Visiting Family, Friends, and the Falls!
16.02.2017 - 08.03.2017 30 °C
Once again I found myself recently single right before a trip abroad – I’m not sure whether this is my new “good luck” pre-travel charm, or just a reflection of lousy life choices. In any case, it was adieu and bon voyage to that past! In fact, my future began in London, England where I spent the first day of my trip visiting with an old university friend who I hadn’t seen in a number of years. Arriving in London proper after flying into Heathrow is very easy, as you have the option to catch the tube (at a regular price and speed) or you can catch an express train to Paddington. I opted for the regular route and met my friend at Piccadilly Circus on what must have been the sunniest day London has ever seen. In fact, it was so sunny and warm (especially for a February day), that I’m sure some of the locals ended up with sunburns. Thanks to the uncharacteristic weather, we were able to grab falafel in Soho and picnic in a churchyard. We also managed to wander by the National Gallery, Queen’s Stables, Prime Minister’s Residence (10 Downing St), Westminster Abbey and over the bridge to catch a great glimpse of Big Ben in all his timely splendour. London is a great city for a quick getaway because you can so easily get around, either by metro or on foot.
The strangest thing about catching up with old friends in new contexts is trying to balance the desire to explore while also having the privacy to listen intimately to the other person. When you have a limited amount of time, as travellers do, you want to immerse yourself in the other person because you never know when you’ll see this person again and a superficial chat seems to dishonour the opportunity presented. In this case, I felt fortunate to be able to engage with him on some of the major political changes happening these days like Brexit (especially since he’s a foreign national living in England), and the current state of US politics. It’s always interesting to hear different perspectives on major topics – it becomes too easy to see the world from your own local view, and a trip abroad can certainly help disrupt that short-sighted vista.
After my quick trip to London, I was ready for more sun and hotter politics in southern Africa. To get to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, I had to fly through Johannesburg, South Africa, which is fine because it was a nice opportunity to grab a peppermint crisp and some biltong to keep myself satiated on my next flight. The arrival in Victoria Falls takes you by surprise because as soon as you exit the airport there’s a troupe of men ready to perform a song and dance for you dressed in (what I can only assume is) traditional gear. Oh, and this is after you’ve walked by the embalmed lion eating a buck who’s wearing a huge printed sign that says “don’t touch”! It definitely gets you wondering what you’re in for…
We had booked our tour through Jenman Travel, and chosen to stay at Ilala Lodge – both turned out to be great choices. The hotel was stunning, with gorgeous grounds that spread into the wild. In fact, we saw baboons and warthogs basically in our backyard! The service at the hotel was phenomenal, and the food was innovative and tasty. That being said, I learned quickly that crocodile is meant to be feared and not eaten.
Speaking of crocodile, one of the highlights of our time in Zimbabwe was a cruise of the Zambezi River on the Ra-Ikane. The boat was named after the man who assisted David Livingstone in his exploration of the area, and we definitely got a taste of what they may have seen when we spotted huge hippos emerging from the still waters on numerous occasions. We were also lucky enough to spot dinner - I mean crocodiles - gliding by. One of the most stunning parts of the cruise was seeing the mist from Victoria Falls. It’s truly magnificent. It also helped that there was an open bar, and so everything I saw felt that much more breathtaking thanks to the endless stream of G&Ts. The boat was limited to about 15 people, which meant it was far more intimate but also more invasive when my sister and I took selfies and the older people gawked like we were wild animals. All in all, I would be happy to cruise through life on the Ra-Ikane.
The town of Victoria Falls itself is very small, but surprisingly has two snake pits that are fully stocked with the latest and greatest cobras and pythons to make any snake charmer’s dreams come true. We decided to split our time in the town between shopping and snakes. At the Snake Pit in town we learned all about live births vs. laying eggs, snake vision, and how to respond to local snakes you may see in the wild there (like green mambas, cobras or puff adders). I was also able to hold a Burmese Python and a Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake. It was a unique opportunity, and I used it to discover that both my sister and my mom are incredibly afraid of snakes. These are important facts to keep in mind for future trips, or just April Fools’ Day. In terms of shopping, we went to Elephant’s Walk, which is basically the main drag for curios and souvenirs. I really enjoyed wandering the booths and looking at the artwork, although there was quite a bit of duplication. There’s also a tent with a number of “stalls” just behind the main shopping area where you can find good deals on similar goods. I wish I had thought more about what goods people would need there, because there really is a lot of need. Whenever we bought an item, the vendor would ask us if we could give him pens, clothing, anything really. It’s an important reminder that even the people who have jobs are suffering there, which says something about the majority who are unemployed. We were able to get a great deal of insight into what it’s like to live there considering that my mom is from there, and one of her friends (along with her family) spent time with us. They talked to us about the cash withdrawal limits from the banks, the checkpoints, and also the Cecil the Lion controversy (and poaching in general).
