A Travellerspoint blog


sunny 32 °C

After a day on an aeroplane (which included our first taste of India - a delicious chicken biryani) we were glad to touch down at Mumbai airport shortly before midnight local time. We caught a taxi from the airport to our hotel in the Colaba district and Patrick got his first glance of Indian temples, street dwellers and crazy driving.

The following morning we walked around Colaba which is known as the tourist district and saw the famous India Gate which was built to commemorate King George V's visit to India. The district is also home to the famous Taj Hotel - a massive, majestic building which was unfortunately the centre of the 2008 terrorist attack. When Ffion was in India 7 years ago she visited this area and was able to go inside the hotel to look at the expensive croissants and use the luxurious toilets but now the hotel is closed to non-residents and is heavily guarded which is a real shame. For lunch we went to a tourist cafe which was also attacked and had our bags searched on the way in. In the afternoon we visited a modern art gallery where all of the artists on show were actually present, selling their wares. We even saw one artist touching up one of her oil paintings of a representation of fire. In the evening we went to a local dhaba (cafe) for a tasty thali (rice, bread and a selection of dhal and curries) and an aloo parantha (potato stuffed in a thick chapatti).

On our second day in the big city we visited Elephanta Island and the famous caves there. After an hour long boat ride passing a navy base and a gas ship unloading its cargo into a big gas pipe about a kilometre off shore, we arrived at the quaint island which is half way between Colaba (nearly at the tip of the Mumbai peninsular) and the mainland section of the city. There was a small train to take the elderly and the gullible half a kilometer to the foot of a small hill. Ascending the steps up the hill we were bombarded with calls of 'ganesh statue Sir', 'yes, you like', 'looking good price' from the stall holders lining the route. At the top we found the caves which were built some time between the 5th and 8th centuries AD. The first cave had some good examples of Hindu sculpture and a famous Trimurti (three headed Shiva) at the centre. There were other Hindu gods to spot too such as Ganesh, the elephant god, but we both felt we didn't know enough about Hindusim to properly appreciate what we were looking at. After exploring the other caves - some with Shiva lingams (phallic representation of the god), others which were probably simply homes to the Brahmin priests who lived and worshiped there - we discovered that there was a small museum which explained more about the gods represented at the caves. Although India is a country of many religions and Patrick was looking forward to seeing his first Hindu temple and Sikh Gurudhwara the first religious building we'd seen and visited was actually a church - St Thomas' Cathedral - which was near our hotel. We'd spotted it on our first day and seen an advert for their Ash Wednesday service the following day so, after a thali lunch and another hour on the boat back from Elephanta Island, we went back to the Cathedral for the service. It was strange because if you closed your eyes and listened to some parts of the liturgy you could have been in Wakefield Cathedral but when you opened your eyes and saw worshipers pulling parts of their brightly coloured saris over their heads when approaching the altar to take communion it was obvious that you were in India, not West Yorkshire. We weren't too impressed with the choir or the organist who seemed to be having a tempo war with the loud bass in the choir during each hymn but were glad we'd gone to the service for the experience.

That evening we took our first sleeper train to Ahmedabad in Gujerat. After more than an hour travelling north through Mumbai watching the madness at every station as people fought to get on the train first we settled down on the bunks which Patrick described as being surprisingly comfortable.

Posted by ffionandpatrick 03:33 Archived in India Comments (1)

South Africa

Some final thoughts

We've told you lots about what we've done and seen but there are some things that we've experienced and learnt that have inevitably been left out about our time in South Africa. To redress the balance here are a random collection of thoughts about this lovely country.

