Thursday, January 8, 2009

“Days in Africa” (Tuesday 6th Jan 2009 – Day 103)

On the way back home - in Jo'Burg international airport, this is my last post before I get to Geneva. Happy new Year. Can't wait to see you all....

(Where am I now: Mabalingwe game farm. game: wild animals)
(What is the time now: 15:40 pm on Tue 6th Jan09 , What am I listening to: The ceiling fan on the thatch roof of this amazing cottage)

Think of the scene and add you own special music. Landing after a 12 hour overnight flight from Hong Kong to Johannesburg, I made my way through passport control, for the last “exotic” stamp on my passport: Republic of South Africa.

It was a republic 10 years ago when I last visited but since then I have already changed two passports and this is now a very different country. How time flies. Most of you that know me a bit better might have heard me talk about this place. I always talk about it with love and amazement, never forgetting to mention its incomparable natural beauty but also its crime-plagued cities and the very different way of life that the people lead because of this. More on this maybe further down but I can’t move on before mentioning just a few things: South Africa is a key link from my past, a magical place of my childhood, the reason I speak English better than the average Greek, the key root of my love for nature and traveling and above all, the place where my mother grew up and where most of my blood family currently resides. It’s also the place where my mom & brother decided to spend this Christmas & New Year’s holiday, making this destination the perfect ending to a very long, amazing trip. What more can you ask than spending time with you family after being away and “on your own” for so long?

So, how can I really describe the feeling of picking up my backpack from the conveyer belt and passing through customs and into the arrivals hall and looking around… there was no one there to pick me up.
I smiled. My family is not a very typical Greek family on “travel reunions” and that includes airport pickups or port or bus pickups for that matter. Most of the times it’s a friend that picks me up from airports (thanks George, Amalia, Ody, Vasso just to mention a few) so why should it be different now… Well I hoped it would be.

I called my aunt, “You’re here? We’ll be there in a few minutes” she said in perfect background silence, making it obvious that they were still at home. The airport is a 20 minute drive from her house so plenty of time for me to look around, feel the summer weather and above all, look at the sky which even at 7 am had this wonderful Africa blue in it…

The car arrives; they don’t see me, pass me and park at the pickup zone about 30 meters away from me. I smile and see my mother come out and head for the arrivals hall. I run behind them, backpack bouncing on my back, “Hello!” I shout, she turns around gives me a big hug, emotion written all over her face…obviously having missed me a lot. I guess so would you if your son was travelling around the world for more than 3 months. The rest I think I’ll keep to myself.
And this is how the South African part, the last part, of this beautiful story begins…

Johannesburg, Jo’burg, Egoli, also known as City of gold
What do you know about Johannesburg? Apart maybe from being the biggest city in South Africa, famous in the old days for its vast gold reserves (thus the name), it’s infamous for its extremely high crime rate but also for being the center of a lot of activism and thus oppression during the Apartheid days. South Africa has moved on from then and so has Jo’burg making it a business and financial center for anyone that wants to do business in this part of Africa. It’s still a difficult place to live, people constantly under the threat of crime that extends to losing their lives.

I can’t have the same point of view I have for the other places I’ve visited. It’s impossible for two reasons. First I’ve been here before quite a few times and I will (maybe) tell you a few stories about my childhood South Africa memories – if not, ask me when you see me. So, it is not the unfamiliar, unexpected (but still exotic, and amazing) place that described all the other destinations in my trip. Second, I won’t see it in the same way. I am not alone, family is here and we are talking about a big family: 4 aunts and uncles, cousins and the whole lot of second and third cousins that this involves… So I’ve decided to give a few snapshots of life here trying to balance between the fact that some are of more personal/family nature and the fact that, strangely enough, it is more difficult for me to describe a familiar place than something that is completely new… We visited quite a few things: Apartheid museum, markets, the Military museum, a great African dance musical called Umoja and more. However, I’ve decided now to talk to you about Cape Town… but before that, let me tell you of a very different Christmas Eve.

