Tag Archives: Bill McKay travel africa

Trip to Southern Africa 2013/2014

I’m off on my third big Africa trip. I’ll be gone through Christmas 2013 and New Years 2014. I once took the ferry from Gibraltar to Morocco, which technically is in Africa, and I’ve been to Egypt, but no one thinks of Africa when they think of those two countries. Two years ago, I hit the west coast of Africa, countries like Ghana, Benin, Togo, Nigeria, Gambia and Senegal. Last year I hit the eastern countries like Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Tanzania. Now I’m heading to southern Africa, hitting 8 or 9 new countries as my goal. I’m totaled at 132 right now after getting four recently in the Caribbean during Thanksgiving week, aboard the only 5-masted and largest sailing ship in the world, the Royal Clipper. With luck, I’ll return home after this trip at 140. It’s taken me about 40 years to reach that total.


I’m such the seasoned world traveller, that I start talking to someone on the tram beneath Dulles Airport, and miss my stop. This is Dulles Airport’s tram area, representing the first mistake I made of my trip, and I’m not even out of my own hometown (the pictures get better, believe me).

I fly Air France to Paris for my connection. I have a 14-hour layover, so I’m definitely going into Paris to have lunch and walk around, that’s a done deal, but when we land in Paris, it’s cold and rainy, and I’ve only had a few hours sleep, so I can’t bring myself to leave the airport. Paris is a no-go, but I have a coupon for a free stay in the United Airlines lounge. I’ll eat, drink, and sleep there; it’ll be great, like a mini-vacation within my vacation. I research online that the lounge is now rolled into its partner airline in a different terminal. I leave for the other terminal looking forward to a pampered day in the lounge. Sometimes it seems hard in an airport to find a convenient bathroom, I find the bathroom, and the closer I get, the more my brain and body know I’m going to get relief, so the more I have to go, and just as I reach the door, ready to burst, it’s always the same type looking lady that has closed the bathroom; short, stocky, older, with a scowl which you know means there’s no way you’re getting into that bathroom, even though now you have to go worse than ever. I’m forced to use the nearby handicap bathroom.

It’s an American hobby to hate the French whenever possible, sometimes justified. I agonize for an hour by bus, arduously to another bus, waiting in a security line, to make it to the other terminal. Finally I’m there. I proudly present my coupon. The woman apologizes, but the coupon is only valid in the United States. I shake my head. I fight all the way back to where I started, almost another hour. By the time I leave for South Africa, my butt hurts from sitting, and I’m cold with no jacket. It’s so easy to hate the French. (And they act more like Americans than Americans do, very badly, with even less justification for doing so.)

IMG_0695We take off. A woman on my flight asks if I’d change seats so she could sit with her family. I say yes. The accompanying stewardess tells me my seat is “upstairs.” Wha? Huh? Turns out, I did not even realize that the Airbus I’m flying on, has two full levels. Feels very strange as I walk upstairs via a spiral staircase. You can see the two walkways off the plane, one for each level. Likewise in my National Geographic magazine I see later in the trip, on the last page called Found, where they show an old picture, I see a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser from the late 50’s, the largest most luxurious plane of the time, taxiing over the Van Wick Expressway at JFK Airport, (then called Idlewild), with part of the caption, “A circular staircase led to a downstairs beverage lounge.” Boy am I behind the times, really need to get with it on the double-decker plane idea.

IMG_0712I arrive in South Africa, country #133. It’s Christmas Eve. A good friend has hooked me up with someone from South Africa, that they met by playing Farmville via Facebook, that’s given me a great tip by recommending I stay near the airport at the Empress Palace casino complex. It’s a free shuttle from the airport, which is quite handy. Always nerve-wracking to deal with cabs at the airport, they know you’re at their mercy, brain-dead, new to town, unsure of the money, naïve, weak.

IMG_0702It’s early enough in the day to hire a cab to take me to Soweto, to see Nelson Mandela’s house. He lived there back before he spent 27 years in prison. He spent his first 11 days of freedom at this house as well. Interestingly, Desmond Tutu, just happened to have lived down the street. Nowhere else in the world, did two Nobel Laureates just happen to live in the same neighborhood.



We drive nearby to Freedom Square, in honor of the country’s constitution written near there by the ANC.




This is the back of Freedom Square.




This doesn’t look like much, but Mandela Square is a big deal in Johannesburg (lots of shops and restaurants), in the middle of their upscale district. I have a beer at the new Hard Rock Café, as it’s the only thing still open on Christmas Eve with outdoor seating that’s not crowded.

I fly the next morning Christmas Day to Livingstone in Zambia, country #134, named after the famous Dr. Livingstone, the first non-native to see Victoria Falls (maybe you remember the old black and white movie, with Spencer Tracy as Stanley, being sent by an American newspaper, to find Dr. Livingstone, who had disappeared for five years into the belly of Africa, whereupon finally finding him, speaks the famous line, “Dr. Livingstone I presume”). Upon landing, walking across the tarmac, I speak to someone who grew up there, who has returned for a wedding, and he tells me I’ve made a mistake, to have a hotel reservation across the river in Zimbabwe. He says I’ll have a hassle at the border, will have to walk a bit, to get another taxi. He says Zimbabwe is doing better but still bad (I know all about Mugabe, he’s 95, and has been a dictator there for eons, he kicked all the Whites off their land, and the economy has collapsed ever since). I panic, and instead, take a cab to an exclusive hotel on the Zambia side that I’ve read about, that connects by a free path to Victoria Falls. They’re fully booked, but she finds me a room somehow anyway, which is surprising as it’s now Christmas Day, a prime summer holiday. Wow. Lucky. I go online to Hotels.com to cancel my three day stay across the river, knowing I’ll have to still pay for the first day, but my account shows they’ve taken money for all three days already, and there’s no way to cancel. I’m stuck. I send an email to my cousin, asking him to call Hotels.com from the States. I’m surprised when I get an email confirmation that the money for all three days has been refunded. Wow. Lucky.



Yes, these zebras were hanging out, just outside my hotel room. As I took the picture, a woman employee yelled out, “Watch out, they kick!”



