January Travelogue (Part II of III)

Durban and Inauguration in Cape Town

Our first full day in South Africa started bright and early. We had continental breakfast at our hostel and then headed out to a Zulu village visit, arranged through Tekweni Ecotours. The village wasn’t far outside of the city, but involved driving through the Valley of a Thousand Hills, a beautiful country (even if the twisting roads did induce a little motion sickness).

Looking out over one of a thousand valleys

Looking out over one of a thousand valleys

I was afraid the village tour would be touristy and invasive, but it wasn’t; we had a guide who lived in the village and showed us around. None of the cultural practices were explained very clearly for a Western audience, but it was interesting to see how the Zulu live and work now. The clash of modern South African cultural with traditional Zulu culture was clear, as most of the Zulu men work in Durban and return to their villages outside the city on the weekends. Most Zulu homesteads are built into the hillside and have several buildings; a rondovel for the kitchen, rondovels or square houses for the living quarters, and an outhouse.  Cattle have traditional importance for the Zulu, and at the center of each homestead is the kraal, similar to a corral.  Our tour consisted of walking around the village, seeing various places of cultural and religious importance, making a “love bracelet” from the river reeds, and eating a traditional Zulu meal.

Zulu cuisine is similar to what’s available in Malawi; the main component of the meal is a maize meal starch. The Zulu version is grainer and less sticky than nsima, and more difficult to clump together. I also thought it was not as highly processed as the flour used to make nsima, but it may have been a trick of the different texture. We tried an array of Zulu vegetables: spinach, a tomato gravy, a cabbage dish, and some pumpkin. I enjoyed the cabbage dish and asked how to make it. I don’t remember everything, but one of the main ingredients was an onion soup mix (the packet kind), which I thought didn’t seem very traditional at all!

Fanta, a traditional Zulu drink?

Fanta, a traditional Zulu drink?

After lunch, we admired some beadwork and watched a dance performance by some of the children in the village. They were adorable. Elizabeth and I were invited in turn to join, so we did. I somehow managed to look like I was doing the can-can instead of the Zulu kicks!

A Zulu kick?

A Zulu kick?

We spent the late afternoon and evening in Durban, and walked around the neighborhood (Morningside) where we were staying. Though Durban proper is said to be dangerous, the suburbs are somewhat safer and our hostel was in neighborhood with a mix of residential and commercial buildings. We had a glorious grocery store experience at a Super Spar, where I observed that all groceries are about 1/3 the price in South Africa that they are in Malawi. To add insult to injury, much of the food available in the two places is the exact same thing, as Malawi imports the majority of its food products from South Africa. Dinner was at a small Thai restaurant, where we were impressed with the price (less than a dollar!) and quality (pretty good) of the house wine available in South Africa.

Saturday was another early morning, as we departed at 7 AM for a game drive in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Nature Reserve, about 3 hours north of Durban. We had booked a weekend trip with Amatikulu Tours. In retrospect, we could have saved a lot of money by renting a car and doing the drive on our own, but I was expecting Malawian quality roads instead of the near-US quality roads South Africa has. Our guide was good, too, and filled in a lot of gaps in our knowledge of South African history, Zulu culture, and game animals. For those of you unfamiliar with the game reserve concept, it’s basically a large parcel of land set aside (and fenced in) for animals; ideally, the animals are native to the area and not introduced or reintroduced, though maintaining this balance within a fenced reserve is a challenge. Since the animals are in their (more or less) natural habitat, sightings are not guaranteed like they are in a zoo. One drives around, tries this path or that, and hopefully sees something good.

Male Nyala

Male Nyala

Indeed, we did see a lot of animals in the park, including giraffe, impala, buffalo, kudu, nyala, zebra, warthog, baboon, monkey, wildebeest, rhinos and many bird species. Sadly, we didn’t see any elephants or cats; I’m hoping to remedy that with a visit to South Luangwa (just over the Malawian border with Zambia) later this spring. We spent the night at the misnamed “Hilltop Camp,” which actually involved sleeping in a very lovely chalet and eating professionally prepared meals. It was here that I had my first encounter with a hair dryer since arriving in Africa in September. (It’s the little things.)

