Confusing airports, looonnnng lines, varying degrees of security procedures, waiting around, being in the middle seat on a long flight, airplane food, lost luggage. These are the not so glamorous parts of traveling, and probably the least talked about, but it’s all part of the journey. After skipping about 1,000 people in line at the Barcelona airport in an effort to catch our flight, we ended up just sitting on the plane waiting for the others still stuck in line to board. The gate waited an hour past their supposed “closing time” to actually close, which obviously is very fortunate for the people who were stuck in line. All that embarrassing pleading to skip ahead for nothing. However, we felt like it was well worth it and better than being stuck in line racked with stress.
The flight was an easy 4 hours to Cairo, Egypt. Arriving at around 8pm, we had a 3 hour layover before our redeye to Johannesburg. With plenty of time to spare we stood in the next awaiting line with no pressure. My eyes were intoxicated with the people of this new and different culture. I liked seeing the distinct way of dressing here in the Middle East. For me, this is one of the most fascinating parts of traveling - seeing how people clothe themselves. Men were in long, almost flashy dresses. Well actually they’re called, “thobes.” Women were classically covered as well. In this setting, I’m the one that’s different, and it’s interesting to feel this way.
As we approached the X-ray scanner, Andre and I both noticed a sign forbidding the usual like weapons and explosives, but this sign also warned of “NO DRONES.” Andre and I looked at each other with big, concerned eyes. The family in line before us was also on their way to South Africa and had along with them binoculars. This was another strange, but forbidden item. Security personnel went through every single one of their bags after finding their binos. Both our hearts were silently pounding as we walked through the metal detector. I chanted ‘nam myoho renge kyo’ the whole time that we would make it through without any issues, and I’m sure Andre was doing some kind of silent invocation of his own. I went first, whew, no problems! I smiled and thanked the security guy slightly trying to distract him. Andre’s camera bag went through, came out the other end, and he said, “Is this yours? I need to open it.” Oh god, our hearts were beating even faster now. He looked through the compartments, opened the zipper pouch of cords, picked up the controller, put it back, and said, “Ok.” Ah! I took my first breath in who knows how long. We acted cool as we walked away, feeling like “the force” was strong with us.
We wanted to grab a bite to eat before our 9 hour flight to South Africa, but we didn’t see any restaurants. Then before we knew it, we found ourselves at yet another security line and screening. Each gate had it’s own unique security screening. Once through, there’s no leaving. There’s also no provisions. Airplane dinner it’ll have to be, again.
We did our best to sleep as much as possible on the 8 hour flight. Earplugs + a good eye mask + neck pillows + melatonin = our preferred recipe for getting some shut eye on a long flight.
We arrived in Joburg, only slightly groggy, and soon found ourselves funneled into yet another long line of security. Is this really necessary? We’ve been through 3 different security lines and haven’t even changed underwear, only to be screened again just to transfer to a domestic flight. Ughh! After an hour in line, we made our way to baggage claim because we were told to pick up our bags and recheck them to Cape Town. There was a pile of luggage that had been collected and pulled off the belt all from our plane, but our bags were no where in sight. It’s honestly one of the worst feelings while traveling - not seeing your bag appear on the carousel, and contrarily, one of the best when it does come rolling down that belt. We walked to the Egyptian Air gate to find out where in the world our bags were. The agent looked up our tag numbers and found them sitting and waiting for us back in Cairo. The unpleasant ticket agent back in Barcelona didn’t check our bags through to South Africa, but we learned a HUGE lesson from this!
ALWAYS CHECK TO MAKE SURE THAT YOUR BAGS ARE TICKETED TO ARRIVE AT YOUR FINAL DESTINATION!
The agent assured us we should have them by the following day and that they would be delivered to our Airbnb, but to call at 8am and make sure they get on the plane to Cape Town. We breathed a sigh of relief.