PlugOne of the smarter things I did for the trip, was to investigate what kind of electrical plugs they used here. I was lucky to have just enough time to order one online. Then I also went and bought a U.S. triple plug, so I could charge three things at one time. I’ll continue to use this orange triple plug when I travel in the U.S., and wonder why I have not thought of buying one years before, to simultaneously charge multiple devices.



I’ve read about the booze cruise on the African Queen, boating up the famous Zambezi river . I sign up. Beers are free once onboard, so I’m compelled to get my money’s worth.



IMG_0729A young woman stands next to me at the bar, and I ask where she’s from, she says Chile, I’m surprised she’s so far from home. I mention that in 1991, I went to a concert in Santiago, Chile, which celebrated the end of the dictatorship of General Pinochet, featuring Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Sinead O’Connor, at the same stadium where 2,000 people were imprisoned and murdered after Pinochet and the U.S. CIA took power in a coup, murdering the then president Salvador Allende. I hear an older gentleman behind me mumbling negatively something grumpy and realize her father in earshot, was a Pinochet supporter. Oops. This is him.



On the cruise we see hippos. We also see these strange creatures.





The next day I take a cab nearby to the Victoria Falls Bridge. I see the falls for the first time. Tomorrow I’ll get closer.




IMG_0749I walk to the end of the bridge. I’ve left Zambia. I’m in Zimbabwe, country #135. I make friends with the two soldiers at their guard post. I ask about their families. I ask about their work. They work 12-hour shifts. I ask about what their wives have packed for them to eat. I ask to take their picture, but I know they’ll have to say no due to security restrictions. I show them how to shake hands the American way, not the three different grip maneuver that everyone does in Southern Africa. I leave. As I start back across the bridge, I consider turning around with a big smile, sneaking a picture at them anyway, then laughing loudly so they know I’m messing with them, and running away across the bridge, knowing they can’t follow me into Zambia, but decide to respect my encounter with them. You can see their white hut at the end of the bridge in an earlier picture as I walked towards them.

100 TrillionI’m not in the mood to bungee jump as I walk back across the bridge, but I do buy some giant Zimbabwe notes from the guy. This is not a joke, they really have 100 Trillion Dollar notes. I buy four notes  for $10 USD. I’m sure I overpaid. Robert Mugabe has ruined this country.



I had not known that you can take a tourist train over for a quick visit to the town there.




IMG_0759The Victoria Falls Bridge was built in 1905 and at the time of its’ opening, was the highest bridge in the world. The grandson of Charles Darwin marshaled the opening ceremony. The bridge connected important British rail lines. The major sections were manufactured in England. When they put the bridge together, the last major piece was 1.25 inches too big. They went to bed that night frustrated. When they awoke in the morning, the cool night, had shrunk the metal by that exact amount, and the piece had fallen perfectly into place.



It’s time to go see Victoria Falls. As stated, the hotel I’m staying at, is connected to the park, and is a free 15-minute walk over from my room. On the way, I find a sad monkey.



The mist at the Falls, turns to rain. The sky can be pure blue, but still it’s raining. This view of the falls is just one corner of its expanse.

Here’s a panorama shot of the falls from end to end. Dr. Livingstone had heard about the falls for five years before attempting to canoe to them. His first night they slept on an island ¾ of the way to the left above the falls. His quote upon seeing the falls said that nothing in England could compare to the Fall’s majesty.IMG_0764

IMG_0795The next day I hire a driver and car. The plan is to drive about two hours to a ferry that connects to Botswana. I’ll take the ferry over, then try to find a boat to take me illegally over to a small island that is part of Namibia. The driver Devon dodges potholes the entire way. His registration is expired, so he must avoid police roadblocks. We approach a police stop. Devon pulls off the road, talking to someone sitting at a building. They both come back to the car. The other individual gets in the backseat. We turn around and head the opposite direction. We drive 1/2 of a mile, and the backseat passenger motions for us to turn off into the bush. We drive through the bush, usually no real road, through villages, through water, to pass the roadblock, and turn back onto the road. We tip the guide, and he has to walk a mile or two back to where he was sitting. This is us in the bush.


It’s hard to see that it’s all water on the left out of the windshield. I did not take a picture of the young boys swimming naked in the pond as we drove past. The smallest of them was terrified to see a car, and ran away. I threw Reese Cups at the rest of them (Note to self: terrible candy to take, squishes flat in suitcase and melts in the car).




We need to eat lunch. We stop at a village. The restaurant says they’re waiting for fish. We go to another restaurant, same story, no fish. We go to a third, same story. They live right by the fourth biggest river in Africa, where the hell are the fish. It takes so long to track down fish, that by the time we circle back to the first place, the fish has finally arrived. Devon is happy. We order two to eat, and one takeaway for Devon’s wife for when he gets home late that night. She’ll be happy.


IMG_0765At the ferry we walk down past all the trucks to the river. For six months my dream has been to find a boat, which can take me illegally to a small nearby island, officially part of Namibia. I’ve pictured an old man with a rickety rowboat. Instead, I discover a big covered aluminum boat with seating for a dozen. This is good. I ask the pilot how much he would charge to cross the river, stop for a minute in Botswana, then over to Namibia for a minute. His price of $25 is offered expecting to be bartered down, but I say yes immediately, willing to pay 20 times that. I’m insanely happy and excited. Namibia’s the big wild card of my entire trip. I’m going to get the bonus country of Namibia. We stop at Botswana country #136 first.



As I jumped off the boat for Namibia country #137, the pilot yells, “Watch out for the crocodiles and snakes!” He also reminds me that we’re here illegally, and to quit whooping and yelling. I knew he was about to say that just before he said it, and had already stifled myself.