What does Christmas mean to you? Apart from the religious meaning which I will let all of you weigh according to your own personal beliefs, most of you would agree it is about family, sharing gifts and wishes, with good food in a cozy environment, ideally a nice fireplace and some snow outside your window while you enjoy the company of friends and family. Well it’s exactly the same over here par the snowy, cozy atmosphere. Because when I got to Gerry and Lulu Calinicos’ (my mom’s friends) place for the Christmas Eve dinner, I was in shorts and T-shirt and had my dinner in their huge, lovely garden by the swimming pool. Is Santa landing in the swimming pool, I would have wondered if I was 10-years old, now I just sat back and enjoyed my watermelon as a dessert…

That’s the cool thing about the Southern Hemisphere and I guess it would be the same whether I was in Argentina, Chile, Australia or New Zealand – the trump card here was that I was with my family.

Merry Christmas everybody and I finally managed to unload at least a small part of my luggage which was intended to be Christmas presents for my family: little porcelain cows from Japan (hey, 2009 is the year of the cow in Asia), Snake/scorpion liquor (with an actual cobra/scorpion in the bottle) from Vietnam for my cool 20+year old cousins, and a few little things for mom and George… it felt good to be able to give something different after carrying it for so long explicitly for this reason.

Cape Town, the Cape of Good Hope I will prove to you what I just said; it’s easier to write about a new place than a familiar one. My family had planned a trip to Cape Town for this Christmas season. Rightfully so, this and the rest of the southern tip of South Africa is the place where locals and tourists alike flock to, to spend their summer/X-mas holidays. Sounds like an oxymoron but don’t forget, it is summer here…

I had never visited before so I am always open to new places. It’s not easy however to travel with people when you are used to traveling on your own, a complete master of your schedule, the only person to compromise with being yourself. I had forgotten that part but it quickly didn’t matter although having to spend 4 days with mom and 2 of her sisters (aunties Jean and Avgi) plus my brother is not what I’ve been used to lately. Ultimately it is also about what you are looking for at a specific moment. I was looking for “shutdown”, no planning. I let the others take me around; it’s a nice feeling after having to schedule everything from where to sleep, to what to eat to where to go. Now it was go with the flow… Well, you know me… almost go with the flow.

Cape Town is wonderful. Full stop. I don’t care what my uncle Yianni says (“it’s shit there, the weather and everything else”) or what Lulu’s daughter Liz said (“great for my student years but I would never come back here to live”) or what her friends said (“Capetoneans are lazy, impolite and stuck up, most opportunities are in Jo’Burg”).

Cape Town is the perfect combination of mountain and sea. One of SA’s most famous landmarks (the Table mountain) resides on its side and the presence of an amazingly beautiful coastline, sandy beaches and roaring sea make it the place to be if you like the sea. Walking in that (admittedly cold water) I completed wetting my feet in all oceans of this planet. Pacific in Chile, Australia and New Zealand, the Indian and Atlantic in South Africa… Sounds weird.
The waterfront is beautiful, full of people, restaurants and bars, it gives a wonderful vibe that only makes it more fun when you think that the rest of your friends are freezing off in Europe… The architecture reminds you of old English colonial style, I thought I was in Brighton, like years ago, only difference the complexion of the people, predominantly coloreds and blacks instead of pinky-rose English and Indians.

We covered a lot of distance in the 4 days we were there using a rental car and Sheila (that’s our GPS and a completely different story so ask me)…but nothing compared to the visit to Cape Point. The place where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean…

Cape Point: 34 ̊21’24’’ South Latitude, 18 ̊ 29’ 52’’ East Longitude

It was quite a bit of a drive, about 2-3 hours from Cape Town, where else but southward. It is part of a National Park, covering a vast area of the southern tip, that includes both the Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope (did you know they are two different locations?). It’s a very picturesque area, with very beautiful landscapes and lots of trails you can also do on foot. There are even some cabins for the people that want to sleep over. As we entered the gates of the park I made a mental note to myself: “I will be back here, definitely, under slightly different conditions, maybe 2-3 couples renting a van and spending some serious time in South Africa and this place”. As you move south on the wonderful coastal road you realize as you go over hills and small mountains that the sea is on both sides… there’s a tip here somewhere you have to think. Look left and it’s the Indian Ocean, look right and it is the Atlantic! We arrived at Cape Point and parked the car.

