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Friday, August 27, 2010

Namibia, 7 years later…

I set out to the meeting point of my tour at about 7:45AM…I had made sure I knew exactly where I was going so had scouted out the place the day before. I didn't want to walk around with my entire luggage and get lost! At the entrance of the building, in the small lobby area, mountains of bags piled on top of each other. Walking upstairs, there was a small room and another adjoining room with about 30 or so people squeezing through, politely exchanging pleasantries. There seemed to be two groups assembling here and those of us who were 'camping' where instructed to go to the smaller adjoining room. A quick survey of the room, it didn't seem that our group was as 'young' as I was hoping it would be. I was told that most of these trips sponsored by Nomad, consisted of people between the ages of 20 and 40. Checked around, no potential bachelors either! Oh well.

My main purpose of doing this tour was that I really wanted to see the towns in the southern part of Namibia. If I didn't do this tour, my options were to take a 20 hour bus to Windhoek, the capital, then find day tours to go out to some of the places. Due to an almost non-existent public transportation system, I wouldn't be able to stop through some of these smaller towns. Additionally, Soussisvlei, one of the main highlights boasting commanding sand dunes, would also cost me at least $150-$300 to do for either a day trip or a weekend tour. So for almost $700, I pulled the trigger and decided that it was better if I joined the 6 night, 7 day tour that would take me and 22 others from the cities of Cape Town and Citrusdal in South Africa onwards to Fish River Canyon, Sossusvlei, Solitaire and Swakopmund. The tour would include tenting equipment, 3 meals a day, guides and some activities.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Final Days in the Cape...

After my EXCITING weekend getaway, I only had TWO days in the city...I had felt as if I really hadn't seen much though I had been in Cape Town for nearly two weeks. I didn't see much because I spent most of my days waiting for my paperwork to process my Russian Visa. Since I had signed up for the overland tour, I only had TWO days left to see whatever I hadn't yet seen in Cape Town.

The following day, Peter was kind enough to loan me his car again and I went back down to the Cape Peninsula. I got up early, 7ish, but perhaps I should have gotten up earlier. By the time I got there, it was nearly 9AM. I had also signed up for the Robben Island Tour that day which was scheduled for 1PM. I thought I'd save the Robben Island Tour for my last day but then I heard that many trips are canceled due to inclement weather and in Cape Town, you really didn't know. So I booked my ticket online and needed to make my way back to the Waterfront by 12:30PM. I also needed to allow myself extra time too since it was my first time driving there and I didn't know how the parking situation was going to be.

I spent about 1.5 hours or so at the Cape Peninsula which I felt wasn't enough. Well, maybe I saw enough but I didn't like the idea that I was rushing through and the idea of not getting my SAR75 value was probably what was killing me more. I was insistent on coming here because this is where I thought the two great Oceans meet: the Atlantic (US east coast) and Indian Oceans. I was surprised to find that this belief is incorrect. Many probably are led to believe this because it is actually the most southwestern part of the African continent. A bit westward, Cape Agulhas, is actually where they meet and it is said that it's an interesting sight with different shades of water meeting at a random point in the ocean, pushing against each other in different directions. A National Park, Cape Agulhas is only a stone's throw away from Betty's Bay and had I known that this was the real location, I would have, no question, stopped here. Oh well, I suppose I have to save some things for my return.

Cape Peninsula
Cape of Good Hope

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Kiss with Death

So one of my first sponsored events was my Shark Dive and again, none of this could have been possible without the very generous donation of my sponsor for this activity: Courtney Takai of Remax Honolulu and her family: husband, Ted (Royal Adventure Travel), Victoria (7), Madison (5), Jordan (2), Alexa (15 months) who I must say are the cutest hapa kids! Allow me to give a little background on my benefactor and her beautiful family.

Courtney and I met in the 5th grade when we were both in the same class; we’ve known each other since we were 10 which makes it more than 2/3 of our lives! When we were younger we would always share our dreams together and promised how each would be there for each other at the biggest moments of our lives…in high school, we mostly talked about the day we would get married. Back then, I was not bit by the traveling bug yet and could never imagine my life now. Courtney runs a very successful real estate business and of course I went to her to purchase my very first home. She was with me every step of the way and made sure that what I was getting was the best choice for me. It was actually because of her that I got my place because at the time I made an offer there were 4 other offers put on my home. Courtney wrote a very compelling letter to the owner and somehow it must have resonated with her because out of the 5 hopeful buyers, I (without the highest offer) was chosen. The best part about being her customer? The boundless level of customer service that she takes seriously; the THANK YOU gifts for being her customer don’t hurt either. So if you need to buy or sell a property, be sure to look her up; I’m sure you won’t have a hard time finding her as she has her beautiful picture in the yellow pages! But to make it easier for you: 561-8200.