This leg of my trip has been totally successful. It’s time to fly through Johannesburg down to Cape Town, and work my way back up through South Africa. But who knew; it’s been impossible for me to find a rental car down south. There are simply no cars available through any company whatsoever in southern South Africa (where most of the Whites are). I’ve been trying for days, online and in-person, nothing. It’s holiday season, and I’m out of luck. So instead of taking my connection through Johannesburg down to Cape Town, I play it by ear, stay in Johannesburg a night, give up the second longer flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, successfully reserve a car for the next day, and spend the night back at the same Emperor’s Palace. The hotel is fully booked. I’m out of luck. But somehow the receptionist finds me a room. Wow. Lucky. On arrival at the airport I work to get my flights refunded and changed, but nothing works. Because I took the first leg of a two-leg flight, the second leg is not worth anything, it’s considered used. And the flight from Mozambique back to Johannesburg on the last day of my trip does not work with my plans anymore, so that’s wasted. The agent cannot do anything for me, as I had bought the tickets through their partner United Airlines, I’d have to call to call the local United Office downtown, assuming it exists, for which I have no phone number, no phone either, plus I know their change fee would be the same as the credit for the flight, so I somberly buy a flight from Cape Town back to Johannesburg for my last vacation day. My plan of driving the country south to north, thwarted by no cars in the south, has flipped to driving north to south instead. There are no cheap $129 seats left, I have to pay $300, but I’m back on plan again.

Half of the next day is spent at the airport. I have to rent a GPS from Tomtom. The car I had reserved is fine, till I sit in it, and realize the gearshift is on the left. It’s going to be hard enough to drive on the left without shifting on the wrong side as well. I go back to the rental counter. They have two automatics. We take the elevator and go back to the parking area, to see which one has an auxiliary jack for me to plug my iPod into. One does, but the price is double. The folks have gotten to know me pretty well as I’ve spent so much time in their office, the manager and the agent speak, and decide to override the system, and get me the car at the same original price. They have to redo the documents for me to travel into Swaziland and Lesotho. I’m there forever. I ask if they have maps. They have no maps. I ask where to buy a map. The manager tells me when I leave the airport, to stay in the center lane, and go to the gas station. He does not realize that I’m terrified of having to drive on the left, and going in something as complicated as a center lane, is not going to work for me. (Turns out the term for gas station in South Africa is “garage,” and the term for traffic light is “robot,” both which confuse me a few times, when asking for directions.) I have a better idea. I take yet more time, and go back into the airport, ask at the Information Desk where to buy a map, and the man confidently points down a hallway. I go down the hall. There is no store for maps. But there is a phone store. My Verizon hotspot wifi has died days before. It has worked for days before that, very handy, very necessary for me to plan routes, hotels, stops, stay in communication, and more, but I’m in trouble lately with no internet. I glance into the phone store. There’s one girl and a line. I have little hope to have her help me, I’m not sure what I even want to ask her, I’m looking for maps anyway, so I turn to leave, and another woman walks in saying, “Hello, can I help you.” I explain that my wifi hotspot died. She opens it, sees a SIM card, and says, “We can try another SIM card for just 10 rand ($1),” which I eagerly agree to. I spend 30 minutes in the store, leaving with a whopping 3gb of data transfer ready for $30. I’m set for wifi for the rest of the trip. Wow. Lucky. While waiting at the phone store, I step outside the airport and turn on the GPS unit, to see if that will help it work. It does not. Nothing. She also knows where the store is that would have a map, I wander and find it, and buy the biggest map ever, it’s about five by four feet square, actually more of a wall map, a bit cumbersome for use in a car, plus the bigger the map got, the smaller the font for the cities got, they have every tiny town in South Africa on this map, I can’t really even read it.

I go to the car to leave. With steering wheel on the right instead of left, I feel like I should be delivering mail. I plug in my iPod, but cannot get the auxiliary input to work. I’m stuck. I go to find the guy who checked out the car for me, both of us walking in a circle, noting the few scratches on the car, but he’s nowhere. I find a young woman who professes knowing nothing about car radios, drag her back to the car, she pushes each button I tried, she reads the manual, we push the same buttons again. Finally she’s on the phone, and five minutes later, an older woman shows up, pushes the exact same button we had pushed many times, and it works immediately. The girl and I exchange a very embarrassed glance at each other.

Now there are no other excuses, nothing else I can think of to do, except to actually drive. I’m scared. I pull out from the parking space and stay on the left. I slowly drive along, and there’s the woman who fixed the auxiliary jack for me. I’m terrified that I’m going to not only have to drive on the left, but wave to her simultaneously as well. Luckily she’s looking down at her phone, so I can ignore her and just concentrate on driving. I’m leaving the airport now. The rented Tomtom GPS is not working. I see a sign for Johannesburg and Pretoria. I know Johannesburg is the wrong way. The other sign has two town names I’ve never heard of, so I commit. I’m driving for five minutes, not knowing what direction, and the GPS suddenly is working, and I hear a British woman’s voice tell me to take a turn 800 kilometers up ahead. I have no idea how far 800 kilometers is, but I’m guessing it’s something like a quarter mile. As we approach the turn, I smile as I realize we’re driving right by the Emperor’s Palace complex, I’ve been this way twice before on the shuttle. I take my turn, and the sign says a city I recognize, I’m on the freeway, going in the right direction, driving on the left, with my own music, and a GPS that works. I’m on plan. The last thing I need to do, is stay in the slow lane, but I have no idea if it’s on the left or right. I see a car in the left not going too fast, get behind him, and cars pass us, apparently not angry on our right. I’m driving in South Africa.

IMG_0810I drive for five hours straight to the border with Mozambique. The weather is cold, and it’s raining most of the time. What happened to beautiful South African summer weather. The border guards are nice. I bond with one. He shows me somewhere to park, while I walk to take a step across the border. I have to pass another four guard layers, each time, explaining I just need to touch Mozambique soil, each time receiving a big confused toothy smile in return. They don’t bother to stamp me out, as I’m not going to stamp in on the Mozambique side. I don’t collect passport stamps, I just physically need to touch the country. I’m here, just over the border, using my hand to make an “M” sign, for Mozambique country #138. Funny that it’s a guard that was willing to take my picture.