The fact that it was around 5’o clock made our visit even nicer. The big crowd had already left and the sun had changed color into this more dark yellow, casting longer shadows on everything. Cape Point is a hill near the edge, around 250 meters above the surface of the sea and there’s a little funicular that takes you up there… (last time I saw one, I was on another continent in Valparaiso Chile.

We decided with my brother not to take it but do the 30-40 minute walk up to the top. After all, the rental car had taken away all the walking I was used to doing in previous parts of this trip. Well worth it, as you slowly climb the stairs and follow the trail, you get amazing views of the sea, roaring waves and an incredibly strong wind blowing in our face – you couldn’t even keep a hat on. (Do you like my new orangey cap I got in Jo’burg?)

Walking, climbing, taking photos, 30 minutes later you reach the edge of this continent. There’s a signpost there, just like Cape Reinga in New Zealand, showing the different kilometer distances to other cities and on the wall, right above the sea and the Lighthouse there’s one little stone with an arrow point south. It reads: Antartica… We marveled at the scenery, grasped against the strong wind and tried to cover ourselves from the bright sun falling low, into our eyes. Who cared? This is the place where two Oceans merge, this is the edge of another continent, the last one I was visiting during this dream of a trip.

Cape Town by night… courtesy of Liz. And history repeats itself. You know me. I can’t leave a place without seeing what the night life is all about. Even more so when it’s summer and the whole place is in holiday mood. As with most places though, it would be nice if you have a “local” to show you around. Innumerable number times I’ve felt “at home and at my best” when there’s someone from the town to take me out: Amparo in Cordoba, Menelaos in Buenos Aires, Katerina in Sydney, Kaori in Tokyo, they all made a huge difference on how much fun you have in a place but above all on what you experience. This time my “local” manifested in the tiny form of Liz, the younger daughter of one of my mom’s friends who spent her student years in Cape Town and as with most people was spending part of her Christmas holiday in the city.

Cape Town is a great place to go out, whether it is CBD (Central Business District, also known as “downtown” as I like calling it – I know Katerina is smiling now, because CBD is what they also call downtown Sydney, but they don’t call it “downtown”…) or Camps Bay, one of the longer beaches which is strewn with bars (there’s even a white-covered bar called Caprice, evoking strange Mykonos memories in the end of December- sorry not the same sunset though), restaurants, cafés and the occasional club. We went to quite a few places, from posh pop to grunge rock, I saw quite a bit. It’s also so easy to go out drinking when proper dinks cost about 2-3 Euros… I had a field day, or should I say night? Thanks Liz & friends.

Try it – you can’t lose if you try.
It’s one of the two biggest lessons I got from this trip. I hope to remember them and apply them in whatever I do in the future. I learned both of them (the other lesson, further down) from two women, completely different to each other, yet with such similar attitudes towards life. Lesson #1: If you don’t try it, it won’t happen. You definitely have more chances on getting something or somewhere by simply asking for it. It doesn’t need to be about business, money or serious relationships. It can be from doing bungy jumping and skydiving in the same day, to scuba diving even if you are afraid of water, to trekking 20km in New Zealand despite having to wake up AGAIN at 6am, to getting a stupid discount, to entering a venue even if they tell you it is full, to… crashing a private high-profile party. And that is what happened in Cape Town last Friday night.