One of the more historic buildings in the town is the Victoria Falls Hotel, built in 1904. It was originally built to help house the workers for the Cape to Cairo railroad (which was never completed). From the hotel you can walk to the Lookout Café, which is the base for a lot of the adventure tourism in the area. It’s helpful to have a guide walk with you though, unless you have your own method of dealing with the feisty baboons in the bush. Once we were seated in the café, I noticed that we had a clear view of the various zip lining activities, including the gorge swing (which probably came with a warning not to eat for the day prior). After careful consideration I chose to zipline. I also essentially signed away my life to “venomous insects, unpredictable wildlife, rope failure” and a plethora of other fun ways to die. Before I dove off the cliff (Superman style), I asked the man to check my ropes probably about three times because not only was I nervous but I had the entire restaurant as my audience, including my sister’s phone. Shortly after the third check-in, I decided to go ahead and dive. Unfortunately, I wasn’t brave enough and instead I just ran off the cliff and then got jerked down by the harness, a tough wake-up call that I needed to look down and remember that I was 125 metres up. It was the most serene feeling flying through the air and seeing the rapids below and Victoria Falls to the left. I truly felt light, like I had overcome fear. And then I had to turn around once I got close to the Zambian cliff. The cable was pulling me backward and another cable had twisted around my leg so I somehow managed to unhook that and turn myself around to grab on to another cable in order to be pulled back to the Zimbabwean side. Once I got to land, I crawled back to the station and then slowly stood up. I felt like I’d been thrown back to childhood – everything was curious, and I’d never felt more excited… or incapable of controlling my muscles. After greeting the adoring crowd, also known as the fellow patrons who clearly thought I had lost my mind when I jumped off that cliff, I sat down to have a sip of water before we headed off to the bridge to Zambia.
The one thing I haven’t really talked about so far when describing Victoria Falls would be… the waterfalls! And that’s for good reason. Doesn’t everyone know that you’re supposed to save the best for last? Seeing the falls, from every angle, made me understand how people literally worship nature. I couldn’t pull myself away from the lush greenery, the thunder of the falls, and the ethereal rainbows. I felt like the trees were even bowing in honour to the cascades. I think the most beautiful view of the falls is from the bridge to Zambia (it’s a must-see vantage point, but make sure you take your passport and double check whether you’ll need double entry visas when you first arrive in Zimbabwe), but I’m really glad we also walked through the national park and saw them from those angles. Word to the wise though: do not expect to take photos when you’re that close. My sister’s camera was destroyed – and of course it happened on the first day of our trip. The benefit of the mist being so intense is that you get to watch people get trapped inside ponchos as they desperately scramble to cover themselves from the misty rain. I know from experience. I took a classic photo of a group of tourists taking photos of my mom having a fight with a poncho while the guide tried hopelessly to help her.
When visiting Victoria Falls, it pays to visit the National Park. The cost is pretty low considering how beautiful the views are, and there are some interesting plaques full of historical facts and figures for your consideration as you stroll. A major difference between Victoria Falls and Niagara Falls, one of the top 3 waterfalls in the world too, is the amount of development surrounding the natural area. Niagara Falls has degraded itself into a tourist trap complete with haunted houses and casinos at every corner, while Victoria Falls has remained untapped and undeveloped – you won’t even find barriers to prevent you from tripping over the edge of the cliffs. It should be fairly obvious which approach I prefer.
On our last night in Victoria Falls, we went to watch a show at the Victoria Falls Hotel. I’m glad that I decided to spray myself with more mosquito-repellant than usual; however, I made a foolish choice by not wearing pants. I have never seen more mosquitoes out and about as I did that evening – it’s like we’d intruded on their party... and we brought the drinks! The show itself was interesting: there were circumcision dances, as well as dances about white farmers. I won’t get into the origins of the dances or any real commentary, because I really don’t have a clue about where the dances were coming from or what they symbolized (aside from the basic description provided by our server, whose name was “Anytime” – and yes, he was available at any time). The dinner was buffet style, and I managed to try sadza, a local corn meal dish, as well as a number of dishes containing pumpkin (common in local cuisine). While leaving the hotel it’s a good idea to stroll by the Larry Norton Gallery. His artwork is stunning! And no, I do not receive commission.