Rhinos

Rhinos

Sunday morning started with a 5 AM game drive, but the weather was misty and then rainy – not prime animal viewing conditions. After breakfast and some more driving later in the morning, we left the park for the St. Lucia Estuary, home to many hippos and crocodiles. We took a 2 hour boat ride through the estuary and saw fish eagles and Goliath herons, as well as many hippos! Don’t worry, the boat was large and competently captained. Hippos are the most deadly animal in Africa, but apparently the most dangerous place to be is on land, between a hippo and the water. We escaped without hippo incident and headed back toward Durban. The evening was pretty quiet; we had dinner nearby and both spent a little internet time assuring our families that we were still alive.

Hippos

Hippos

Monday, our last day in Durban, was spent exploring the city itself. We started out around 9 AM with a money-changing adventure; Elizabeth had brought US dollars and wanted to change them to South Africa rand. In Malawi, this is a pretty simple process, and a lot of change bureaus don’t even charge a commission. I was expecting a similar situation in South Africa, which was obviously not the case. Suffice it to say that after two hours, two banks and one mall, money was eventually changed, and we headed for the beach. Durban is on the Indian Ocean and a popular surf location; the water is much warmer than the Atlantic around Cape Town and on the west coast. Durban is a popular holiday destination for international travelers to South Africa, but has been eclipsed by Cape Town since the mid 90s. Thus, the beach was fairly well-developed, but not overcrowded.

Indian Ocean and Durban skyline

Indian Ocean and Durban skyline

We meandered down the boardwalk until we got to uShaka Marine World, reportedly the 5th largest aquarium in the world. Perhaps there’s a big shelf between the top four and uShaka, as neither Elizabeth nor I was terribly impressed. We watched part of a dolphin show, toured the aquarium, and caught a seal show that only featured seals as minor characters in a drama about saving the environment. It was well intentioned, but are people who paid $10 to get into an aquarium really the ones clubbing baby seals, anyway? Doubtful.

Jellyfish at the uShaka Aquarium

Jellyfish at the uShaka Aquarium

Next we headed towards Durban’s city center and the Victoria Street Market, which turned out to be more like a mall for tourists than a real African market. Regardless, we bargained our way to some nice souvenirs there and tried “bunny chow,” a Durban delicacy that involves curry inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread. It’s actually tastier than it looks, and as an added bonus, cost only $1.30. We wandered the streets around the market, which mostly housed (surprise!) more markets, these targeted more to the South African population. We also saw the outside of the Jumah Mosque, the largest in the southern hemisphere, but were too late to go inside. We headed back toward the hostel and spent a few hours chilling out before we went for dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant. Durban has the largest population of Indians living outside India and Pakistan; the British originally imported them (under colonial rule) as hired labor for sugar plantations and many stayed and built lives for themselves.

Vegetarian bunny chow

Vegetarian bunny chow

On Tuesday, Inauguration Day in the United States, we flew from Durban to Cape Town, arriving at our hotel around noon. Our Cape Town accommodation was on Long Street, a lively area of town, in the Daddy Long Legs Art Hotel. Each room in the hotel was decorated by a different Capetonian artist, and it is both quirky and awesome. Instead of traditional mints, there were complimentary rolls of Mentos on our pillows and free for the taking in the lobby. We definitely consumed more Mentos over the next few days than either of us had previously had in our entire lives.

Hotel stairway (more interesting than most)

Hotel stairway (more interesting than most)

We spent our afternoon walking Long Street and visiting the Greenmarket Square craft market, where each vendor tried to convince us, in turn, that they would give us the best price. Actually, vendors were far less aggressive than at the Lilongwe market, which was nice and made the experience more manageable. Having more-or-less skipped lunch in favor of Mentos, we had an early dinner. Nate (previously visiting Malawi, now back in Cape Town) joined us and we staked out an Irish pub showing Obama’s Inauguration. Though it certainly wasn’t the same as being in DC, it was quite moving to watch, from the African continent, our first African American president take the oath of office. Many friends and family members have sent me links to photos and articles, and among the best were this photo spread from The Boston Globe and this art piece from The New York Times, which I think nicely captures some of the joy and wonder of the day.

Nate watches Obama take the oath

Nate watches Obama take the oath

After toasting Obama, Elizabeth headed back to the hotel and Nate and I went to a folk concert put on by an acquaintance of his.  It was nice to see live music again, but I definitely felt like an old person:  I was ready to crawl into bed when I got back to the hotel after midnight!  But a good night’s rest was necessary, since Cape Town had a whirlwind of activities in store for us in the coming days.  (Part III, coming soon.)

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One Response to “January Travelogue (Part II of III)”

  1. Rachel Says:

    Oh what an amazing trip Amy! Although…I still don’t think I would want to be anywhere near those hippos.

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