We drove past this house with my mom & family around 8 o’clock and you could see there was something already going on. You could see it from the cars parked on the street (even a custom-plate BMW with “KOUKLA” as a plate – I so regret not taking a photo) to the house itself, perched up on a little hill, all lit up, music blasting away… “It must be a party”, we made the obvious observation and headed to Camps Bay where I was supposed to meet Liz and friends for “1 drink – yesterday night was too much”. We managed to go through a drink or two with her and Sarah & Dana (yes it’s nice to be in the company of girls again!). I was quite casually dressed (this is important) with jeans, white sneakers and my orange (gay/geeky?) Atari T-shirt (don’t forget my new cap) but the girls were nicely made up – summer was here after all despite the cool midnight wind. They suggested going back downtown – I agreed to join them until Fresnay where I was staying for a drop-off, I wasn’t in the mood for another late night…or so I thought.

We left Camps Bay and took the road back to Fresnay. On the way we passed that party house again… “It must be a party”, was the obvious observation again. “Let’s crash it!”, I said and they all went “Yeaaah”… We parked Sarah’s little City Golf next to some huge Land Rovers & BMWs and headed up the driveway. You could see the lights and clearly hear the music, the place was happening. Walking up we met a couple of guys that were just leaving the party – “yes the party is still on, just say you know… what’s his name, the host, some name starting with W” he said.
Great, I thought, let’s play the guessing game.
Walter. No, he said.
William. Nope.
Wilbur (!?) No.
Warren? says Dana. Yes! the guy says.
Ok let’s try it.

As we climbed the driveway entrance you couldn’t help but be amazed by the sheer size of this house, the amazingly good-looking people that were coming and going until we reached the gate where two extremely big bouncers were waiting for us. “Where’s your access bracelet?” the one asked, while I just realized that the people around me all had these paper bracelets they give out in concerts for the VIP area.
“Er, we’re friends of Warren, we’re sorry we are late” said Dana.
“And your name is…?” the bouncer asked politely but completely unconvinced.
“Dana and party of 3”, which sounded just like a table reservation in a club.
The guy looks at us, sighs, and moves aside to let us in.
The grin on my face was so wide it could barely get through the gate.
The rest is history (or a really good story I could tell some of you at some point) but this was one of the best party nights of my whole trip.

I guess my friend was right: If you don’t try it, it won’t happen for sure.


Four days in the bush… The “Bush”… you can’t say jungle here. Jungle is the Amazon and rainforest is a different thing. In Africa it is the bush.

This is where we have been spending the past 3 days, my last days in Africa, in a game farm called Mabalingwe. I can’t think of a more appropriate place for to my over 3-month long journey than this here, spending time in nature, with family, so close to the real wildlife. Forget zoos and enclosures. A game farm is a vast area, where animals roam freely, like a standalone ecosystem. People have built few roads and limited housing in the form of bungalows or huts or chalets or call them whatever you want, the important thing is that these areas are not overcrowded and man’s interventions are usually perfectly blended with the natural environment.

We are staying at the most amazing lodge, owned by one of my auntie’s friends. Thanks Tina. It’s a big two level house with a thatch roof, decorated in the most stylish African way and extremely comfortable. Behind it there are also 3 more bungalows that can sleep another 8 people. Friends, if you ever want to visit Africa with me, we GOT to book this place for a few days. You will love it.

Yes, the place is truly wonderful but the real highlight begins outside the low wooden/brick fence. This place is in the middle of nature. If my stories can’t convince you, the photos will for sure but at least let me describe what this place is all about.