Renting a car while in Cape Town was recommended to us, so we decided to give it shot. Andre was the brave soul who piloted us around, trying not to crash while adjusting to driving on the left side. Andre is always a calm, stress free driver, but this was the first time I’d seen him actually freaking out as we crossed intersections and turned into what always felt like oncoming traffic. Fortunately we made it to our Airbnb in one piece. Our host Liz warmly welcomed us to our new home for the next week. With half a day left in Cape town, we decided to catch the glorious sunset at Camps Bay.
The following morning we called the airline and found out there would be no flight to Cape town that day and we should receive our bags the day after that. We’d already spent half a day sightseeing in Barcelona during a heat wave, got lost in the subway system trying to get to the airport, spent a full day flying, and now we’d have to spend another day in our same clothes. Well at least it made choosing what to wear that day easy. We didn’t let it hold us back though, and were most excited to get out and see beautiful Cape Town!
We decided to take advantage of the good, sunny weather, and drive down around the Western cape. Andre had to buy a jacket since it’s winter here and we didn’t have our bags. That’s one thing about around-the-world traveling is you won’t be able to hit the perfect weather or season for every single destination. Some places will be summer and then you hop on a plane for a few hours, and arrive somewhere it’s winter. It definitely makes packing more of a challenge, but sometimes it’s nice to have a break from the heat, or cold.
Our journey began heading toward Muizenberg. It’s a cute beach town, reminiscent of Laguna Beach with spectacular views of False Bay. We stopped at the top of the cliff overlooking Muizenberg Beach and the bay. Andre wanted to fly the drone here, so while he did that, I went for a little walk along the bike path. I saw a “Shark Watchers” stand which immediately intrigued me. I found out that all over Cape Town along the coastline there are these Shark Watchers stationed to watch for sharks in common swimming areas and then sound an alarm if they spot one. I spoke to the woman in the booth for a little bit and she pointed out some whales in the distance to me. I went and told Andre where the whales were and he was able to find them with Stormur. It was a pod of Southern Right Whales. Beautiful, large cetaceans with a very small dorsal fin and distinguishable white calluses on their heads. It was pure magic seeing these beauties from Stormur’s point of view! We didn’t want to leave! But this was only our first stop and we had a long day of sightseeing ahead of us.
We hopped back in the car and continued driving along the gorgeous coast line. Shortly thereafter, “Baboons!” A family troop of baboons was leisurely parked on the side of the highway enjoying an afternoon snack of leaves while the youngsters played and chased each other around. A group of cars was pulled over to photograph the irresistible sight. Apparently the baboons can be quite clever and sometimes aggressive, so take precaution in approaching them and lock your car doors. We were scolded at for getting out of the car to photograph the baboons, but from our experience the baboons could have cared less about us humans.
Our next stop was Boulder’s Beach, a famous African Penguin reserve. Not only are the penguins an attraction, but the reserve itself is beautiful. Bright, white sand lining turquoise water flowing in and around huge granite boulders! This destination can get quite crowded, but it’s worth the patience to see these cute little critters! The park has installed nesting huts all around the area for the Penguins, so it’s easy to catch a glimpse of these guys from egg, to hatchling, to Baby Blues, to juveniles and adults. The penguins were in fact two different animals. On land they are cute and slow, awkward waddlers that could easily pass as a toy, yet once in the water, they become these fast, agile fish like swimmers. It’s like Clark Kent before and after the outfit. We couldn’t get enough of these curious feathered beings, but we had to keep going.
As we continued to drive south, we entered the Cape Peninsula National Park. The park extends from Signal Hill and Table Mountain in Cape Town, all the way to the southern peninsula. It’s a beautiful stretch of land rich with wildlife! We saw ostriches, gazelles, cormorants, dassies, and seals in addition to the whales, penguins, and baboons we saw earlier. It was like going on safari! We drove out to the renowned lighthouse and spent at least an hour hiking and playing around the area. It was so windy! It was comical watching the birds take off and land on the cliffside against the wind. We held Kiki’s South Africa ceremony overlooking Africa’s edge near where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. After that we drove down to the water’s edge and marveled at how hundreds and hundreds of graceful cormorants flew in never ending flocks right above the surface of the water dodging the big crashing waves. It was mesmerizing.
