Alex MacCaw

Ruby/JavaScript developer & entrepreneur. O'Reilly writer and open source developer. Working for Stripe.

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Traveling - South Africa

December 22, 2010

I'm writing this on the flight from Hong Kong to Singapore, at long last. So much for drafting up a weekly blog post, I guess it'll have to be monthly instead - or at least when I'm flying to the next country. As such this will cover my whole trip through South Africa.

My first port of call was Johannesburg, on the connecting flight to Cape Town. I had decided not to spend any time there, due to some of the scare stories I'd heard - just the three hours between flights. However, disaster almost struck when I misplaced a bag when collecting my luggage - the bag with 'everything' in it, my passport, wallet, laptop etc. The trip was almost over before it began! I'd walked all the way through customs and was just about to check my hold luggage in when I realized. I raced back, and with the help of an eager porter (eager for his tip I suppose), took a back route through the rabbit warren of corridors back to customs. The bag was still there, thank God. Disaster averted - I'd have to be more careful in future.

Then on to Cape Town, one of my favorite places in South Africa. I'd done a similar trip through SA the year before, so I was fairly clued up on the places to go (and indeed the places not to go). Cape Town is a firm favorite, especially during the summer when the weather is rather good. I was only there for a day though, as I was keen to get further up the coast to the Transkei and Africa's 'Wild Coast'. Unboxed, a Ruby consultancy based in London, had recently opened up a Cape Town office; and I knew Simon, a good friend, was working there temporary. We met up with a few of the other Unboxed guys, had one of the most amazing burgers (Royale Eatery), and headed upstairs to the 'Waiting Room' - a bar located directly above the Royale Eatery, originally built to service its queuing customers. Sipping beers we sat on a balcony overlooking Cape Town's main route, Long Street, watching the evening's hustle and bustle while the sun set. A few hours later we headed straight across the street to a local bar, for some Pool. Simon's friend had an media studies degree, which meant he was a total expert at Pool. He certainly showed the locals up!

Then, next morning I headed straight up the coast with the 'Bazz Bus'. One night in Port Elizabeth, and then more driving to Cintsa and Buccaneers Backpackers. This is one of my favorite hostels, with views over the lagoon and miles of beach, it's ideally located. We're starting to get more rural now, with no municipal water and electricity blackouts every now and again. That all adds to the adventure though. Every morning I'd go for a jog along the beach, and have the whole thing to myself - miles and miles of it. Then a quick dip, and back to the hostel where I was writing a book in earnest. In the afternoon we'd play volley ball, made all the more fun by the addition of free wine, and in the evening magnificent dinners cooked by the local 'Mamas'.

The view from Buccaneers

After a week at Buccaneers it was time to move on up the coast, to Coffee Bay. Along the route, our Bazz Bus driver would use some of his money (and spare change found in the bus) to buy bread, distributing it to women and children we passed. We joked to him that these were all his different families, but what an altruistic thing to do - Africa is made by these sort of men. Coffee Bay is just magical, there's no way my description can do it justice. It was a little more touristy than when I'd stayed the previous year, but retained the rustic charm of the Transkei. Firstly, a little bit of history to give you some context. The Transkei was an area of land exclusively given (or rather segregated) to the Xhosa people during the Apartheid. For a long time the area was a white no-go zone, and the caves up the coast were used as weapon depos by the ANC. However, all that has changed in recent years, and it's now a tourist destination. The area is still very rural though, with no running water, little electricity and internet. Most the locals still live in traditional round huts, with a hatched roof and a packed dung floor. The area isn't very fertile, so most of the locals fish for their meals. You'll see a lot of skinny animals walking around, but these are mostly used as part of the barter economy, rather than for food.

Deserted beaches

The main hurdle to Coffee Bay is actually getting there. The road to Coffee Bay can barely be defined as such. It's full of pot holes, animals and rather un-traffic aware locals. A group of American girls drove it at night, after being warned not to. They were as white as a sheet when they finally arrived! In addition, if you're a tourist you have to be careful of the local police. A german couple, both doctors, were stopped and asked for a thousand rand without any 'receipt' - bribery and corruption in other words, rife in these parts. Locals pay no heed to the requests, but tourists aren't quite as savvy.

The rolling hills

Once you arrive though, you'll see the raw beauty of Coffee Bay which is certainly worth any journey. The beach curves round a small river and is surrounded on one side by cliffs, and the other sides by rolling hills. The hostel, called 'The Coffee Shack' is nestled just over a hill, out of reach of the wind; and is split in two by a small river. Luckily, it's more of a stream than a river - and it's quite fun holding a lantern as you negotiate the stepping stones after a good night out. The whole place is rather remote, indeed for half a week we had no electricity, mobile reception or landline connection - completely cut off! Quite a novelty for me, but rather worrisome for the hostel which couldn't take any bookings; it must be difficult running a business under those conditions.