South Africa, in its current, democratic, full franchise form, is a very young nation and, although the Apartheid era is something Ffion has studied in history and you find in lots of museums here, it's something that almost everyone we've met here lived through and remembers. It's therefore very impressive that, in our experience at least, people of all races live, study and work together without animosity or violence. We met several white South Africans who were at pains to tell us how much they or their parents had opposed the Apartheid government. Although the ANC, which has been in power under 3 different presidents since 1994, has made huge, positive changes in terms of the rights of blacks and other non-white races there are still many challenges facing South Africa. Equality of rights have been restored but equality of opportunity is a long way off and 'economic Apartheid' is a phrase we read in a newspaper column and heard used by a few South Africans. Education is one of the biggest problems here at present. The government is proud of the improvements of getting many more children registered at the beginning of primary school but the standard of that education in the rural and poor black areas is very low. There is also a high drop out rate in these areas.

South Africans, much to Patrick's delight, are sport mad, although their choice of sport to follow still sadly seems to be effected by race. The topic of discussion with many of the black South Africans we met was invariably football. Interestingly, there is no problem with people from all over the country following Soweto's two most successful teams, Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, wherever they live (so no major 'support your local team' emphasis like at home). The number of shirts of both these teams and the national side 'Bafana Bafana' was obvious pretty much everywhere we went and the positive legacy of the World Cup 2010 is equally prominent in many places. Among the white South Africans we talked to it was much more about the rugby and the cricket, and this was much more regionally supported with it being a big deal whether you are for the Sharks (Durban), Stormers (Western Cape), Bulls (Pretoria) or any of the other teams. Despite the fact that we didn't get to see anything live, it is clear that sport is a big part of South African life.

Although we didn't go out much in the evenings to what you might describe as 'cultural events' - theatre, music, cinema etc - we did get a sense of the variety of lively cultures in South Africa. There was music everywhere on radios and in the streets and, especially among black South Africans, lots of dancing. In a few towns we saw a sort of street dancing karaoke competition where someone with a huge PA system and microphone would invite people onto a carpeted area to show off their best moves. In wild spirit hostel there was a child of about 18 months dancing around to the music and playing the drum perfectly in time. Someone commented that, as she was a Xhosa child, rhythm was in her genetics, but it's probably more a matter of nurture than nature.

Although there isn't a 'national dish' in South Africa there are a number of local delicacies that we've had the opportunity to try. We enjoyed ostrich (a tasty, lean meat) but Patrick didn't think Springbok was anything special. Bobotie (cape malay mousaka) is OK, depending on the spices you put in it. Pap is also fine but we wouldn't order it instead of fries at a takeaway like many Africans do. The Soweto 'kota meal' was not something to eat every day but it's probably great if you work in construction or if you have a hang over! In Durban the Indians have created bunny chow - not as cruel as it sounds as it never includes rabbit, as far as we know. It's basically curry in a quarter / half / whole hollowed out loaf, depending on how hungry you are. It's really good as the bread at the bottom goes all gooey. Yummy! Most of these cuisines are only available in certain parts of the country but the one thing that could be considered a 'national dish' is a take away burger. There are lots of outlets - foreign ones like McD's and KFC as well as the home grown Steers and Mustang Spur - and people of all races and ages keep them busy at all times of the day.

We met several North Americans all over South Africa who asked us if cities we'd visited felt safe and what our parents thought of us coming to such a 'dangerous' country. We're not sure what their guide books were telling them as, before we came, the only security worry we had was the streets of Johannesburg. Many South Africans we spoke to said we should be very vigilant in Jo'burg and we therefore only left our hostel in their shuttle but in all other towns, cities and villages in South Africa we felt completely safe. In Durban one evening we were travelling back to our hostel as the sun was setting and were advised by a family not to walk back to the hostel from the bus stop. We'd done the route several times before and it hadn't felt dangerous so we thanked them for their advice, walked on and reached the hostel without a single problem. In conclusion: South Africa is perfectly safe for tourists and if you're considering visiting, do it!

So, that's all from South Africa. We're sorry we're so behind with updating the blog - we've actually been in India for nearly three weeks by now - but we'll try and speed up the entries from now on!