My Solo Weekend Road Trip

I waited for Peter to come home from work on Friday and then I was to head off on my solo road trip for the weekend. You read articles about carjackings in South Africa, let alone I have no idea how to change a tire so I was really apprehensive to drive in the dark, in a foreign country, on the other side of the road, in a manual car. But I had an ambitious agenda ahead of me that I needed to leave Cape Town on Friday and so I had no choice but to leave after Peter got home from work, unless I wanted to pay to rent a car (we know the answer, you don't need to answer that)….

My friend Peter is soooooooooo nice and encouraged me to take his car; alternatively I was going to take a train to Stellenbosch but when I phoned Hermanus (the town where I am doing the shark dive); I was told that it is difficult to find transportation between the towns. Additionally, I would have to pay SAR100 ($13) if I wanted to get picked up from my backpacker's to the shark dive. I also wanted to drive to Franshhoek which is known for great French cuisine so it just made more sense that I drive than try to figure it out after I got there. So Peter got home around 5:45PM and he spent some time showing me my route and gave me great directions. I started out when it was still slightly lighted but within 15 minutes, it was dark! I managed to get into Stellenbosch okay, based on Peter's verbal directions but I didn't review a map of Stellenbosch so I didn't really know where I was supposed to go; I just knew that the place that I was staying at was close to the train station so I was trying to look for signs to the trains...I drove and drove then I finally see a gas station so I turn the street to go there but then I decide that I don't want to go there because then I will feel like I have to tip them and I don't have money to do that so I pull to the side to have a look at my map but then I think that it's not safe here on the side of a fairly busy road because people will notice me looking at a map and know that I have no clue where I am going! So I start my car again and then turn into the first left street. Pull over and take out my map/ I do that, I look up to the right and "Stellenbosch Traveler's Lodge" is written on the building to my right...that is the place that I am staying at! Can you BELIEVE that? How ridiculously amazing is that? Seriously, I had absolutely NO idea where I was going but I drove right up to it! I really felt at that moment that God was and continues to watch over me! I don't go to church nor do I affiliate myself with any one religion but I do believe in God and this trip has in some ways strengthen my faith in a higher power and I truly feel that I am constantly being protected and looked after; my gratitude in the blessings I receive are always in awe and endless.

So back to my weekend….Stellenbosch is most famous for their world class wineries and also the University of Stellenbosch has also established quite a reputation for itself. So I get into the lodge and of course everyone who comes to Stellenbosch must go on a wine tour! So upon arriving, I quickly decide that I will do the "Vine Hopper" tomorrow which is where a bus will take you around to the different wineries so that you can go for different tastings; it's late but I phone them to book my tour. But then I realize that the tour doesn't cover your wine tasting fees. So after thinking about it a little more decided that doing the tour is not really worth it because I need to leave by 2PM or so and will only have enough time to visit 2-3 wineries because they don't open until 10:15AM. With so little stops, I could really just drive myself to the wineries. So less than 24 hours later, I phone Vine Hoppers again to let them know that I won't be doing the tour anymore. Instead, I decide to call Jondre, the son of the Mossel Bay family, Pieter and Zelda, to see if he could recommend any wineries to me. He seemed excited to hear from me and said that he would like to take me to a couple of wineries but that he had to go to watch his younger brother play in his schools' rugby game right now. I hadn't seen a rugby game yet so I thought I would see if I could come along to watch Piet-low play. Jondre was surprised that I showed an interest and told me that Nicola (his girlfriend) would be coming to get me. Within 15 minutes she was there and it was nice to see a familiar face in a new town.

Jondre and Nicola both study here so they knew Stellenbosch very well and so we drove through the streets of Stellenbosch and before I knew it we were at the rugby field. We quickly picked up Lee, Jodre's older sister, the last family member that I had not yet met (she wasn't home the weekend that I was there visiting). So that was really exciting to complete the family picture! So, the 5 of us, Jondre, Nicola, Lee, Johanes (Lee's boyfriend), went to watch the rugby came. Shortly after we got there, out of nowhere comes Zelmarie and her boyfriend Constantine! They had also driven from Cape Town to watch Piet-low play. After standing around and talking for a bit, Zelmarie suggests we go to the other side to where her parents are. WHAT? Your parents are here too? How awesome is that? Since Zelda is such a busy lady, I didn't think she would be able to make it out to watch the game; Stellenbosch is about 3.5 hours away from Mossel Bay. It was nice to have the whole family with add-ons and me there supporting Piet-low! Unfortunately our presence didn't help much because Piet-low's team lost by 2 goals. Rugby is such a confusing game and very physical that it can be a bit difficult to watch.