Leaving Zimbabwe was difficult because it meant that my mom had to say goodbye to her friend of almost 5 decades not knowing if they’d see each other again. It’s hard leaving people in unstable situations. I won’t go into detail about the politics in the region, but suffice it to say that it is far from reassuring. I think this trip did a lot of good for my mom though because it was her first time being back in her homeland since she left in her 20s (a long time ago, as you can imagine). She was able to reminisce about areas like Inyanga and Harare, while also enjoying Victoria Falls like a tourist. I think it takes courage to step into your past understanding that it’s no longer your present, and that’s what she did. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country teeming with wildlife (last year 5 people were killed by elephants and a lion around Victoria Falls alone), but also deeply disturbed by its colonized past and its corrupt present. I hope things change for the better, because it seems like it’s been settled in the ashes for too long.
We flew through Joburg again to get to Cape Town, where my family live. I’ve noticed that the Joburg airport seems much safer compared to trips through there in previous years. I was quite startled upon arrival in Cape Town to find that my father had a swollen forehead and a great big gash on his face. It turns out that he had fallen hard on concrete, and hit his head. Fortunately, he didn’t suffer any major damage but it was jarring to see the impact nonetheless. This trip, more than any other, made me realize the value of having a comprehensive travel insurance package. My mother also had an accident resulting in fractures and stitches, and I myself had a medical incident resulting in my disembarking a plane (with some very frustrating British Airways staff “assisting” me) and rebooking another flight for the next day through Dubai. I can’t stress enough the quality of assistance provided by the insurance company. No one wants to get sick or injured on their trip, but these things happen on a regular basis and it’s important to have support. In fact, while in South Africa I saw a friend and also a family member who had both recently returned from South East Asia with awful injuries (motorcycle accidents seem to be all the rage in Thailand, Vietnam and India for tourists) who commented on the value of the insurance provided. Rant about responsible things over.
For the first time on a trip to South Africa, I spent some time in Hermanus: a whale watching town near Cape Town (about 1.5 hours away). I think it would be tough to get there without a car, but if you do rent one it’s well worth the drive just for the scenic coastal route. Most of the time spent there was on the beach (sundowners are like a national sport), or in restaurants (I’d highly recommend Betty Blue Bistro and also Peartree Restaurant). The first night we also spent 1.5 hours sitting in my mom’s friend’s car, because the battery died and the tow truck apparently decided to take its sweet time arriving. I didn’t have too many complaints at the time though as we were able to watch a gorgeous sunset, and my sister, father and I got some quality bonding time (taking selfies and laughing at the shocked passersby who glanced at the car then did a double take upon realizing there were 5 adults sitting in the dark). All in all, I would say the highlight of our time in Hermanus came when we went to a wine tasting nearby. Wine tastings are all the rage in South Africa because there are so many unique and delicious wines, including a local variety called the pinotage. But the reason I enjoyed the wine tasting so much had nothing to do with wine – in fact, I didn’t even drink. The winery was fairly rural and casual, and the toilets were two stalls (very nicely decorated) slightly apart from the dining area, but within view of it. This is crucial information, trust me. At one point my sister stepped away from the table to go to the toilet, and when she returned she seemed agitated and began speed walking back toward us. I couldn’t tell what was wrong with her until I leaned back and caught a glimpse of an aggressive sheep trailing her. My sister was involved in a not-so-high-speed speed walking/galloping chase in the wineyard’s dining area! An employee noticed my sister’s erratic movements and instantly ran at the sheep screaming “Stop that, Stewart!” Stewart, sheepish, galloped in the opposite direction and my sister was safe again. The employee apologized profusely and informed us that Stewart is a bit of a menace because he doesn’t truly realize that he’s a sheep. I accepted her apology; after all, don’t we all go through identity crises at times?
The funny thing about being back in South Africa is that it’s my motherland, in the sense that I was born there; but because I wasn’t raised there I still get to enjoy it as a tourist. That being said, it’s still very familiar for my father. In fact, while we were at Betty Blue Bistro he ran into two couples that he hadn’t seen in nearly 40 years (neither of which still live in Cape Town or even South Africa anymore!). Just his luck! My sister gets charged by Stewart the sheep, while my father gets approached by Sidney the South African.
