Video: Safari in the Entabeni Game Reserve

Going on a safari is a must when traveling to South Africa.  There are several safaris available in country (the most famous being in Kruger National Park), but the one we chose was in the 22,000 acre Entabeni Game Reserve.  After a quick flight to Johannesburg from Cape Town, the bus ride out to Entabeni is about 3 hours.  Our tour guide on the bus really hams it up as we enter the reserve and the gates open, announcing over the loud speaker “Welcome…to Africa” (cue the John Williams music).

Everyone on the bus had the exact same thought.
Everyone on the bus had the exact same thought.

In order to maximize the time, they start the safari right away, so be prepared to have anything you need for the next few hours and into the evening because it does get very cold as the sun goes down.  We hopped off the bus and into open air Land Cruisers (while your luggage makes its way to the lodge). These are not your suburbanites’ Land Cruisers either.  These vehicles are the real deal, taking 10 of us over boulders and on 45-degree rocky inclines and declines.  I’ve got to hand it to the folks at Disney World because the rocky wildness of the Indiana Jones ride is a spot on copy of how ruggedly off road we were going.

We spent a few hours out in the safari and immediately saw wallabies, which got everyone amusingly super excited. I say amusingly because seeing a wallaby is like getting into a tizzy over seeing a squirrel in the city; by the end of the trip, after seeing hundreds of wallabies, no one gave a shit about them. So don’t go crazy wasting film on them if that’s the first thing you see.

We did however also see rarer creatures in the wild.  Because there are too many animals to list out, you’ll be able to see what we encountered in the galleries below. Over the next few days we’d go on excursions at sunrise (waking up very early) and sundown, as those are the best times to try and see the animals. They key animals that you want to try and spot are the big five game animals: the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros.  During our time we were lucky enough to see all except the leopard, a historically hard animal to spot because they usually only come out at night and are very shy.

Our lodge was located at the top of a mountain in the reserve and it takes about 30 minutes to get from the lodge to the main areas where the animals reside. The lodge itself is extremely comfortable and the tap water there is safe; we were not roughing it at all.  Huge rooms, hot showers, comfortable beds, outdoor patios, a spa, and a pool–the place has it all.  And don’t worry, they have South African plug adapters available for guests.  We were however warned to stay in lighted areas as to not get attacked by an elephant or rhino or something.

All the rangers who acted as our guides were highly knowledgeable, super friendly, and worked very well together over radio to call out where particular animals could be sighted.  For example, believe it or not, trying to find elephants is NOT as easy as you’d imagine.  Despite their size, elephants are actually extremely quiet (unless of course you piss them off), so it did take a lot of driving, tracking, and radio chatter among the rangers to pin down their location.

If you can get access to one, I’d highly recommend bringing a camera with a telephoto lens.  Although an iPhone works fine, the rangers might not necessarily be able to get you super close, so you’ll really want the real deal if you’re going to take pictures.  By the end of the trip, I wanted to stay another week.  It literally is the Lion King come to life out there (I swear we saw the cliff that had to be the inspiration for Pride Rock).  With the animals walking right up to and around the Land Cruisers, you’re equal to them like no where else in the world.  Specifically the cheetahs–yeah they’re really badass–and the lion parents with their playing cubs were so close you could pet them (and then immediately get your hand ripped off).  It’s a beautiful experience, one that’s worth the price and time to get.

Video: Penguins, Seals, and Cape of Good Hope/Point

Penguins?  In Africa?  That was my first reaction when I heard that African penguins existed, as I always thought they were animals native to Antarctica.  But an African penguin colony was one of the stops we made on a half day trip we took with a personal guide named Answan (who had some really, really interesting stories himself about growing up during apartheid).  If you’re able, try and get out of Cape Town for a few hours and check out some of the surrounding areas such as Kalk Bay where you can see seals hanging out on the docks in a similar fashion to the sea lions in San Francisco.

We also drove to Simon’s Town to visit the aforementioned Boulders Penguin Colony to visit the hundreds of African penguins.  There’s a 70 rand fee (which is like $5) to walk along the boardwalk to see the animals and needless to say the little guys were charming to watch.