As I leave the border area, for his kids, I give kiddy collector cards to the first guard I made friends with, and ask him where I should stay. He consults with his friends in some language, and they send me to Lou’s, about five miles back in town. I find Lou’s. It’s a very basic room for $40. The bar and restaurant are closed. I drop my bags in my room, then drive back out, to the nearby gas station. It’s modern, and has food for sale just like in the U.S.  I buy a beef and mushroom turnover, a small salad, and a quart of non-fat milk. I have a great dinner back in my bare room. My gas station dinner frankly is one of the best dinners I have. The Terminator movie comes on, I watch the whole thing.

I hit the road. I drive south to Swaziland country #139. I swerve and brake to avoid many potholes. I have experience with potholes having ridden with Devon in Zambia. I’m an expert in my own way. I look out the window, Swaziland is gorgeous, green, you can see forever, when I smash a pothole hard. I never even see it. I’m afraid the tire is damaged, but kilometer after kilometer I’m fine. It’s lunchtime. I see a sign for what seems might be a nice restaurant 30km away. I see another sign 20km away, then 10km away. Finally I’m there, I see the restaurant, and as I take my foot off the gas to slow down, boom, whoop whoop whoop whoop, my tire is flat. Once as a young driver, I had a flat tire when I was in absolutely no hurry, and thought at the time, how no one ever says to themself, “Wow, what a perfect time to have a flat tire.” As I pull in, the rain has stopped, it’s sunny now, and I’m not in any big hurry; it’s a perfect time to have a flat tire. There’s no one around for me to pay to change the tire, but that’s okay, I order a mutton burger, and while they cook it, I change the tire easily. I notice that I’ve lost the hubcap though. That’s not good. But I paid extra for tire and windshield protection, so maybe I’ll be okay, even though hitting the pothole was my own fault.

I want to make it all the way down the coast to Durban. It’s a long drive. I’m having a nice time, although worrying a bit about being naked with no spare tire. I hit patches of road that make a slight werp werp feeling in the tires, and each time I’m afraid a tire is going flat. But the countryside is amazing, so beautiful, that I email a friend that night, “God is definitely here for sure.” And the weather continues to improve the further south I drive. This is what I expected, blue skies, not the gray cold rain up towards Johannesburg. The more I drive, the more Mediterranean the climate becomes.

IMG_0812Still in Swaziland, I see an entire forest of strange trees. They look dead, or maybe a flash fire came through, and the trees are fine, or maybe this is just their natural state. The trees are part of a royal game park. I don’t care about game parks. I know you’re supposed to come to Africa, go out in trucks, and chase down lions and elephants. I don’t care. I’ve been to zoos, and feel like game parks are like just bigger zoos.

Just after leaving Swaziland, arriving back into South Africa, I see a car brake up ahead for apparently for no reason, I slow down, I see it’s a herd of giraffe. Maybe game parks are okay.IMG_0820

I drive up another mountain; from the top I see a car pulled over, with a woman and child staring out into the valley. I pull over to see elephants crossing the river below. Maybe game parks are okay.IMG_0831

I’ve learned that in South Africa, just like Germany, you don’t just drive at what’s up in front, you drive from behind as well. No one really follows the speed limit. If you see a BMW or Mercedes approaching in your rearview mirror, you know you’re going to need to let them pass. And it’s normal here, to actually pull your car halfway out of your lane onto the shoulder, keeping your speed, as they squeeze by, whether there is oncoming traffic or not. But each time you do that, after the car has zoomed by, you get two flashes of their rear lights signaling a thank you. About one in ten times you don’t get the flashes, and feel a little disappointed. Most Americans would have a big challenge driving in South Africa, not because of driving on the left, but because we’re not used to caring who is behind us, and we also feel an entitlement if we’re ahead of someone, with no need to let them pass.

I don’t know how to get an iPod to shuffle music in a truly arbitrary way, so throughout the 2,000 miles I drove, many times the music came back to some of these personally meaningful groups: Springsteen, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Beatles solo albums, Rufus Wainwright, Weather Report, Who, and Neil Young. The trip was immeasurably upgraded by having good music for all those miles.

Our eyes see upside down. When light enters the eye making a picture on the back of our eyes, the picture is upside down, but without us realizing it, our brains invert the picture to make sense of it, into a right-side-up image. An experiment from 20-years ago had folks wear glasses with mirrors that turned the image upside down to what our eyes really would see. After a week the brain corrected this image, and folks again saw the image as normal. The experiment ended of course by the participants taking the glasses off, resulting in likely the first humans ever, to see images as they really are, upside down (till they reset again a week later). After driving on the left for a thousand miles, I try imagining my two cars at home with the steering wheel on the left. I can’t do it. I’ve been reset. It feels weird to think about it. It actually scares me to think of the steering wheels on that side. Taking a left turn is easier in South Africa. You’re in your left lane, you pull up to an intersection, you look to the right, no traffic, you turn left into the closest lane. Turning right does not feel comfortable at all. You forget which way to look for the traffic coming each way, then need to pull out into the far lane up and over to the left on the right. And when you sit in the car, the steering wheel is on the right, so the majority of the car is off to your left. In the U.S. the entire car is on your right. So beyond remembering to drive on the left, you also have to remember that the car is dangling way over to your left, not on your right. I pull halfway off the road going about 70mph to let someone pass, and oh no, my left front tire, the spare that I just put on the car, kisses the curb. Now I’m really worried I’m going to get another flat, but I drive for hours, and everything is fine. I’ve driven about 10 hours, and all of sudden, everything is not fine. I’m just getting ready to pass a small truck, and whoop whoop whoop whoop, my tire is going flat again, oh my god, this is not good, I have no spare, it’s nighttime now, not many cars are on the road, I’m on a freeway, with no phone, and no one to call even if I did have a phone. My heart stops, then jumps into my throat. My palms instantly sweat. I’m in fight or flight mode. It’s been a single second since the tire started to blow as I begin to brake and pull over, then my brain says to me, “Hey, look at the truck you were going to pass, there’s a little symbol on the back, I know it’s not likely, a one in a thousand chance, but maybe that’s one of those highway helper trucks.” So I hit the gas again, with no left front tire, and start flashing my high beams in a panic. I do that for four seconds, which feels like four minutes, then let the car slow down, when I see their brake lights come on. We both coast to a stop, they put their flashers on, and the driver gets out and comes back to talk to me. Indeed, the truck is a highway helper truck. It’s a miracle. Wow. Lucky. I have no spare, so the only option is for him to call a tow truck.

