Cape Town, South Africa
Arriving from Lesotho to Cape Town was as much of a culture shock as going from Zimbabwe to Johannesburg, but the vibe’s all positive: people walking around everywhere (this makes a huge difference), scheduled bus routes and safe minibus taxis, friendly locals, and a modern, heavily-organised atmosphere that feels vaguely European. It’s also clearly affluent. One of South Africa’s three capital cities (besides Pretoria and Bloemfontein) and by far the most visited one, most visitors tend to start their Africa trips here. Locals call it a soft landing: for me, it’s a soft readjustment, a one-week staging area for me to get used to a more Western style of living again, while still having small bits of the African hustle and bustle I’ve grown used to. Even the demographics don’t feel quite African, with people of myriad races and mixes represented, and a whole lot of white people: you could mistake it for an American city, if you didn’t hear the telltale click sounds in the local African languages all over the streets. South Africa calls itself the “Rainbow Nation”, and I guess this is what it means.
This is the last stop of my Africa trip! It took a few hours to sink in. I wandered around the ultra-modern Waterfront area (not unlike a kitschier Granville Island or Halifax’s harbourfront, but supersized and with big malls) in the early morning. Table Mountain loomed overhead, as it always does, but my mind wasn’t even on that: I had just made it all the way down from Ethiopia; Kenya by land! While I can’t say it was all that difficult, I did feel elatedly proud of myself, having a moment of disbelief as I ran into a sign pointing to Vancouver: I’m finally going home!
uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, South Africa
It’s not so easy to get around South Africa without a car. The distances are long and — for once! — underpopulated, with lots of empty space. There are minibus taxis that run to various towns, but they’re infrequent. Long-distance buses run maybe once a day. And even if you get to a town, the interesting places to stay all tend to be well outside of it, requiring odd transfers. Take the Drakensberg, for instance. The places to stay don’t even have proper addresses, since they’re some 15-20 km out of town! There’s a backpacker-oriented bus that runs throughout the country, but it doesn’t run every day, it’s expensive and you may have to pay even more for a connecting shuttle, and without a car, you’re basically trapped at the accommodation they take you to.
That’s not to say that it can’t be enjoyable, though. The Drakensberg range, spanning a whole bunch of national parks, has scenery that rivals the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia in its grandeur. Reaching the northern end after a spectacular bus ride through large-scale farmland, I was stunned by the Amphitheatre, an 8 km cliff wall rising suddenly and dramatically from the rolling hills. The eponymous backpackers’ lodge I stayed at there was a lovely retreat, complete with 10 km of its own walking trails on their estate. Seeing the morning, afternoon, and evening light on the rugged Amphitheatre walls, then the Milky Way at night, was a great way to pass the time, and I spent nearly two days idle there just enjoying the atmosphere without doing any real activities.
Johannesburg, South Africa
Joburg is a shock to the system.
Having felt a slow and gradual change heading south from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe, waking up in Joburg to see skyscrapers, perfect roads, and a Western standard of living is jarring. But at the same time, Zimbabweans on my bus were jittery, and so was I.
Joburg has a reputation for being quite unsafe, and arriving into town at 6 am, passing empty streets full of garbage (turns out there’s an ongoing garbage strike), homeless people everywhere, graffiti, buildings left to crumble, and a general sense of unease in the city centre… well, let’s just say that that was the first time in Africa I felt nervous.