Coffee Bay

During the day we'd hike along the coast, explore caves (only to find copious amounts of guano), and jump of cliffs. During the evening I would take a beer over to the rocks and listen to the waves crashing and rolling as the sun set over the hills. At night we'd party away in the tiny hostel bar - playing killer pool which would usually descend to just a lot of dancing around the table. I met so many great friends there, too many to list, and have such good memories of the place.

A few days were spent on the beach, by the local cows who like to bathe in sea water to remove their ticks. I tried my hand at body surfing, and was jogging every day to keep fit. During the week the wind direction changed, bringing in a whole swarm of jellyfish. I can tell you the surfers got out pretty quickly when they noticed them.

Exploring caves Miles of beaches

During one of our hike's Joseph, our bare-footed guide, was explaining to me about the local traditions regarding marriage. "It's no good, I've only got a dozen chickens, I need at least 10 cows to buy a wife". "Does the amount of cows increase, the prettier the woman" I enquire? No, he replies, "but if she's been to university it's at least 15 cows. I'm going to have to sell my sister if I'm ever going to marry.". We walk on further down the coast and I start enquiring about the political situation. It turns out that the Transkei is ruled using a feudal system, with a king and various chieftains. Joseph was telling me that one of the local chiefs had died a couple of years ago, leaving behind his wife and four children. His eldest son was too young to become chief, so his wife, in an unprecedented move, declared herself chief until such time her son could assume the throne. This didn't sit too well with the local villagers, indeed they rioted, burnt down her house and shot her. Additionally some of her children were caught in the cross fire. The King had to visit to remedy the situation and, to his credit, installed one of the women's daughters as the new chief. However, she still lives under police protection in a neighboring village. The Transkei isn't without its problems.

Traditional houses Watching the sunset

After an amazing stay in Coffee Bay, it was time to move further up the coast to Mudumbi. I'd been recommended this place by a traveling South African and told it was even more rural - exactly what I wanted. I chucked my heavy bags into the local transport, and then walked there. It's a short walk, about 4 hours, but across amazing beaches and picturesque scenery. There's a few rivers to cross, most you can wade through, but one particular one caused more difficulty. It was deceptively narrow, and rather than swim across and fetch a rowing boat I spotted on the opposite bank, I resolved to do the trip in one go, pack and all. About half way across I realized what an idiot I was being. Keeping a heavy pack above you, while treading water, is very difficult and it occurred to me that my SLR and iPod could both get a soaking! Luckily I managed it, just, although my trainers got wet. Indeed, they never recovered from that - and started stinking so badly I had to throw them away.

Once I got to Mudumbi I was shown to my cottage, which I had all to myself. It looked like a hobbit house out of Lord of the Rings, with cute pink curtains and a stable door. The wind picked up and soon there was a full on storm, it was even difficult to stand up. The lightning was awe inspiring, as was the gale, but I felt very cosy in my little cottage. At supper I realized I was the only back packer. Everyone else there was a volunteer working on the hostel and nearby in the village. A friendly Kiwi gave me great advice on hikes in his home country, which I can't wait to explore. "During the winter", he said, "the track is officially closed, but you can still traverse it. I should warn you that the loos are locked; there's a long drop round the back though".

The Transkei

Unfortunately my time in the Transkei was now at an end. I travelled up to Durban, albeit rather reluctantly, and stayed in a hostel near to Florida Road - the main street. You often meet some really interesting people traveling, and so it was to be with this place where I met two english girls who really impressed me on their ability to integrate into a place in a short period of time. They'd met a professor at a local university, and we attended the launching of a book which, since its subject concerned race, generated a lot of interesting discussion. We tried the local bunny chow, which is a 'delicacy' exclusive to Durban - consisting of a loaf of bread, cut in half and filled with curry. Very delicious as long as its not too spicy. After eating out at a local burger place I got to know the owner and arranged to rent a surf board off him. Durban's piers are excellent to surf by, as there's a convenient rip that'll pull you write out to the back without much paddling. Failing that, you can just jump off the end of the pier. You have to watch you don't get tangled in the fishermen's lines though!

I'd arranged to meet up with Bevan, a South African who'd been our guide up the coast the previous year. He's an inspiring guy, and always up to something interesting. As well as his photography and touring, he explained about some of the business ideas he's currently working on. We discussed Durban's history, and how it had been sold to the British by Zulu king, and about some of SA's other problems, like the amount of rubbish everywhere. I have a feeling the issue won't be resolved with 'education', which can often come across as condescending, but rather a clever marketing campaign - which I believe has worked in other countries. Regardless whoever solved the rubbish problem would have a lasting legacy - keeping Africa a beautiful country.

Leanne's place

I got picked up by Leanne, my London flat mate who's temporarily back in South Africa and stayed a week at her parents house. They live on this amazing estate, where you'll find families of wild pigs and zebras grazing the lawn. With magnificent views stretching across the plains and a very smart house - it was a great place to stay. Lots of fun partying in Pietermaritzburg and good nights out. However it was time to leave again, and I packed up my things and flew to Hong Kong where the adventure continues!