IMG_0834Everything has been closed due to the holidays for days, but an Indian descent tow truck operator Ashley is working, arrives with his two younger mates, we tow the car five miles to his shop, with his associates riding on the flatbed, with no room in the cab. I pay $60 for the tow, $60 for a tire to fix the spare, but the rim on the original tire is no good, so pay another $80 for a used spare tire on a rim that will fit my VW Polo if needed. This is the best $200 I’ve ever spent. As we drive to his shop, he points out two guys sitting at an overpass, and he tells me that these guys just sit and wait for cars that have trouble, then go down and rob them. He tells me of one guy, that didn’t want his car towed back to Ashley’s shop, he had Ashley just tow it a short way to get it off the highway, then later the police called him to tow the car, as it had been broken into, with all the luggage and everything stolen. I feel spooked. After his shop, we go to the gas station (“garage” as they say, up by the “robot”), and for the first time all of the people there scare me. I’m wimpy all of a sudden, and am happy to leave after Ashley has checked the tire pressure on all of my tires. Just get me to Durbin. (I get a receipt for the tires, but do not know yet whether I’ll get my $200 refunded from the insurance I took out – I don’t really even care, just happy to be alive, and still can’t believe the good fortune of that truck being right in front of me to help.)  Ashley is on the left in the picture. I tipped each of his two guys $10 for riding on the open flatbed and helping out. Soon after I arrive home in the U.S., a former Miss Venezuela is murdered with her ex-husband during a robbery after getting a flat tire in Venezuela.

IMG_0843I arrive in Durban. The British woman GPS voice takes me into the center of town. It’s almost midnight. I see a hotel, the Royal Garden. I go in. They have no rooms. Then they have a room for $140. I tell them I may come back. I go back to the car, and use my Wifi to explore Hotels.com. I’m tired. I’m wasted. I realize I’m being an idiot to not just park the car, and go get a room. The hotel is a bit dated. I know the room is not going to be great, but I go back in, and the woman I was talking with is busy now, so she calls to her boss. I politely plead with the manager to give me his best rate, and the price drops to $90, but he only has rooms on the smoking floor. I’ve been in smoking rooms before which can be impossible to sleep in. I ask and he lets me go check the room with the security guard, we enter the room, no smoke, and an absolutely gorgeous full view of Durban from the 33rd floor. Wow. Lucky. The next morning, I even tell them I’ll take a second night, and yet again I get the room for just $90.

My plan is a one-day trip to Lesotho and back, then stay the night in Durban for New Years Eve. I leave in the morning. It’s a five-hour trip. I study the internet the night before, trying to determine the best route. There is no best route. Lesotho is a country, totally within South Africa. I think they never wanted it, because it’s all mountains. I read about the Sani Pass, the highest pass in all of Africa. I read you can only go up with four-wheel drive. Then I read a 2010 comment by someone that says the road is better now, and that cars can make it. I head to Sani Pass. I’m out in the country. It’s beautiful. But I’m having another flat. There’s a strange whirring sound. I keep driving and it disappears. Minutes later, it’s back. I’m in trouble. Then it’s gone. This keeps happening, until I realize it only happens when I drive past these giant trees. I’m come to the realization that there are some kind of cicada-sounding insects in these trees. But now my tire really is going flat. No no, it’s just ridges in the road. I realize for the rest of my trip, I’m going to be paranoid about getting a third flat tire. I drive many many hours up up up, all is going well, then no more paved road. Now I’m at a crawl, but it’s okay. Now it’s not okay. I’m going up rocks and ravines that no car should be going up, but I keep going. Now I’m scraping the car on the thorn trees. (Days later I find a car wash, and once the mud is off, can see the scratches. I remember the guy at the rental garage, and how meticulously he wrote up each scratch on the car at the time. This is not going to end well. The car wash manager appreciates my story, and has his guy apply silicon, and 95% of the scratch marks seem to disappear. I tip them. Like the tire situation, I won’t know how the money plays out for scratches till I’m back in the U.S.) I go on, up up up. IMG_0839Finally still very far from the top, I see a sign, about cars not being allowed any further, I’m defeated. But no, it’s okay, I’m at the border crossing. I have them stamp my passport, and walk into Lesotho country #140. I’m so happy because I thought the border was at the top. Their border post is at the top, but the border starts here further down. I’ve done it. I hit my target of 140 countries for this trip, and on the last day of 2013.

I stop for lunch in the nearest town on the way back. A dozen beautiful-people young folk are buying beers at the bar as I eat. The special of bangers, peas and mash is sold out, so I’m having a steak, I deserve it. I hear them say they’re going outside. I don’t say hello as I eat, but when I finish, I walk out and introduce myself. They’re all on vacation, and I stand at their table for five minutes, answering questions about my life and my trip. They beg me to stay and drink beer. It’s hard to say no, but I need to drive all the way to Durban. They all say I’ve seen more of Arica in a week then they have in their entire lives. I leave my email address with them all, and maybe I’ll someday see one or more in the DC area. Hope so.

I make it back to Durban. The bar and restaurant was closed the night before, like the night before near Mozambique, so I’ve not had a beer in a few days, I’m ready to celebrate, I hit my countries’ target, and it’s New Years Eve. They tell me to go to Florida Road. I take a cab and there are many cool bars and restaurants. I go into one that only has Blacks. It’s open-air seating for one or two hundred, everyone there affluent and beautiful. I’m the only White person. But no one gives me any eye contact. Then worse, a few more Whites come in, so now I’m not even the special token White guy. I finally realize that the Blacks and Whites just don’t mix. It’s like being in the U.S. in the 1950’s. During my entire trip I never see a single mixed couple in South Africa. For me it’s like going back to my childhood in the 1960’s. Once a car with a Black family drove down my street, it had never happened before, and was so odd at the time, I happened to have my Polaroid instamatic and actually took a picture of them. I can still remember the boy’s face looking at me from the back seat in the picture, maybe incredulous I was taking a photo. South Africa is a bit like that now. You drive past the townships, the shantytowns, thousands of people, none of them White, and it’s nothing but shacks. You drive by nice modern neighborhoods and you know they are all White. The lines by race are still very stark in South Africa. The northern part of South Africa is very Black, except for some areas around Johannesburg. Durbin, halfway down on the coast, has a population of Indians and Pakistanis; I wish I had had time to go see their mosque, the largest in the lower hemisphere. And the southern coast is very White. Ashley told me Whites were leaving South Africa. Others conversely told me things were getting better for everyone. You wonder how long it will take for the races to mix, could be 50 or 100 years. In America, Whites took Blacks. In South Africa, Whites took land. I ruminate on the justified bitterness in each case.