We got here around lunch time on the 3rd of Jan, 3 cars, 10 people with fully loaded trunks full of food, drinks and “necessities”… the closest store is 30 km away so you usually want to be prepared. The place is pretty amazing with a little swimming pool and even an elevated watchtower so you can see further away in the bush and enjoy the beautiful sunrise (or sunset, if you are not the morning type)

Visitors for dinner and breakfast.
The first afternoon, while lying on one of the deck chairs peacefully reading my book, we had our first visit. A visit slightly out of the ordinary, you will agree with me…

Now how many of you had a visit during this festive season from a family of 5 elephants? Well we did, more than once.
A whole family, just approached the fence, ever so silently, we only realized it when they were 5 meters away from the house. Slowly they started picking on the leaves of the trees around the fence and also on the leftovers we had…left just outside the fence. We just looked in amazement as they gracefully used their trunks to pick up little pieces of vegetable and leaves, flapping their big ears and snorting from time to time… Early dinner was done pretty quickly for them and after cleaning up everything that was on the ground and eating a salt brick (a special supplement you can leave out for animals to eat - think of vitamins for humans, it just comes in a 25kg block!) it was time for a drink. Closest water source worth considering? Our little swimming pool. The owner of the house is smart, she doesn’t use chlorine or anything else and the elephants know it. In a demonstration of spectacular trunk flexibility the dad elephant approached the fence and without even touching it, leaned over and extended his trunk right into the pool. You can’t help but smile when you hear the sucking sound, like a big vacuum cleaner and you see the pool water moving down. It was like I was watching a cartoon. Don’t forget the trunk is the nose, the elephant has a mouth, so he then moved his trunk up, elegantly bent it and blew the water in his mouth…

Behind the brick column, 5 meters away, I just sat there watching in amazement and smiled thinking again… TIS. This Is Africa.

I woke up the next day around 9 ‘o clock, the light coming in from the window on the second floor was beautifully warm, you could see outside the blue sky, dotted with some puffy clouds. “Come down for some breakfast – Mabel is here”, my aunt said. “Who the hell is Mabel?” I thought to myself. Is it some kind of third cousin I don’t know about or what?

I put my shorts on, left my long-sleeve pyjama and headed downstairs. Having elephants outside your fence is one thing – but having a huge Kudu walking around in the garden, next to the breakfast table is something slightly more surreal even if less impressive on size. Apparently Mabel is part of Tina’s family; she regularly visits the guests to check up on them when she is not there and gets her occasional snack. I have never seen a more calm wild(…) animal, Mabel doesn’t need invitations or door-openings, she can easily, without even really jumping, get over the 1.5 meter fence, discretely approach the table and wait for someone to feed her. If you ignore her, she simply walks around the garden and chews on the tree leaves…

This is Africa, in case you forgot…

Drive in the bush, more to see but more things can happen.
We are really lucky with this place. Tina, the owner even has a modified open Land Rover for 12 people that can take you practically anywhere in this bush. The first two days, we took two long drives looking around for animals. Seeing them in their natural environment beats any well-kept zoo and being here reminded me of the last time I saw this type of wildlife, almost 2 months ago in the wonderful Sydney zoo. I remember telling myself, you’ll see it again in Africa.
And indeed we did. The queen of the trees and my all-time favourite, the giraffe was there, so were some wild boars and more elephants and beautiful zebras. You have to love Earth, you have to adore nature once you visit this place. The bush, so green and thick prevented us seeing far inside and you do need to keep to the dirt roads but the scenery was amazing. Greens and browns of the Earth, wonderful blues of the African Sky with some bright white clouds breaking in the horizon.

This morning (Tuesday) we decided to get up a bit earlier and try to visit some damns nearby where you can see hippos. It didn’t end up to be a great animal seeing day as we only saw a few Kudus and Impalas (think of Bambi but bigger). No hippos, no crocs in the water, are they all skiing in the Alps, I wondered…

Our Land Rover served us right for taking it on that shitty dirt road. I guess it was bad luck but in any case it’s never fun to get a flat tire, especially in the middle of the bush. Tough luck, the car had a spare tire but not the right tools to replace it. I wondered to myself, is the owner of the farm Greek (notoriously lacking preparation and the right equipment), evoking memories of that outrageously funny and upsetting night in Athens when after a wedding I got a flat tire with my Spitfire and remained stranded for the whole night. When I got my brother to help me we realized the jack wasn’t working properly. Remind me to tell you the whole story, it doesn’t end there.

