If Cape Town is a representation of what the rest of South Africa looks like, then South Africa is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been to. Getting to Cape Town was a solid two days of travel: Portland, Oregon to New York, New York to Johannesburg, Johannesburg to Cape Town. This was my first trip to the continent of Africa so while spending this much time on an airplane was completely exhausting, the excitement of what I was about to experience was enough to get me through it.
This trip was purchased through Groupon Getaways and included flights, hotels and accommodations for two weeks of travel through South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe for around $5000US each. Africa has always seemed so far away and untouchable as a travel destination, but somewhere that’s always been on my dream list of places to visit, so when we saw this opportunity come up on Groupon we simply couldn’t pass it by.
Cape Town is this stunning, somewhat large city with a small town feel to it. It’s situated at the very southern tip of South Africa so if you stand on any of the nearby mountains, you have 180 degree views of the Atlantic & Indian Oceans. Everywhere you walk around in town feels similar to large cities in Europe – a gorgeous combination of old and new architecture, tourists mixing with locals, signs and symbols of the British colonization and most vividly, extreme wealth alongside the survivors and remnants of the apartheid.
Being in the heart of the Apartheid, which ended as recently as 1994, was something I’ve only ever envisioned while watching documentaries on the subjects from my couch at home. Visiting the Castle of Good Hope was a great way to start off our sightseeing in Cape Town. The Castle was built in 1666 and is still in extremely great condition. We were able to tour most of the grounds, including the dungeons and slave quarters, which still had with wall shackles for slaves hands and feet. The compound itself was quite beautiful and was once situated directly on the coast as a stopping point for European ships as they made their way around the Cape. From here we drove around Cape Town, down by the water and up through the mountains a bit to see the different vantage points and take photos. The next day we took a bus to the base of Table Mountain and even though it was rainy and foggy, we took the tram to the top of the mountain and while we couldn’t see quite down to the ocean from the top because of the fog, the views were still exquisite. There is a little café/souvenir shop at the top of the mountain, so we bought ourselves a cup of coffee and sat outside taking in the moment and walking through the gardens in the fog.
There are two memories of my visit to Cape Town that really stick out in my mind as things I’ll more than likely never forget.
Shark cage diving. This is exactly what it sounds like and yes, it was terrifying. I don’t mind a good surge of adrenaline every now and again, but this was a new kind of adventure. The night before we went out had been really stormy so I was waiting for the front desk of our hotel to call me and tell me the trip had been called off and was thankful the next morning when I didn’t have any missed calls or emails notifying me of such. We were picked up by a private van for the hour-ish drive out to Gaansbai Bay where we checked in with the charter company, did a short safety briefing and walked down to the boat. The boat was about 25 feet long and had a giant cage attached to the back, which upon first glance didn’t look very reassuring – knowing I was soon going to be lowered into this cage out in the middle of the ocean in front of hungry Great White sharks. The skies were beautiful but the sea was quite rough and the further we got away from land the bigger the waves became. The boat ride out to find the sharks took about 60 minutes in which time I became very queasy. As we found the sharks and stopped the boat, we were in roughly 15 foot swells with the boat swaying violently with every wave. I’ve been on boats and around water my entire life and have never experienced being sea sick, until this exact boat trip. As we came to our resting spot in the ocean and as the crew was working on getting the cage attached to the side of the boat, I felt myself starting to get sick and needing to throw up. The crew helped me get my wetsuit and fins on and again briefed me on what I’d need to do once in the cage, although at this time I was so green from needing to throw up I don’t recall a single word they said to me. They helped me into the cage, I put on my mask and watched them throw giant pieces of chum bait all around the cage and then started hearing them yell “down”! I took a giant breath and pulled myself to the bottom of the cage in time to see three Great White sharks swimming my way!! I gasped in excitement/awe/nervousness and had to surface for another breath. As I did this I took in a bit of salt water which was just enough to put me over the edge and make me sick. I started vomiting inside the shark cage and calling for the attention of the crew who told me “the sharks will love it, take your time, just keep it off the boat”! Ha! I threw up a few more times and then took another breath and went back in to see the sharks again. I can tell you from personal experience; seeing a Great White shark on TV from the comfort of your own home and seeing them in person, swimming towards you from about 10 feet away with the comfort of a few steel bars in between yourself and them – TOTALLY different experiences. And the latter of the two is SO much better – even trapped inside a cage full of your own vomit in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The boat ride back to the shop was spent with my head on the ground, hugging the floor of the boat and retching every few minutes for the entire hour back. It did make me feel a little better to see a few of the crew members also with their heads over the side of the boat – as this was a very rough day at sea and apparently sea sickness can sneak up on you, even if you’ve never experienced it before.
Visiting a township, which was the product of the Apartheid. My memory is failing of how it came to be that we were invited to visit this township and to meet some of it’s residents, but it was a few hours of day which have forever changed my life. Driving in, we were told that even recently there have been clashes between its residents and the local police. In the weeks prior, the police had shown up to enforce some sort of plan set out for the township and they were met with it’s people not willing to be segregated any further – who had taken action to stand up for themselves. These townships are made of hundreds upon hundreds of small tin huts, built on fields of dirt, lined up in rows – but with the hustle and bustle of any small city. The people I met while walking through these townships were so incredibly welcoming and interested in who I was and why I was there. I purchased many small handmade trinkets from the women selling them outside of their homes and was invited to the “town bar” which was another tin hut a little ways down the line. As we walked up, the home owner stood outside with a large oil drum positioned over a wood burning fire and was using a paddle to stir is contents. We walked inside and there were 2-3 handmade wooden benches positioned around another small wood burning fire – with a few local men sitting on them. As I sat down, a small kettle of spirits was passed my way as an offering. We sat around not saying much to one another, but enjoying the moment for what it was – a small gathering of people with different skin colors, together in one place to enjoy each others company and the hard work of the home owners.
Travel has taught me so many things over the years, but this experience in particular has taught me that I personally take so much in my life for granted. I walk into my home and flip a switch for electricity, I walk over to my refrigerator and take out something cold to each, I place it in my oven to warm it up and sit at my dining room table to enjoy it – and I do all of this without even thinking about it. Spending time in different parts of the world with people who have been displaced from their homes because of the color of their skin, who walk into their tin shed and light candles to be able to see, who stand outside in the 100 degree weather to cook their dinner over a fire – but who take pride in it just as I do my home, because it’s theirs and they’ve worked hard to make it their own.
South Africa is a country full of beauty, hardship, history and repair. It stands on my list as one of the most interesting and wonderful places I’ve been to in all of my travels and I look forward to getting back someday to let my family experience it for themselves.