Lastly, a trek out to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point rounded out the half day.  Good Hope represents the furthest southwest point in South Africa on the Atlantic side while it’s compadre Good Point is close by on the Indian Ocean side.  Marine biologists say that the Cape of Good Hope is where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.  It’s here that you can get magnificent views of the crystal blue oceans and breathe in fresh air.  The hike up to the light house at the top of Cape Point is relatively challenging, but there is a tram available.  Be warned: There’s is constantly construction on the one road leading to this area so there’s a high chance you’ll hit delays either coming to or from Good Hope/Point.

Apartheid in Cape Town

No trip or review of South Africa can be done without addressing the Apartheid.  Before I came to South Africa I knew the Apartheid existed; and by I knew it existed means I had seen Lethal Weapon 2 and knew the whites were the bad guys.

But...you're blek...
But…you’re blek…

So I had a general awareness of Cape Town’s racist history.  But I’m telling you folks–it was REALLY racist. Full on, government sponsored racism.  And right up until the early 90s!!  Although we didn’t get to go to Robben Island, a couple of our guides had amazing stories to tell about their time as a black person during the Apartheid.  I can’t really tell you everything, but here are just a few highlights:

  • One of our guides hadn’t eaten with a fork and knife in a restaurant until 2000 when his tour group invited him to join them for dinner in a previously “Whites Only” restaurant.
  • Scattered throughout the city used to be Whites Only and Non-Whites benches (most have been removed at this point).  The penalty for sitting on the wrong bench?  3 months in jail.  So how do you know if you’re white or black?  Well…
  • You would need to be classified as White, Colored (something like Asian or very light skinned African would be classified this), or Black by a government official per the Population Registration Act.  From there, based on how you looked according to this one guy, you’d get either all the benefits or jackshit for benefits…and the craziest part–if the guy labeling you couldn’t tell if you should be black or colored, he’d drop a pencil in your hair.  If the pencil stuck, you’re black.  If it didn’t, congrats you’re colored.

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Like I said there’s a lot more, but if you ever visit South Africa I’m sure you’ll meet plenty of people who’ll tell you their own stories.  And after hearing their stories, it makes me really appreciate what a great man Nelson Mandela was for having the patience and the forgiveness in him to advocate non-violence once he became president.  Because I know personally, if all that crap happened to me, I’d wanna take out all those motherf**kers.

So in order to really get immersed in what racism was like we needed to leave the comfy confines of the waterfront and make our way to the townships.  The townships were the designated areas where blacks and coloreds could live.  These days those that live in the townships are still in pretty dire straits, and the housing there can be described as a rundown gated community at best.  The black townships are extremely poor and the people who live there are living on the bare minimum.

A lot of these townships also still have their tribal traditions, some of which are pretty brutal.  Warning: The following story is pretty graphic.  When we visited the Langa Township, we were shown a wooded area that was fenced off and used as a coming of age ground for men.  Boys have to survive in this wooded area for 3-6 weeks to prove that they were a man.  Okay, whatever, I can roll with that.

However, that’s not all.  Boys, ranging from age 16-20, also have to go through a circumcision procedure, done not by a trained doctor, and without anesthesia.  I am very not okay with that.  Our guide told us 10% of all the boys that go through the ritual do not survive and that if they don’t do it, they won’t be considered a man by the tribe.  Oh yeah and after they survive the circumcision the “now” man would get part of his finger cut off so that public could see he fulfilled the ritual (and yep, one of our drivers had part of his pinky missing…).

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Every man in our group listening to this story was squirming nauseously in their seats.

Now this is just one tribe; they do not all do this, in my opinion, super barbaric ritual (our tour guide’s tribe doesn’t have any comparable rituals).  But it is interesting that in the 21st century this kind of stuff is still around.

Anyways, moving on to the township itself…I’ll give you a second to breathe and get over that story…the residents in the area were all very friendly (at least in the one we visited).  They lived in housing ranging from cargo containers to run down apartments.  Obviously some were nicer than others (the coloreds had low income housing essentially), but they were all still crazy overcrowded.  During peak apartheid however there’d be like 14 families in one 3 room apartment.  It’s absolutely nuts.

