggle to find a pair of jeans. The offices have gyms in the basement and all the necessities can be found, the big post office, the traditional pub and of course the banks. Tons and tons of them.

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I would hate to work in Canary Wharf. Despite it's fantastic view over London or safe streets (there're police patrols in every corner), it's completely soulless. What I've always loved about London is the fantastic diversity- you can walk down a street for ten minutes, and you'll cross a busy high street, a grubby housing estate, a million-pound mansion. You'll see the African ladies in flamboyant head gear, the indian girls in bright punjabi dresses, the Jamaican boy in his bling-bling, and then, almost as an afterthought, your stereotypical middle-aged white man in a tweed suit. And to me, that's what London is about- it's unpolished, mashed-together, loud, diverse and with music pumping from every corner. It's alive.

Posted by Ofelia 03:50 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad Comments (3)

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