Posted by ffionandpatrick 23:06 Archived in South Africa Comments (1)


The City of Gold

sunny 30 °C

And so after nearly 6 weeks of travel we made our final baz bus journey, leaving the quiet of the Drakensberg mountains for Johannesberg or Jozi or Egoli, depending on who you ask. It turned out our final leg on the baz bus was the most empty, with just 3 other travellers and the driver heading to our final destination. We had read a fair amount about the various areas of the city, which varied greatly from those which suggested only staying if necessary and certainly not straying out on to the streets where you will definitely be mugged or shot, to those who said that the only way to see the true city was to get out on to the streets and meet the locals. We decided that these were both probably a bit wide of the mark and had booked a hostel in the Crystal Gardens suburb (not nearly as glamorous as it sounds!). On arrival we found possibly the strangest group of fellow travellers on the whole trip, most of whom seemed to be much older white South Africans who spent most of their time smoking and complaining about the hostel. We found the accommodation to be not too bad and the owner Aron was happy to help out with anything we needed. He even gave us a new loaf of bread when the resident kitchen rat ate half of ours one night.

At this stage of the trip our supplies of rand were running a little low so we made the most of the hostel facilities on several occasions, including a full size snooker table and free, albeit frustratingly slow, internet. We did spend one day there, though, on a tour of Soweto including a visit to the National Apartheid Museum.

The tour was led by our friendly seTswana driver, but unfortunately the tourists we were sharing the car with seemed to be of the 'point and shoot without always thinking' variety. The first stop was the apartheid museum, on the road between Johannesberg and Soweto itself. One of the greatest frustrations of taking a tour is the timescale that is dictated by the schedule which was most clearly demonstrated by our 2 and half hours at the museum. As we are generally both quite diligent about taking in the content of a museum, and this museum had a lot of information on offer, we took our time over the first part and the special Nelson Mandela exhibition. Unfortunately this meant that we had reached about 1965 by the time we saw we only had 15 mins left before our tour moved on. We sped through the remaining rooms trying to take in as much as possible but we both felt that we could have spent at least another hour making the most of the sections on the final years of the apartheid regime, the period following Mandela's release including the pre-1994 negotiations, and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. It is definitely on our list of things to return to if we have the chance in the future!

Moving on from the museum we stopped nearby the Soccer City Stadium, the centrepiece of the 2010 World Cup, for a quick photo opportunity. It is the biggest of the stadia used during the tournament and is now home to the Kaizer Chiefs, one of Johannesberg's and South Africa's most popular teams. The Chiefs were playing that afternoon against another local team, but as was pointed out by our driver, the train station next to the stadium which was the main hub during the world cup is now only open on certain popular match days and this was not one of them, making it nigh on impossible to safely get from our hostel to the ground and back again that evening.

After this we finally entered the Soweto district, first driving around some of the wealthier parts of the township where the houses could quite easily have been in any middle class area of any South African city. As well as the size and quality of the houses, very few had the high walls and fences we had seen in many other places, as the local neighbourhood watch scheme discouraged any crime in the area: as our driver said, if there was a crime taking place, the house owner would blow their security whistle and the neighbours would come round and 'sort out' anyone found robbing the house. Whether this involved said criminal leaving the house again was not clear. We looked across from this middle class area to the temporary accommodation on the other side of a small stream, where there were houses originally built in the earliest stages of the township that still did not provide running water or electricity. We continued on to the Orlando area where some of the townships more famous sites are, and stopped near the Hector Pietersen memorial for our lunch. This was described by our driver as what the locals would eat for their lunch. It was called a Kota and consisted of a hollowed out half loaf of bread (similar to the bunny chow in Durban) filled with chips, sour chilly sauce, fried egg, cheese and as much different sausage as you liked. After some considerable effort Patrick polished his off with 4 different types of sausage, and Ffion valiantly managed almost all of her 3 sausage kota.