In terms of places in and around Cape Town, I particularly like Somerset West. Oddly enough, I’m most familiar with the main mall and the Helderberg mountain range – I’m a woman of divergent interests, it seems. I also quite like Stellenbosch. This time around we went for dinner to a restaurant named Gino’s, which had delicious meals for very reasonable prices. I’m sure the fact that Stellenbosch has a huge student community really helps the pricing scale. Somerset West is not quite as affordable, and even the Lourensford Farmer’s Market (which is really lovely) was pricier than I had anticipated. That being said, it’s well worth a visit to Lourensford for their Farmer’s Market as they have lovely dishes, drinks and live music as well as an adopt-a-stray-animal centre (for all those tourists who want to go home with a truly unique souvenir). While in Somerset West, it’s also worth visiting Erinvale for a live show and Vergelegen (the winery next door) for a wine tasting or at least a stroll through their beautiful grounds.
In Cape Town proper, we’ve visited Table Mountain a few times but on this trip we were, unfortunately, blocked in our attempts to ascend to the precipice by rather inclement winds. Instead, we opted for a sundowner at Clifton 4 – one of my favourite beaches. Woolworths offers some really nice ready-made meals, so we grabbed some food and settled in for another beautiful sunset. Every day was sunny, which is wonderful for people on vacation but causes problems for local residents when drought counts are exceeding 99 days. Some things appear amazing until you consider the actual implications. Sunshine every day with no rain may seem like a dream until you realize you don’t have drinking water and can’t bathe. Water scarcity measures don’t create those kinds of extremes, but you weren’t allowed to wash your car or garden and the plumbing was testy (for example).
Cape Town still looked as beautiful as ever. Driving through Hout Bay and Constantia, in particular, are favourite areas of mine. I also love Camp’s Bay and am always happy to visit my dad’s friends who still live in that neighbourhood. I’ve noticed that the V&A Waterfront has undergone drastic development from its past state. It looks gorgeous and offers a plethora of shopping and dining opportunities. It also serves as the gateway to ferry to Robben Island, which has been used for centuries as a prison, military base, and also leper colony (at different times). We were fortunate enough to catch the “fast ferry” which only took 45 minutes, but felt like a painful eternity. I often get sea sick, but this was a particularly bad case of it. The ferry had a maximum capacity of about 140 passengers, so it wasn’t small but it also wasn’t big enough to avoid the feeling of each ocean wave destabilizing the boat. It’s also not enough space to avoid the glaring eyes of the passengers who don’t want your lunch on their outfits.
The first thing you see upon arrival are the seals and a massive painted mural exclaiming that “Freedom cannot be manacled!” Under Apartheid male political prisoners of colour were sent to the island and also forced to do manual labour in the quarry. Depending on the colour of your skin you were given different food rations and privileges. There was only one prisoner who was kept in his own “house”, and that was Robert Sobukwe. He was held in isolation for years. The crimes committed against black people in South Africa under Apartheid are unimaginable. It’s by no means an easy past to recover from, but Mandela had hopeful messages of unity that still seem to resonate with a lot of people (particularly youth, from what I’ve seen). Nowadays you can’t enter Mandela’s cell, but you can experience the site with a former political prisoner as a guide. In our case, the guide had been involved in student protests and imprisoned before he even turned 20 years old. Powerful stories and inspirational people – if only the current politicians chose to move forward in such a positive way, instead of opting for corruption and self-interest instead. There were numerous protests while we were visiting, and it seems that people are fed-up with a president who is causing massive economic crashes in the country in addition to spreading messages of ignorance (he’s publicly stated that you can’t catch HIV if you have a shower after unprotected sex). Again, this isn’t a political blog so although I have too many opinions to count I’ll opt not to share them and focus instead on the real purpose of the post – the spectacular nature of southern Africa.
My sister and I chose to sign up for a hop-on-hop-off two day city tour while in Cape Town – blue, yellow, and red lines. The first day we went with the blue line, and started our tour in the Kirstenbosch Gardens drinking tea and eating scones. It’s well worth spending a few hours wandering through the gardens and the experience is significantly improved by having a guide with you – in our case we tagged along with a kind family. The Boomslang bridge was the highlight for me, as it’s about 130 metres long and moves with the winds and movement of the folks travelling over it. It’s not for those who have a fear of heights, or those who like to run on bridges!