The rest of the drive was absolutely fascinating. We drove through stunning wooded areas, past ostrich farms, along the wild coastline through small, rural towns, and even drove by some very modest villages. Our goal was to make it to Chapman’s Peak Drive over looking Hout Bay for the sunset. However, we were a little late and only caught the last bit of the setting sun. We had dinner nearby, then continued on home. What a fun, beautiful, and adventurous day!
Alas, after 78 hours, some sweating, concern, and frustration, our bags and a few more clothing options returned home to us!
The next few days were pretty rainy and gray so we spent some much needed down time catching up on writing and other projects. We also spent that time exploring some of the cuisine in Cape Town. With a conservative budget we kept our dining choices and experiences to $-$$. Our favorites we Madam Taitou’s - an Ethiopian restaurant that’s equally as delicious as it is eccentrically decorated. Andre described it as an odd amalgamation of a jungle, a market, and someone’s home. We also discovered a place called the Indian Bazaar. Inside was a long row of various Middle Eastern and Asian stalls. How it works is you find a stall you like, get in line to wait your turn, order what you want, then they give you a number, and you wait for your food. We wanted to try a little of everything so we ordered one thing from 4 different stalls so we could sample a bit of it all. Little did we know, each order came with a full plate of sides! We ended up with an embarrassing amount of food for just two people. In the end, we were able to stuff ourselves and fill four to go boxes to feed people on the street all for $16! But the best meal we had in Cape Town was at the #1 rated restaurant on Trip Advisor - Mzansi. This little humble spot resides in a township. The townships were established during the apartheid era for “non-whites” and are a symbol of South Africa’s segregated past. Still to this day they remain underdeveloped and are seen by many as unsafe. We followed the GPS directions to Mzansi, but when we arrived we didn’t see any restaurant looking establishments. Every building looked like a house. We weren’t even sure if we were in the right place. Some friendly kids came up to our car and asked if we were looking for Mzansi. We said yes and they said, “You’re here!” and helped us park. We were escorted through a gate inside one of the houses. Upon entering, Nomonde, aka “Mama” greeted us with the warmest smile and a huge hug! It was like she had been waiting for us and greeted us like we were old friends. We sat down and waited for dinner to start. Dinner is served buffet and family style. An array of dishes are offered and all guests sit at one long table. You’re encouraged to get to know your neighbor, usually someone from another country, and also to get up and help yourself to drinks at the bar. This is your home when you’re here. After stuffing ourselves with delicious home cooked African dishes, Mama tells her story of how this unpresuming restaurant in the middle of a township came to be Trip Advisor’s #1 restaurant in Cape Town. I won’t spoil it for you, you’re just going to have to go and experience it for yourself! (But if you’re dying to know, then ask me and I’ll tell you!) The night rounds off with local musicians of all ages playing instruments and singing for you, they even let you come play with them. It was an unforgettable experience and one that leaves a stamp on your heart forever.
There is so much to do and see in Cape Town. We walked through The Company’s Garden which had singing and dancing groups performing, beautiful landscaping and art, people and children of all walks of life out for a stroll in the park. Tables were set up displaying handmade goods for sale next to bags of peanuts to feed the fattened squirrels. We also took a free tour in honor of Women’s Day at the Slave Lodge Museum. And of course a trip to Cape Town isn’t complete without seeing Bo Kaap - the Malay neighborhood well known for its rows of brightly colored, whimsical homes.
Here in South Africa we finally enjoyed some real coffee! Carefully selected, locally roasted, perfectly brewed beans were a luscious indulgence. We plan on making a whole episode about how difficult it is to get good coffee while traveling. It's a real problem.
Soon we’ll be on our way to Drakenstein Lion Park, our volunteering opportunity here, but before we go we had to take a sunset hike up Lion’s Head to admire the city and say goodnight to the life giving star in our sky.
Drakenstein Lion Park is about 40 minutes outside of Cape Town in an area called Paarl, which, as you guessed it, means “pearl.” Wide open countryside at a slight elevation makes this region great for growing grapes and thus making wine! Mmm South African wine is fine!