We walked over the road from the cafe to our next museum, which focused on the Soweto riots of 1976, and was named after the first student killed, Hector Pietersen. Outside the museum was a series of monuments and significantly placed benches marking the places where shots were fired, protestors fell and blood ran into the river. Our driver gave us a quick introduction and we were given half a hour to try and see the information displayed in the museum itself. We learned from our experience earlier in the day and tried a much swifter speed, probably taking in less detail but at least managing to get an impression of the whole story, of apartheid regime policing firing into crowds of unarmed students and the students reacting in understandably panicked fashion. After this brief insight into the events of 1976 we continued our drive around the township, passing Winnie Mandela's house and the road of 2 nobel laureates' houses (Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela). We then moved on to the 'slum visit' part of the day, where we spent half an hour walking round one of the poorer areas of the township under the guidance of one of the locals. He showed us the inside of one of the shacks, complete with thin walls and corrugated iron roof. They have one stand pipe for the street and relied on generators for their electricity supply, although the standard of living looked much the same, if not better than in Bulungula. On our walk back to the car, we were surrounded by the local kids, many of whom were fighting to hold Patrick's hand. Unfortunately it seemed their main aim was to ask us for money or sweets, so we declined this but said that they should continue to go to school and always try their best. The drive back took us past the brightly painted cooling towers of the former Soweto power station, sponsored by the all powerful FNB bank, and we arrived back at the hostel just in time to watch the Chiefs/Swallows football match with some of the local workers from the hostel.

Our final 24 hours in South Africa was mostly spent thinking forward to the next stage of our travels and beyond and checking we had everything ready. And so on our final morning we set off to the airport and on to our third continent visit of the year!

Posted by ffionandpatrick 22:55 Archived in South Africa Comments (1)

Northern Drakensberg

In the Amphitheatre

sunny 28 °C

We got up early the next day and after a relatively short Baz Bus ride arrived at the Amphitheatre Lodge, so called because from the front door, and large swimming pool, there were fantastic views of the Amphitheatre mountains in the Northern Drakensberg range. The hostel runs two day trips and we were persuaded by the formidable owner / receptionist Ilsa to sign up for both.

Day one was a 'cultural tour' to Lesotho. The idea of squeezing another country into our itinerary and getting to see the Maluthi mountain range that separates Lesotho from South Africa appealed to us but we were dubious of the 'cultural tour' label from the outset. We set off at 7.30 with a large group of around 30 other tourists in two mini buses. After two hours of driving towards the mountain we started to climb up hill until we reached the mountain pass and the border crossing manned only by South African officials (and not many at that). After a sudden descent down a very windy road we arrived at a small baSotho village and were taken to the local school by the grade 6 teacher. Of the 30 odd on the tour we were the only teachers pets who were able to answer his four questions: what do you call this country? what do you call the people? what do you call the language? what is the name of the capital?

The tour started in earnest with a short walk to a forest where we were shown the grave of someone who had been struck by lightning. In baSotho culture anyone who has died in this way must be buried near water. After a packed lunch looking out over the striking Maluthi mountains we headed down into a 'cave' (more an overhang in the mountain) and saw some 'ancient' (from around 1500 AD) rock art. Barely visible were paintings of an eland, some springbok and a warning that 'people with long necks live to the West'. They're apparently the only examples of rock art left in the area and they won't last much longer as our guide was hitting the rock just by the paintings with his stick throughout his explanation. Following a short walk back down the hill to the village we stopped for a sample of the traditional basotho beer made from sorghum. It turned out to be very similar to the traditional Xhosa beer we had tried during our village tour in Bulungula, though to go with the theme of the day, our guide bought 2 large jugs for the group and after most people (not us) had taken a tiny sip, made an appalled face and handed it on, gave most of it back to the man who sold it to pass around what seemed like most of the rest of the village. We guessed this must be a regular occurrence as the villagers saw us coming and all came to the beerman's house. We than headed back to the minibuses to take us to the house of one of the local traditional healers (there were 2 in the village) who explained to us, via an interpreter, the process of becoming a healer: consultation with existing sangomas, dancing for the whole night with a chicken on your head etc. Again, our previous experience of talking to the locals in the wild coast took away the novelty of this meeting, and made us somewhat cynical about the way this tour was organized. Finally we stopped at the teacher's house on the way back to the border to sample some pap and some mass produced Lesotho beer (much the same lager as all the South African brands). After a bumpy 3 hour minibus ride back we returned pleased to have seen another country and some other rural ways of life but not entirely convinced of the positive impact of the trip either on us or the Basotho community.