There were also several memorials around, such as the Gugulethu Seven and Amy Biehl memorials, that commemorated those that died to end apartheid and their stories.  I highly recommend clicking on the links and reading about them.

Video: Table Mountain

Looming over Cape Town is the beautiful Table Mountain, a must visit on any Cape Town trip.  Just like stupid Robben Island, Table Mountain is subject to worker strikes that may or may not make your excursion possible.  On our visit, there was a strike going on and there was a 50/50 chance of us being able to go up.  Unlike Robben Island however, we were able to make this stop actually happen because the day of our visit the workers and employers and come to an agreement.

That being said, it was a little cloudy on the day we went which is not uncommon, so keep that in mind.  But we were lucky enough to catch a few breaks in the clouds to get some spectacular views of Cape Town.

On a cloudy day, the view is awesome.
On a cloudy day, the view is awesome.

There are multiple trails of varying degrees of difficulty to hike up or you can take a 4-minute, 255R cablecar ride that has a pretty cool 360 degree rotating floor.  As a group, we took the cablecar, but a return trip to South Africa to hike up the mountain has been added to my to-do list.  Once at the top, there are 15-, 30-, and 60-minute trails to walk around the top of mountain as well as cafes for refreshments.  A rock climbing company was also at the top offering tourists a chance to scale down the side of the mountain (another on my to-do list), and you’ll most likely run into a dassie or two, an indigenous animal that looked like a mix of a squirrel and a gopher.






Cape Town, South Africa

Back in 2010 South Africa hosted the World Cup and several of my friends went down there on a trip I unfortunately was unable to attend.  They came back and raved about the country and everything it had to offer.  Luckily my chance to visit South Africa happened with a family holiday trip.

Our journey started in Cape Town, a beautiful European, non-smoking, English speaking (1 of 11 national languages) city with Southern California weather; it reminded me very much of Sydney.  It didn’t feel like Africa, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing after a 14-hour flight, and quite honestly, as I discovered throughout the trip, South Africa is a really easy country to negotiate for foreigners (just watch out cause they do drive on the left there).

One major thing to note is this:  The tap water in Cape Town is fine.  Our tour guide, Warren, insisted that we ignore what the guidebooks said, so we took the chance and didn’t have any problems.  I wouldn’t go drinking it in large amounts, but for brushing teeth and eating vegetables it’s perfectly fine.  (Warren was a great tour guide, I’d highly recommend reaching out to him if you ever visit: warrenmorris34@gmail.com) We also discovered that South Africa is also pretty progressive, as it’s the first country in Africa to legalize abortion and gay marriage; just a small step towards making up for the years of racism, which I’ll touch upon in depth later.

We stayed around the Victoria Wharf waterfront, which is super touristy, but very comfortable.  The waterfront, with live calypso bands playing constantly, is the center where most of the activities, food, the aquarium, and shopping can be found.  And there is plenty of shopping and eating to be had.  The exchange rate when we were there was a generous $1 to 13 South African Rand (R), so let’s just say we indulged in some very nice meals for the price of a trip to Olive Garden.

Here’s a rundown of a few things you can find at the Victoria Wharf waterfront.

Ferry to Robben Island

I’m going to start my coverage of South Africa with this.  1) Buy tickets in advance for Robben Island.  They should be around $23.  2) Even then there’s no guarantee you’ll make it there.  We did NOT go to Robben Island.  Robben Island is like the Alcatraz of South Africa, the place where political prisoners were held, including the great Nelson Mandela who was imprisoned for 27 years.  And we didn’t make it there.  Why?  Who the hell knows.  The official excuse was that the ferry broke down.  The unofficial theory is that there was some form of corruption in play that apparently is not unusual that stopped the ferries.  Even though we got our money back, it was unfortunate and disappointing to say the least.  So if you’re planning a trip to Cape Town, yes you have to try and go to Robben Island because it’s like the Statue of Liberty of Cape Town.  But it’s annoying that you may travel all the way there and something might throw a wrench into that plan.