I have a nice night, and as always, you can’t believe how late it has gotten. I sleep in, but still feel the effects of the previous night’s New Years Celebration. I’m driving again. I have a long way to go. Two hours into my drive, I panic; I realize I’ve left my bags back at the hotel. My skin goes clammy. I can’t believe I’m going to have to drive two hours all the way back, then two hours more just to get to where I am now. I feel sick. I consider pulling over, but calm down, and decide to actually ask myself if my bags are in the trunk or not, and my memory can recreate putting them both in the trunk. I’m fine, just the usual momentary paranoia from the stress of driving and the previous night’s festivities. I get the same paranoia at major intersections. As I drive on the freeway, I’m in lanes going the same direction on my side of the highway, that’s easy enough, it’s when I drive through an intersection, with unnatural traffic directions for me, going at a high speed, that something really bad could happen. I practice in my mind, smashing into some innocent family, or having someone deservedly crash and crush me for being in the wrong spot. But by the end of the trip, I can’t remember or imagine driving on the right-hand side anymore.

IMG_0850I visited Mandela’s house in Soweto. That was a win. Now I’m heading to the middle of the country to Qunu where he grew up and is buried. I drive south of a major town, I know it’s not too far from there. I drive and drive, but don’t see anything. Finally, I stop and ask a woman on the side of the road, and she points back the other direction. Just then a van pulls over to pick her up, I yell to the driver, “How far to Qunu?,” and he replies to follow them back 10 miles. I’m back on plan.

IMG_0854The woman that recommended the first night’s lodging spot, also sent me a newslink about the grave, so I know that the grave is private, I won’t be able to get close. But there’s a museum nearby as well. I arrive at the Mandela family compound, speak to the guard; we both smile knowing I can’t come in. I say to him, “Respect,” and leave.




I drive up the road, and take this less than elegant picture of Mandela’s grave. He’s there somewhere in the middle of the photo.






I drive through Qunu, Mandela’s hometown village looking for the museum.




Someone tells me the museum is up the highway, to turn at the “garage” (gas station). As I do, I see a giant sign for the museum. But there was no sign going my original direction. Someone later says they might have taken it down for traffic work. I noticed that the highway just around Qunu had massive work done to make it look modern and new. I decide that as Nelson Mandela got closer to death, they knew the world would visit Qunu for the burial, so the government wanted to put on their best face. (To be fair, the roads in all of South Africa are modern and well kept.)

I’ll offer two interesting pictures from the museum. You can read the headings.  IMG_0864

IMG_0858I’m required by a young woman museum worker to fill-out and sign a form to take these pictures. She’s wearing a long green dress with red top. I tell her she still has her Christmas colors on. It’s not too busy today, so she follows a few of us around, and I ask about how this museum is situated where Nelson Mandela was a young boy, and she replies that yes, behind the museum, down the hill is the Sliding Stone, where he slid down, when herding cattle as a young boy. She promises to walk a few of us down the hill when we finish at the museum. These three pictures show me sliding down the Sliding Stone. You can see her in the second picture.


IMG_0894I continue on my drive. The countryside is so beautiful. In any direction you can see what seems to be 100 miles. Mountains stand any visible direction. The road passes through some, but tries to stay in the lower hills. Flooring the engine for up, then coasting for down, always looking in the rearview mirror for approaching vehicles, I continually marvel the vistas left and right. South Africa is one of the most beautiful countries I have visited. I brake suddenly to see a frustrated herder, unable to keep his goats from crossing in front of high-speed traffic. In my rearview mirror, I see the car behind me approaching a goat brazenly crossing back the wrong way, dead in his sights. I don’t see the outcome, but want to believe the car slowed, or the goat lurched safely back.IMG_0917