Nants ingonyama bagithi baba! “Ummm what,” you say? Those are the opening lyrics from the famous song “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. Come on, you know you’ve belted it out at sometime in your life. The words translate to “Here comes a lion!” We arrived at the lion sanctuary wide eyed and giddy at just the thought of getting close to these magnificent creatures. Work at the park is done like clockwork bootcamp. We slept in cold cement dorms, cooked all our food in the dorm kitchen, picked up lion poop every morning, plucked and gutted dead chickens, and fed and cared for the other resident critters like mini goats, llamas, 2 miniature horses, 3 caracals, chimps, marmosets, parrots, capuchins, and a spoonbill who loved to devour raw chicken. A nearby zoo had gone bankrupt and so the lion park took in all the animals from the zoo.
It was hard work at the park - in the rain, in the sun. But I cherished every moment because it was a complete honor just to be in the presence of and work for these marvelous expressions of life, the kings and queens of the jungle, the Lions. Wow. What breathtaking beauties. I swear I could just sit and stare at them all day, but I would have been yelled at by the drill sergeants. I’m only, half kidding.
This sanctuary exists because lions face a host of threats to their livelihood. As some of you may know, thanks to the viral death of Cecil the lion, that people come to South Africa, pay tons of money to have their shot, pun intended, at shooting a lion so as it stuff it and display it’s lifeless body in their home. It’s a sick and twisted industry. Some places have the audacity to call themselves a sanctuary, but under the guise are actually breeding lions in the name of conservation only to then sell the males when they get too big and aggressive to the canned hunting operations. If you’re interested in seeing a poignant documentary about this cruel business, watch “Blood Lions.”
Why anyone would rather see these large cats dead than alive is beyond me. They are regal, silly and playful, loving, tenacious, smart, wise old souls of the earth. Within just a couple days of working here I felt a new form of fighter growing, growling inside me. We have to spread the word! We have to be voices for the voiceless! We have to roar against the horrors that humans inflict upon these gifts of life! Canned hunting is only one of the horrible threats that face lions. Circus training is another. There are lions at the park that have had their claws ripped out as punishment, have been confined to a cage for the first 6 years of their life; Brutus is permanently disfigured by a circus trainer who clubbed him in the face. Fortunately all the lions at this true sanctuary get to live out the rest of their lives in cushy peace. Some of the lions have also been rescued from the wildlife pet trade. In many Middle Eastern countries, it’s a symbol of wealth to own large, wild animals. Yes they’re adorable and cuddley when they’re baby cubs, but then they grow up, but don’t grow out of their wild instincts and they become a risk. At that point most “owners’ jail the poor creatures. Each lion here has his or her own unique story of survival. A story of suffering at the hands of some, but then triumphing in the hands of others. If you could do your part by being the hands of triumph as opposed to suffering, then I urge you to educate yourself on this manner. Research, research, research any wildlife camp that calls themselves a sanctuary, ask questions, find out if they really are caring for and protecting the animals, or if they’re really being used for monetary gain. Unfortunately this is the sad state of many so called sanctuaries. Any place that keeps wild animals must be scrutinized. This goes for lions, tigers, elephants, and crocodiles too. I don’t like to tell people what to do, but in this case, do not visit places that allow you to hold lion cubs, do not ride elephants, do not have your picture taken with tigers, do not support reptile farms which overcrowd their spaces and then slaughter the animals for fashion products. Please and thank you. Stepping down from my soap box now…
Despite the gritty hard work at the lion park, I was sad leaving this place. I like to think I formed a connection to the lions, but in reality I probably just expanded my appreciation for them. With one final walk around the park, acknowledging and admiring these majestic manifestations, I wept and said my goodbyes. I wished them all happy, healthy lives, and vowed in my heart to speak out in their honor.
Each lion has it's own unique story of triumph in making it to the park. For as little as $0.20/day you can adopt a lion which will cover an entire year of care. To donate, please click here!
South Africa Part 2, coming sometime!