Breakwater Lodge (Protea Hotel)
Portswood Road, V & A Waterfront
Cape Town, 8001 South Africa

If you’re looking for a place to stay, Protea Hotels (the Protea is the national flower) are all around Cape Town, but the Breakwater Lodge is the location that’s closest to the waterfront; it’s about a 10-minute walk. The hotel is super clean, very modern, and has a fantastic breakfast buffet.  The hotel is located on Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, which also happens to be a former women’s prison, so it’s unique to say the least.  But it’s the proximity to the waterfront that is it’s biggest selling point.

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Two bedroom

Quay Four
4, W Quay Rd, V & A Waterfront
Cape Town, 8001, South Africa

Pronounced “Key Four” (dropping some knowledge on you there), this was our first meal in Cape Town and was quite honestly one of the best.  The restaurant is right on the water and is composed of two parts.  The downstairs is a bar and patio with cheaper fare, whereas the upstairs and upstairs porch is a bit more fine dining.  We grabbed food upstairs and I had my first taste of Kingklip, a regional fish popular in South Africa.  The fish was quite good, a lot meatier than I thought it would be, and it was served with potatoes and butter sauce.  I’d also recommend their calamari appetizer.

Willoughby & Co.
Shop 6132, Lower Level, Victoria Wharf

This seafood restaurant is actually located in the mall, and you can’t miss it because of the crowd of people sitting in the atrium tables they’ve set up and the line of hungry patrons trying to get in.  After we saw the line we figured it had to be good and worth trying.  While in line, they offer a wine tasting to ease the waiting period.  We were told the sushi was the most popular dish by our wine server, so that’s what we tried.  They have a “4 X 4” sushi platter which is a combo of their popular rainbow reloaded roll (tuna) and spicy creamy rock shrimp roll.  The food was great–the service, well…the waiter was pretty smarmy.  I couldn’t tell if it was him being just being a dick or if it was a South African attitude thing, but it rubbed some in our group the wrong way and it takes the restaurant down a peg.

Belthazar
Shop No. 153, Victoria Wharf

If for some reason you’re craving steak there’s a restaurant option in the mall called Belthazar that was actually pretty good.  They claim it’s rated the best steakhouse in Cape Town, which could easily be made up, but also could easily be true because I’m guessing there aren’t THAT many steakhouses in Cape Town to compete with. Regardless, the steak was damn good, and as I mentioned before, pretty reasonably priced, but again it’s only really worth going to if you’re craving steak.

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Chicago Cut Steak

Watershed and V&A Food Market at the Waterfront

These are just two of several places to go shopping on the waterfront aside from the traditional mall, which is like any other mall you’d find in the U.S.  The Watershed and V&A Food Market are quite charming and offer some non-chain products from locals.  In there you can find local artisan foods and goods, such as jewelry, nuts, fudge, teas, textiles, home goods, etc.  It’s worth a walk through if you’re looking for a souvenir.

The Pyramids/The Egyptian Museum

You know what they are, you know what to expect.  But believe me – you cannot prepare yourself for seeing the Pyramids for the first time.  As we drove through the hectic streets of Cairo, over the river into Giza, the Pyramids almost sneak up on you because you don’t think that they’ll be THAT close to the city.   And then, “Whoa!”, there they are in all their glory.  As much as I hate to make this reference, and I’m laughing at myself right now for doing so, the experience is a little similar (just a teeny bit) to seeing the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas as you’re driving through the desert, but on a much smaller scale.  The Luxor would have to be like eight times the size of the U.S. Capitol building to meet the magnitude.

I already described the hysteria with the camel rides in the previous post, so I won’t get into that again.  After the camel rides, we had the choice of going into the Great Pyramid or the smaller Menekaure’s Pyramid.  We opted for the smaller pyramid due to the fact it was 30 Egyptian pounds per person and that the entrance fee for the Great Pyramid was much more expensive (I failed to record the price, my bad).  But nonetheless, the Great Pyramid on the outside was spectacular enough that we didn’t feel like we had less of an experience by not going into it.

Going inside the pyramid was extraordinarily claustrophobic, even more so than going into the tombs at the Valley of the Kings.   I would not recommend the experience to anyone who is the least bit uncomfortable in tight spaces, and/or has back problems because you literally have to crouch down an incline for about 50 meters. Once inside, the interior was pretty anti-climactic and we came out of it with only the feeling of accomplishment that we A) made it in and out without completely freaking out and B) that we were inside a pyramid.