My friend from 25 years back, who graduated college in the U.S., and has lived mainly in China ever since, heard I was going to South Africa and hooked me up with a couple he knows. He’s told me nothing at all about them. I’ve traded the occasional email with them for six months, about getting together. My plans changed all around, about the trip inverting north to south, changing dates, but we’ve stayed in touch, and now I’m on the way to spend two nights with them. They’ve given me a phone number to call when I get into their town. It’s called Kynsna. Right, just try and say that word. It’s five hours away from the end of my trip in Cape Town. I drive all day. I pull over. I boot my wifi. I email them, that I still have 358 km to go (about 250 miles). I predict this will take me six or seven hours, which puts me there maybe around 11pm or midnight. I refuse to impolitely show up that late, and warn so in the email, I may just give up, pull over, spend the night in a hotel, and if I do, I’ll email right away to let them know, I won’t see them till the next day. But right after I email them, I come down out of the mountains, and from then on, the roads all have passing lanes, and I do not have to go through any small towns. I travel fast, watching the km click down on my GPS. I realize I’m going to make it, but I’m in too much of a hurry, to pull over again, to boot up my wifi and computer to let them know such. I have instructions to find them after golf at the Simola Hotel. I pull into Kynsna, and ask directions. I go further through town, and think I’ve passed the turn, see a woman, pull over, and ask her, she gives me directions, she’s pregnant, I think a prostitute, and disappointed when I thank her and drive on. I find the turn, and drive miles up into the hills. I end up at an exclusive resort. I talk my way past the guard post, sign myself in, and hear later the surprise that they let me in. I follow the signs to the hotel. I have their phone number, but it’s long, something crazy like 20 digits. I go in, I mention their names, the woman says maybe they live in the residential section. She tries the number. It does not work. The floormat I walk on into the hotel shows it is a five-star hotel. I smell food. I have not eaten since 10am, it’s now 11pm. (I’ve only pulled over once other than the museum, to get gas, and when I went into the gas station, I bought a pint of lowfat milk, came out, and my car was all locked up. The attendant filling my gas tank must of thought he was doing me a favor and he locked my car with the keys inside, I can hear the engine still running. Damn. What am I going to do now. Then I realize I’m standing on driver side in America, not in South Africa, walk around the car to the other side, and calmly seat myself with my milk). I see a sign for a seafood buffet. I tell the woman I have not eaten in 10 hours. She’s way cool, has much sympathy, tells me the buffet is closing or closed. We both rush in to talk to the manager. I’ve met someone else on the tour, Black, just like him, with a French accent, they both have come from the Congo. He’s nice. He tells me he’ll give me five minutes before closing the buffet. I go to get my iPhone from the car. I need to call my friends, to make sure they don’t have a meal planned with me somehow, even though it’s late, I don’t want to be rude, but the number does not work on my iPhone either. I have to make an executive decision. I decide to eat. I’ll email Brian and Fani after I get my food, and hopefully still be able to find them somehow. I go to the center of the buffet, and loudly proclaim to one of the people working there, that I have just driven 12-hours. I hear a reaction by a handful of people at the closest table, then someone exclaims, “Are you American?,” with a big smile, and I know the table of five must include Fani and Brian. It’s them. I can’t believe it. Wow. Lucky. I sit down, we start trading travel stories. They all live in Dubai, but for 7 years, have vacationed in South Africa. Brian’s friend tells me that night after everyone else is in bed, that Brian’s a founding member of the golf course below the house, each day he’s allowed “four for free” on the course. The next day for 2 cups I use 8 teaspoons of instant coffee. They all leave in the morning for their annual physicals. I intend to meet them later for lunch. I start to feel quite weird, weak, nervous, just bad. I drive into town, get my aforementioned car wash to hide the thorn tree scratches, then find the Quay Four (pronounced “key” four) restaurant, and they’re already there. I tell them I’m embarrassed that I don’t feel good, they offer to let me leave back to the house, which was my intention, but I stay a bit, and start to feel marginally better. They decide to not go sea kayaking, and instead go back to the house, so we all drive separately back. Everyone takes afternoon naps. I try to doze, cannot, but am happy to lay on the couch and do nothing. I eventually go online and do emails. IMG_0918Then I hear dogs barking. I look out over the balcony to see the dogs, but instead it’s a big baboon chasing smaller baboons across the golf course. Brian and Fani emphasize to lock my bedroom door when going out, that the baboons will break in. One guest forgot, and when he returned, they had ransacked the room, strewn linens all around the room, and appropriately shit on the bathroom floor. The house and view are superlative.IMG_0922

We drive to the ocean that day later when I’m feeling better, to see the “Heads.” It’s beautiful. Property is affordable. Everything is affordable in South Africa. The dollar is strong to the rand right now. A dinner that would cost $15 in the U.S. costs $10 here in South Africa. Here’s a panorama of the Heads. I like to think of Vasco de Gama, the first to sail around the Cape and on to India, went past here, would have absolutely marveled at this harbor entrance, maybe he even sailed in. IMG_0931

Fani, Brian and their friends are marvelous companions. They all are ex-pats, having grown up on the Isle of Man like Brian (that’s a small island, part of the UK, most notable for that crazy motorcycle race once a year on the island roads, with riders going 130mph, with fatalities not uncommon), or in Greece, Lebanon and Turkey like Fani. They both lived in the States for awhile as well. Brian with the green card of the time, lived in San Francisco in the mid-sixties, saw the tail-end of the Beat Generation and the beginning of the hippies. He moved back to England, and remarkably, got a draft notice from the U.S. Army delivered there, which he appropriately ignored. They toured many times with our mutual American friend Pat in China, buying antiques. I’ve been on Pat’s trucks doing that too. You drive into a small village, that’s never been visited like this before, and walk down the center of the street, proclaiming that you’ll buy their junk. They don’t realize that old furniture which is junk to them, represent valuable antiques for us. That’s how Pat made his fortune in China, and just retired buying a place in Chang Mai, Thailand. We traded Pat stories, and so many other stories, it was a highlight to hang with like-minded world travelers. Brian even remembered the Chinese words for, “Show us your junk, we’ll buy your junk.” Fani showed me a video of visiting gorillas in Uganda, with a young one flipping off their friend (yes, holding up the middle finger), then running away. I hope to see them both again sometime, maybe in Mongolia which is a country I need to collect, or in Thailand for us all to see Pat, or maybe with my kids, to stay with them in Spain, one of my favorite countries, and to meet Brian’s adult children.

They decide to go deep-sea fishing the next day. I’m in for $75 and getting up at 4am, but twisted luck for me, we find out the night before the outfitter does not have enough seats on the boat, so instead I sleep in to a normal time, and do the long drive all the way to Cape Town of about six hours. A few folks had told me this Garden Route along the coast to Cape Town would be a highlight of my trip. Fine, it was beautiful, and if that’s all South Africa offered for beauty, that would still work, but this drive was nothing compared to the drive down the spine of South Africa, that’s where the real beauty lies. I suspect that the folks touting the Garden Route do not like the poverty and shantytowns across the middle of the country, and instead think the Garden Route is a top drive, based more on the Whiteness of the drive, with modern towns and shopping centers, and fewer Black shantytowns. A gentleman overhears me talking at the airport about it, comes over, and energetically tells me, “You got it right mate, we come each year, and drive 7,000 kilometers to really see the country.”