After the game ended, we were on our way. Jondre, from what I gathered, made quite a name for himself as a rugby player (he's an alumni at his brother's school) and so he kept running into people that knew him. One of the guys that he saw was also from Stellenbosch so he asked his friend where would be a good winery to take me to. He suggested Uva Mira which was located right next to Ernie Els' winery…I thought that guy just golfed! Apparently he also has his own winery and by the way, he is from Mossel Bay! So Uva Mira was where we were headed and one thing that Jondre's friend was confident to tell us was that the view was amazing. We couldn't find it right away since it was far from the main streets and inland up on a hill. His friend was right though; when we got there we took in a spectacular sight of the ocean and the mountains behind us. We were given 4 wine tastings for SAR20 ($2.70) unless we decided to purchase something then our tastings would be complimentary. The wines that we tried were quite good (though I don't claim to know anything about wines!) and so I decided to purchase the first wine we tried plus another wine that was not available for tasting but this wine had won a 'Best in the World' award in 2006 so I ended up buying that as a gift for Peter and Claudette. Jondre was really tired, having pulled an all-nighter the night before so we decided to drop him off and Nicola would continue the wine tour for me. We only had time to do one more wine tasting though because I needed to be on my way and the couple had plans and needed to be somewhere in 45 minutes. So we quickly stopped at Tocara for some (free) wine tastings. The winery sounded a bit Japanese to me but found out that it was aptly named after the owner's children To = Thomas + Cara. Here the winery offered 6 complimentary wine tastings but since we ran out of time, we just did 2 and quickly hurried out. Nicola brought me back to my backpacker's and I checked email while I sobered up a bit. Then I was on my way to Hermanus via Franschhoek.

Franschhoek is known for the French Huguenots that settled in the area some hundreds of years ago and were popularly known for their great French influenced food and wine. Peter also told me about the drive here and that it was amazing if I would be able to go through the Franschhoek Pass as the view would be breathtaking. I mainly wanted to come here and have good food. I still often forget that I am now traveling on a budget traveler's budget but the first thing I think of is: I must try the food! So this time was no different. The drive was a cinch, mainly thanks to Nicola who pointed out the road I would be driving on and the direction that Franschhoek was. Within 20 minutes, I pulled into a town with people out in the streets, sitting in parks having wine, listening to music. I had come to town on the day of the "Bastille Day Festival". The French holiday also took place on Thursday but they were celebrating on Saturday and the town was filled with energy, color and aromas! I wanted to sit down and have lunch but it was nearly 4:00PM and I needed to be on my way because I would be spending the night in Hermanus that night and didn't want to travel at night if I could help it. I quickly noticed a "SAR30 parking" sign and although I thought it was more than I was willing to pay, I knew that I would be wasting time that I didn't have driving around for parking and I would be crazy to think that there would be cheaper parking elsewhere so I pulled in. The parking attendant tells me 'SAR20 for parking after 3PM! So that was a nice surprise that I wasn't expecting!

After parking, I made small talk with the parking attendant and asked him where he thought I should go to eat. I had gotten a recommendation from Nicola's uncle who was actually there but according to the parking attendant, he thought there were other restaurants that were better. So I ended up going to the one that was started by a local chef who went to train in France and ties in some South African influences into his dishes. They were actually serving festival food so I ended up having their dessert – crepe with orange liqueur and Chantilly cream; no it wasn't as good as it sounded. I didn't have time already because it had taken me almost 20 minutes to find the restaurant and then another 10 minutes to wait for my food. So I decided that I should try to make my way back and see if I could pick up anything along the way. I walked back towards the car but didn't notice anyone else selling festival food. I found the restaurant that Nicola's uncle had recommended so I went to check out their menu. When I went in to ask how long the food took, the lady apologized and said that they were already closed and would reopen in about an hour or so. I thanked her and decided to go back to the first restaurant and try their BBQ steak roll. It wasn't until I was walking back to the car the second time that I noticed some festival food across the street! Before leaving town, I decided to see if I could stop at the Tourist Information to get directions to Hermanus since I wasn't really sure how to get there. The girl there gave me very good directions (except for a part where I thought I made a wrong turn) and I was able to have a beautiful drive through the Franschhoek Pass and even see Baboons in the wild on the side of the road! The only hard thing about driving by yourself is that you really can't take photos and so I was randomly sticking my camera hoping that I'd get lucky and snap a beautiful photo even though I couldn't see what I was taking.

I arrived in Hermanus a little after sundown, around 6:30PM; my timing couldn't be any better because I got to see the beautiful African sunset as I made the drive. This time I didn't get so lucky and didn't pull up to my backpackers so needed to call and find out how to get there but fortunately I was only a mile or so away. I pulled in and was warmly greeted by the staff. The guy who checked me in was super laid back and gave me directions to my shark dive the following morning. Through Coast to Coast, I had found this shark dive tour for SAR995 ($131.15) which included a free dorm bed at this backpackers that I was checking into along with a light breakfast, lunch, alcohol and the shark dive. I thought it was a good deal! I would be going out on a boat and then jumping into the freezing Indian Ocean as I would be put in a cage and watch Great White Sharks pass us. They also have something like this offered in Hawaii but the shark feedings that happen off the shores of Haleiwa are not with the Great White. So this was something to write home about!

After my early morning shark dive, I would be heading back toward Cape Town and hopefully if time permitted, would try to go around the Cape Peninsula which is home to Cape Point and where most people believe the Indian and Atlantic Ocean meet. I would have to navigate all of this on my own in South Africa. So far this weekend has been extremely exciting and I still can't believe that I did all this driving on my own!