Once we got out, the fresh, cool air never felt so good.  As we strolled around a little more, another thing I’d like to point out is that the second largest pyramid, Khafre, still actually had some of the original smooth casting stones on its apex allowing you to see/imagine how amazing the pyramids all originally must have looked thousands of years ago.  I’ll also say that at nighttime, the pyramids on the horizon are actually pretty ominous looking.  The silhouette of the pyramids was actually relatively frightening and it’s not hard to see how the villagers of the time viewed the pharaohs as nothing short of godlike.

From there we took a short walk down the hill and a got a look at the Great Sphinx (which was one of the few things I expected to be a little larger, but was still cool nonetheless).  I had no idea the “What has four legs at sunrise, two legs at noon, and three legs at sunset?” riddle that I’d heard before was the question the Sphinx asked.  I’m glad I would have known the answer (it’s “Man” btw if you didn’t know) because the Sphinx ate those who got it wrong. The one annoying part of that area was the millions of girls trying to take pictures of themselves giving the Sphinx a kiss (a little to the left, a little to the right, lift your chin up a little more, go on your tip toes a bit, crouch down a little, turn you head…)

We moved onto the Egyptian Museum in the center of Cairo next.  As much as I would have loved to take pictures of the amazing displays – once again, no photography was allowed inside the museum.  We were able to take some snapshots from the outside though.  The building itself is actually a historical landmark and it has the same 1930s Indiana Jones feel to the architecture.  However, any blogging I do about the artifacts inside wouldn’t nearly do the museum justice.  So here are just two tips.  1) Dedicate a full day to the museum, that’s how big it is and you’ll regret it if you don’t give yourself the necessary time to wander around and discover everything.  2) Pay the extra money to see the mummy room.  It’s worth every penny (though admittedly little morbid) to see the actual mummies of many of the famous pharaohs of Egypt.

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Luxor and Karnak Temples

When we were back at Luxor for the second time, we were able to see some of the sights that we didn’t get around to seeing on the day we arrived.  Two of the main highlights were the Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple.  The Luxor Temple was much like the Edfu Temple in size and look, and was conveniently located a few hundred meters from our boat.  The few highlights of the Luxor temple include the remains of some Christian murals that were painted over the original hieroglyphics and one of the first Islamic mosques that was over the temple.

The Karnak Temple was about a mile down the road from Luxor and it wins the prize (hands down) for the most impressive temple due to its sheer scale.  The Karnak Temple was not even close to being finished, but what had been built over the course of 2,000 years was amazing.  Of all the temples, it’s probably the most recognizable one from film (I personally remember seeing it in The Spy Who Loved Me during the scene when 007 is evading the henchman Jaws).  I’m just glad we didn’t visit Eygpt when they were filming the new Transformers movie there.  Imagine traveling all that way just to show up and the temple is closed because they’re making a third installation to what is a pretty horrible movie.  But alas.

It’s funny how incomplete the place is due to the fact that with each new pharaoh, started new building projects in or along the temple without finishing the previous king’s projects.  So it’s sort of like a potluck where each dish that everyone brings is only half cooked or prepared.   I’m not going to lie – thoughts of how amazing it would be to play hide and seek in this complex crossed my mind.   I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, but here are a few other things first:

-When you first walk into the Karnak Temple – look to your right.  You’ll see behind the left pylon the reminiscence of what used to be the dirt mound the Egyptians used as scaffolding.  That’s how the discoverers new that the temple wasn’t just a ruin that had fallen apart over time – it was actually incomplete.

– See the nighttime light show; it’s about 60 Egyptian pounds per person.  It’s a great experience, one that’ll give you that feeling you had the first time you saw an IMAX movie.  You walk through the temple and the lights project images on the sides of the temple walls and columns as a booming voice narrates a story.

-Try to find the graffiti left by Champollion, the man who deciphered the Rosetta Stone.  If you do find where he scratched his name, you’ll see how high up on the column it is.  It illustrates where the sand/ground level used to be and how massive of a excavation the Karnak Temple is.

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