IMG_0936If I had fished, I would have been very tired, and gotten into Cape Town late, instead I arrive early enough to make it over to the cable car, to go to the top of Table Mountain overlooking Cape Town. (They send me a picture of the many fish they caught, and I’m jealous to not be there for the grill party afterwards.) We’re fogged in, but I get high enough to see Cape Town before the fog at the very top, and it’s a meaningful experience. IMG_0940

I go out that night where I’m told to, on Long Street. The architecture is bizarre; every fourth building looks like it should be on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The next day a bartender says to me, “Oh, so Long Street pulled you in?”

IMG_0945It’s also Cape Town’s carnival. They’ll parade until after dawn. I see some of the marchers in the parade, but each time, I’m zooming by in a cab and miss the shot. I walk by early in the evening for this picture, but am told not to go back late that night to their staging area. From my experience in Ethiopia being robbed last year late at night by four teens, I go against my better nature, and decide to take the advice and go home instead to my hotel.

I discover days earlier online that tickets to visit Nelson Mandela’s prison Robben Island sell out way in advance. I have no conception to plan my ticket purchase in advance, thinking it will be like the Statue of Liberty, its ferry and tour never sell out. But Robben Island is sold out. I’ve seen his house in Soweto, I’ve seen his grave and museum in Qunu, but I’m not going to see his cell on Robben Island. I sleep in, and go down to the ticket office at the waterfront thirty minutes before the last tour anyway. Two women are already standing off to the side, hoping someone will turn in extra tickets. I stand for 30 minutes till the tour starts at 3pm. Nothing. If one ticket becomes available, the women will let me go. If two become available, the two women will go. If three become available we’ll all go. But nothing is happening and we’re running out of time. An older couple comes and joins us. Then the unbelievable, a young man comes to the ticket window and says he accidentally hit the Buy button online twice, and has six extra tickets. We’re all going now. It’s the last thing I needed as closure for my trip. Wow. Lucky. We take the 30-minute ferry ride. We bus around the island before seeing the prison. IMG_0954This is the lime quarry where all of the political prisoners did hard labor. The cave in the back, is where they met to talk to start constructing the frame of government for a new South Africa. The pile of rocks is where Nelson Mandela, upon his release and return as President, laid one rock, and thousands of others lay more rocks, different sizes and colors, to symbolize all the different but equal people of South America. They had no protection while quarrying the lime for all those years. Many of the prisoners later went blind from the bleaching dust. Nelson Mandela’s tear ducts dried up preventing fluid to cleanse his eyes, and eventually caused his death at age 95 from pneumonia, the same lung disease that many died of, from working in the quarry.

Over time on the island, only White guards were allowed (known as “wardens”), as the Black wardens became too sympathetic to the prisoners. Nelson Mandela directed all the prisoners to never fight with the wardens, but instead, when possible, explain why they were all incarcerated, in the search for freedom. Mandela stayed friends with the White Afrikaner guards after his release, inviting them to his inauguration and other events. After 200 years, Robben Island closed as a prison about 20 years ago. When the former prisoners visited after its closing, they thought the island should become a museum. The government agreed. About 20 former prisoners and wardens live on the island and help with the tours. IMG_0960This gentleman  was locked in the cell block pictured for seven years. At age 19, he had been part of the ANC’s student wing, then went to Angola for rebel military training, snuck back into South Africa and hid for four years till he was caught. It’s ironic how one man’s  “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter.”

Nelson Mandela served 27 years on Robben Island. Here’s the only picture of him there. IMG_0963


Here’s his cell window.








Here’s the hallway to his cell.








Here’s the cell where he spent 18 of his 27 years in prisons (no toilet, notice the bucket) and preached reconciliation and equality for all South Africans, thus averting a Civil War, and creating a measure of increasing prosperity in the country. He’s the only leader in history to leave prison, and within (4) months, become the elected leader of a country.





It’s the morning of my departure. I’m packing. Oh my god, my passport is gone. No way I can leave the country. No way they’ll do anything for me at the airport. There’s no U.S. embassy here. I’ll have to go to the embassy in Johannesburg. Will they even let me fly there with no passport. This is a disaster. This is a nightmare. I can’t believe my passport is lost. Oh, wait a minute, no big deal, here it is in this other pocket. This happens all the time; the moment you can’t find your passport for 5 seconds, supreme panic, then consideration of the worst that will happen. I’ve never lost a passport, although I’ve thought I’ve lost my passport 20 times.

BillAirportI’m sitting working on my trip write-up at the gate. Everyone lines up to board right in front of me. I sometimes wait to be the last person to board, instead of standing in line with everyone. I make friends with a guy in line with his family. This is his son. He’s going home to Johannesburg. He’s intrigued as we talk about what a sophisticated world traveller I am. Eventually he says, “I’m going to sit back down, the flight is delayed.” I go back to work, then hear my name called. This is good. They must be upgrading me. I go to the counter, and get a bad feeling, the woman is not smiling. She tells me I’ve delayed their flight. Worst still, she tells me I’ve missed my flight. Wha? Huh? Turns out, the line in front of me was for a different flight, even though it was in front of my gate, it snaked to another gate behind me. But I was just discussing what a sophisticated world traveller I am, how could this happen. All the subsequent flights are full. I’m going to miss my connection in Johannesburg to Paris. I’m going to have to leave the airport, and spend another night. I’m going to have to contact Air France and try and rebook. They’ll have nothing for tomorrow. They’ll charge me an exorbitant upcharge to confirm a seat. I’m in trouble. I’m instructed to go back out, past security, back to the check-in area. I’m directed to a kiosk. The guy is sympathetic, but no open flights exist. And he tells me that even for stand-by, I’m in the back of that line, I won’t make it on a flight. I tell him I’m so nervous, that I’m standing there with a dry mouth. He smiles weakly. He stares at his screen. We don’t speak for minutes. He asks me about my chances rebooking with Air France. I tell him I know they will have no sympathy, as my ticket with his airline South African, was not connected to the tickets I bought with Air France. They won’t care. Back to silence. This is not good. I get no encouragement. No way out. He finally shakes his head, I know I’m done for, he looks up, looks side-to-side like now he’s the one in trouble, and says, “I’m not supposed to do this, but I’m putting you on the 3pm flight.” I can’t believe it. I’m back on plan. Wow. Lucky.  (The end.)