Our second day trip was a guided mountain hike around the amphitheatre range, which again involved an early start and a long drive to the starting point. When we arrived at the Sentinel car park where our walk started from the cloud cover did not look particularly promising, but happy that we were well equipped with waterproofs and proper walking footwear (which is more than can be said for some of our fellow walkers who were in sandals and converse boots!) we set out. Thankfully the cloud rose at almost the same speed as we did and the views that emerged were great over the Maluthi mountain range we had driven over the previous day and the Royal Natal National Park looking southwards. We started with a slow steady climb for the first couple of hours before a short steep pull up a gorge to get us to our highest point of the day, over 3000m above sea level. From our lunch stop we could see among the drifting cloud the giant Sentinel rock jutting out of the end of the ridge, a sheer wall of over 400m, the rest of the amphitheatre peaks stretching round to our right and, occasionally, the kilometre drop straight over the edge of the cliff. Some members of the group sat eating their cheese sandwiches and boiled egg dangling their feet over the edge. We chose to sit a little further back! After lunch we made our way around the amphitheatre's top to the Tugela falls, the highest waterfall in Africa. As it is a series of waterfalls that take the stream from the top of the mountain down to the valley floor, no one drop seemed that far, but the combination of the initial large drop, the viewpoint that we stopped at and the distance down to the river below was pretty spectacular. The next section of the walk took us back across the flat top of the ridge to a series of chain ladders to start the descent back to the car park. People we had talked to about this particular part of the walk had given an impression of a serious fear factor and if we had chosen to take the ladder that was not pinned to the mountain it may have provided it, but as we both took the easier option and the drops were 9m and then 15m, the whole process was not nearly as terrifying as some people had suggested. The final descent followed the same path as the first part of the morning's walk, but as the cloud had now totally lifted we had some amazing views up to the tops that we had climbed earlier in the day. All together we thought that this trip seemed the better of the two, although we were thankful that the weather had held off as we thought it may have been an entirely different experience in mistier conditions.

We spent 2 more days at the hostel, mostly catching up with bits and pieces and making the most of the biggest swimming pool yet seen on the trip and one of the best views from any hostel lawn. During this time Ffion managed to read a whole book and Patrick got very sunburned shoulders!

Posted by ffionandpatrick 07:27 Archived in South Africa Comments (2)


sunny 30 °C

After an unpleasant day of travelling - over two hours in the bumpy 4x4 with a detour to the rubbish dump, a 3 hour wait at a service station and a 7 hour journey in the Baz Bus - we finally arrived at Durban. It's one of South Africa's biggest cities with a population of 3 million and has the largest Indian population of anywhere in South Africa.

We spent our first day walking from our hostel to the centre of town via the long Yousef Dadoo street in the Indian area. The street is home to the largest mosque in the Southern hemisphere which we managed to miss the first time we passed it because the ground floor is home to a variety of shops and the first floor has a number of houses embedded into the mosque. In a quiet park in the centre of town we were approached by a young man selling land line packages who tried to convince us that he could offer better deal that our contract with BT! We walked down to the harbour to visit an arts and craft centre and Patrick enjoyed seeing the many cargo ships using the busy harbour. We also visited the old train station that is now a shopping mall on our hunt for souvenirs.