Back to Africa now, where we called the game office to ask for some help and we received reassurance that someone will be there shortly. We were not really afraid, it was a very quiet day – after all we had seen no major animals so far – the sign however right on that spot that said : “FOR YOUR OWN SAFETY PLEASE REMAIN IN YOUR VEHICLE – Dangerous reptiles and animals occupy this wildlife area...” made me wonder. I decided to take a bottle of water and with Strati, my cousin, we walked about 300 meters to the tarred road.
Two hours passed.

I sat on the ground under the shade of a low tree, ants crawling around me, flies buzzing all over and birds singing in the background and just looked into the marvelous bush and remembered Lesson #2 “It is not a problem…” No need to worry about something you can’t directly influence at this particular moment. That was the second time in my trip I got a flat tire – last time was in Vietnam on the way to the Kao Dai temple, I sat in the shade of an abandoned wall of an army camp, looking across the road at a temple watching the Vietnamese zipping around on their scooters. This time it was only us and nature.

People from the game farm came with the right tools to replace the flat but when the guy tried to put the new one he realized it was also out of air. Now I was sure that Tina is of Greek origin or had Greek ancestors… Eventually everyone got on to their little pick up truck and headed back to the lodge. I stayed behind with my two uncles waiting for the tire (with air this time). I took a walk in the hot sun. The only sound I could hear was that of my worn-out shoes (ah where have you walked these past months) and the sound of the bush. Birds, crickets, tree branches and the occasional slithering on the side of the road reminding you that snakes and scorpions roam freely.

It is not a problem I thought again and I was once more alone in nature. Never lonely but alone, no sound to be heard, not even my never-ceasing voice and I made a promise to myself to seek out more of these moments no matter where I am. How beautiful is this sound of silence...

Happy new year everybody…


Night Visit...

African Sunset

Ok, lunch is done, off we go now... (look at the little one!)

Hello, anybody out there?

Kalahari Oasis (Pit stop)

Horny guy!

"No,no, you need to grow older to reach the pool little one"

Chappies (Chewing gum from my childhood)

The queen was there! Giraffes rule!

Our wonderful lodge

Our wonderful lodge part II

District Six Museum, Apartheid reality

District Six museum - a whole area of Cape Town was leveled and it's (cloloured & black) populations "relocated"

With mom, George and... Wine!

Cape Point.

Cape Point, the corner of Africa

Table Mountain in Cape Town

Family in Cape Town

Apartheid museum - notice the two entrances (made to shock) Whites/ Non-Whites


"Excuse me, is this where they serve breakfast?"

Jeep in the bush

No traffic lights, priority to the biggest!

Kalahari Oasis with cousins & bro

Kalahari Oasis Toilet (and bath)

Kalahari a good Oasis (it was actually a nice bar!)

Everybody visited our lodge!



Georgios Teriakidis said...

Well ... what can i say ?
SImply by te length of this post (by far the biggest) I can guess that this was one of the most sentimental fullfilling parts of your trip...

I admit: I have not read it can i ? It is almost 3 am in Athens, i am sitting by my fireplace and listening to radio...

However seeing you with the family around you, it looks to me that that big smile of yours, is probably the most satisfying smile you had for all your trip...

Because Kostaki, there is nothing like finishing a big trip with a family gathering... Returning home (not at the place you live, but at your "home" the place you feel "yours") is one of a kind... And trust me...I KNOW !

My dear Ulysses, welcome back to your Ithaca !

Georgios Teriakidis said...


Is this an SLR I see you holding ???


Anonymous said...

apo oles tis meres nomizo oti oi meres stin Afriki itan autes pou periegrapses me megaliteri entasi kai isos euxaristi8ikes perissotero??? auto katalavaino apo auta pou diavasa.. Eimai poli perifani gia sena kai xairomai poli pou perases teleia.. See you soon...Dia

Anonymous said...