After Kirstenbosch we passed Constantia Nek and the World of Birds before disembarking at the township of Imizamo Yethu for a guided tour, and a visit to the Original T Bag Designs shop. The guided tour was bizarre because the tour guide appeared to just wander at random and stop in at places where he had some greetings to deliver, like a local daycare and also his own home (where his girlfriend didn’t seem too happy to see my sister and I). Overall (objectively), it’s a strange thing for two middle-class white girls raised in North America to be paying to walk through a township in southern Africa. It makes me feel guilty, but it also makes me much more aware of the actual conditions a lot of people face. It’s important to step away from your own comfort zone sometimes and see first-hand how many people live. I just hope that it doesn’t come at a cost for the local residents. I would in no way want their township to turn into a zoo for foreigners who hop off the bus, walk through it for an hour to take photos, and then hop on a bus and zoom back into their worlds of whiskey, and whine. There is no easy answer, but chatting with the guide he seemed to rebuff these thoughts because he said it’s important that the community has its own ways of generating money and tourism is enabling them to become entrepreneurs. I’m still unsure of how to best approach these situations. There’s a lot of talk about how best to be an “ally”, but I’m not sure what that would entail apart from being reflective about your own privileges and being genuine and open-minded in how you approach situations of injustice. In any case, it was a thought-provoking trip for both my sister and me. The tea bag store really interested me because it was successful proof of the concept that the tour guide had been talking about: encouraging local people to create their own industries. I was really impressed with the artwork produced in that store, and the dedication of the employees. The store’s motto (first spoken by Eleanor Roosevelt) embodies the work ethic: “A woman is like a tea bag. You don’t know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
The second day also involved some pretty deep reflection around issues pertaining to social justice as we headed immediately from Long Street to the Jewish Museum and Holocaust Center. We learned more about the impact the Jewish diaspora community had in South Africa, and also their prominent participation in the anti-Apartheid movement. I knew first-hand already about a lot of the issues raised in the museum given my family’s history – I’ve heard stories about my grandfather having to deal with Greyshirts (Nazis) targeting him and their family business. We found the museum quite intense so we decided to skip the District 6 Museum and head straight to the V&A Waterfront for a sunset harbour cruise. It was lovely but absolutely freezing on the water without proper clothing (i.e. long sleeved shirts and pants). I feel like any discomfort at any point in the trip was immediately alleviated by the sight of adorable wild animals – in Zimbabwe the warthogs and baboons won me over, while in South Africa it was all about the penguins and seals. Any time you’re down, just look up and you’ll see something delightful staring back at you... although that can be a sign of aggression, so maybe look down again?
In terms of nightlife, the olden days of partying on Long St are long-gone. Although there are still a number of bars and clubs, our friends and family now prefer Bree St and Shortmarket St (Cafe Roux was my favourite stop with its fantastic selection of live acts). One staple that has remained the same throughout the decades is Green Market Square and its fine selection of curios. It’s like a tourist’s dream because you can find endless art and it’s (mostly) affordable given that you’re negotiating the prices yourself. We ended up missing a walking tour in order to make sure we didn’t miss the market. Funnily enough while we were strolling through the crowded aisles, we ran into our parents (who were staying in a totally different neighbourhood than us at this point). Opposites attract. The young, the old... we all unite over beaded keychains and colourful tablecloths.
In any case, the real reason we were in South Africa was for some quiet family time and a not-so-quiet wedding. The family time was plentiful and absolutely wonderful. There’s nothing like seeing your family after years apart to make you really realize how lucky you are to have them. Life as an immigrant has meant that we’ve missed most milestones with our families, but whenever we do get together we all get along so well that you’d never know we’ve been raised at such a distance. The wedding was hilarious because they decided to have fun rather than try to go the traditional route of pomp and ceremony. To clinch the deal, the sisters of the bride and groom took tequila shots and then confetti cannons blasted confetti into the crowd. The dancing was amazing, thanks in part to my cousin’s best friend who made the dance floor; and the heckling was even better thanks to my oldest cousin who took it upon himself to leave no innuendo unsaid and no gratitude ungiven. The halal Indian foodtruck provided us with delicious curry and the soft serve ice cream machines were the perfect dessert. I really enjoyed spending the time with my family (including in the photo booth), but also meeting some of my cousin’s friends who work in such diverse areas as investment to HIV medical care. One recurrent theme of the evening was young people bragging about what a desirable destination Joburg has become. Apparently it’s the new “hot spot” for young people looking for a good time. In any case, I’d choose Cape Town in a heartbeat for the beaches and mountains alone – although the attractive people everywhere also help boost its desirability factor. Ultimately, its beauty doesn't lie solely in its appearance but also in the space for reflection that you find on every corner (and beach!).
This trip was as much about reconnecting with my family living in South Africa as it was about a new adventure in Zimbabwe, learning about my mom’s past. Time spent with family was the highlight of the trip, but I really enjoyed playing tourist in South Africa for once and also trying new things like crocodile, snake handling and zip lining in Zimbabwe. There are complex conditions at play in the region, but there’s endless strength and possibility – I can’t wait to see what amazing things the future will hold!