On our second day we used the very efficient 'people mover' bus service down to the Moses Mabhida Stadium which is a stone's throw from the beach. We took the 'sky car' (like a funicular railway with only one, square, glass carriage) up to the arch which goes across the length of the stadium and had a great view of the whole city. Then we took the 45 minute version of the stadium tour and got to hear about what the stadium roof is made from (a special perspex material from Mexico so the sea water can't rust it) and why the seats are certain colours (to make it look like a beach and the sea but also to make it look like it's always full when on camera). We also got to see the state of the art changing rooms which included a jacuzzi and 10 ice baths! Patrick then broke his record for the longest shopping trip ever in the sports shirt shop which conveniently had a huge sale on.

We had only intended to spend 3 days in Durban but by the afternoon of the second day realised we'd need longer so extended our stay and spent our third day sorting out laundry and planning the rest of our trip. We also spent lots of time using the fast, cheap Internet you can only get in cities. On our fourth day we went to the Kwa Muhle museum, Durban's anti apartheid museum, which described how the pass laws worked and how the administrators in Durban took control of all beer halls 'to stop the Africans suffering from overconsumption of beer' but also to cripple the many African beer producers which had sprung up in the city. Compared to other museums we've visited this was small and a little uninspiring. That afternoon, however, we enjoyed visiting the Victoria Market which is a vibrant indoor market with stalls selling Indian spices, African trinkets and, crucially for us, camera battery chargers.

On our final full day (the Baz Bus to the Northern Drakensberg Mountains left at 7am the following morning) we decided to explore the sea front area. In Cape Town we left Table Mountain until the last day which proved to be a silly idea when we had to miss it because of the weather. Leaving the beach day in Durban until the last day was similarly ill fated as it rained for most of the day. Luckily Durban has 'one of the best aquariums in the world' so we set off to visit this instead. When we got there we found that the main aquarium was covered with a big cloth for some sort of maintenance and we had missed the dolphin show so we decided not to spend nearly 10 pounds on seeing some penguins waddle around. Fortunately the aquarium had a pleasant shopping and entertainment complex called uShaka around it and the rain cleared up so we were able to walk back to town along the beach. There was a lot of black, polluted looking sand on the way so we were actually not too sad about missing our beach day.

Ffion's friend Ntokozo from Atlantic College grew up in Durban and, after studying at AC and in the States, he's moved home and is working as a parliamentary officer for a minister in the KwaZulu Natal provincial cabinet. We were pleased to be able to spend three evenings with him, hearing his many stories about life in the political fast lane and reminiscing about times back at Atlantic College. He showed us a number of the city's evening hot spots - we went to a bar in the Sunshine Coast Casino complex which, although it looked as if it had been made for tourists, was apparently very popular with Durbanites, especially on match days at the nearby stadium. We also went to an 'English style pub' on top of a shopping centre that looked a lot like Sheffield's Meadowhall which boasted on the door that it had 'fine real ales'. Patrick asked the waiter which ales they had and he replied bluntly, 'none'. On our final night we visited the supposedly chic bar at the end of the uShaka pier but it was quite dead for a Friday night so we moved on to what Ntokozo called a 'European bar' where we laughed at white people swaying out of rhythm to pop songs from the mid nineties. Possibly our favourite evening experience was the night we were invited to share dinner with Ntokozo's family - his mum, sister and niece. Apparently his mum was going to cook spaghetti but Ntokozo persuaded her to change to a more 'traditional' menu so we had pap (ground melie meal which has the consistency of a thick porridge) with a delicious meat and vegetable stew. There are so many 'cultural experience' tours and township tours available in South Africa and we've decided not to go on any of them because what you get to see is inevitably created for the tourist market and will only ever give you an impression - possibly not even a correct one - of 'real life' in Africa. Although it might not seem very exciting eating pap and stew, watching Generations (the most popular soap opera) and praying with the family before they went to bed was an authentic and very enjoyable experience.

Posted by ffionandpatrick 09:03 Comments (1)

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