A Travellerspoint blog

December 2009

Lydia's journey

It was thus in Lydia that the vast majority of the 5500km mentioned in the previous entry were covered, though the rain was constant.

Lydia. And no. As with all our other cars, I have no idea why she was so named

We had no specific plan for Lydia, just some diverse places we wished to see and a vague idea of how to linkup the disparate corners of South Africa that they were in. For complex logistical reasons to do with a wedding, ships and mostly me being an awkward b*stard, things could not be done in a straight forward, ideal or in many ways, even satisfactory way, and thus would involve regular backtracking and confused destinations.

As such after the obvious failure of the weather to improve and allow us to view the Drakensberg mountains, our whole reason for being there, we decided to call it quits for now and head North West, in search of warmer climes, clearer skies, drier roads and a big hole.

When we had been bouncing ideas back and fore as to what we had wanted to see or do, I had had very few requests. Never having been to the country before, all was good for me, and I was happy to go wherever, with few exceptions: I wanted a few days in Cape Town, to climb Table Mountain and if possible travel Jozi-CT in one direction by train. I needed to visit Cape Agulhas. And I very much wanted to visit the Big Hole.

Really, there is nothing much there at all expect for, well, a big hole. It is the kind of nerdy random thing that I love, but few others care about.

The Big Hole....

Kimberley is basically the heart of the worlds diamond mining industry. Lying onto top of the most fertile kimberlite pipe known, Diamonds have been dug out of it for almost 150years, and even today De Beers have a huge mining operation in the city. But the big hole is the original site. What makes it so impressive to me at least is the size. Originally it was hundreds of individual claims, before gradually being consolidated amongst a handful of big players as smaller scale miners sold out. By the time it closed down (almost 100years ago), the hole was well over 200metres deep, and has a perimeter of over 1.5km. And the entire thing was dug by hand making it by far the largest hand dug excavation in the world.


At the end of the day though, however big and however hand dug, the big hole is just a hole, and it was soon time to move on – via some hot donuts and a glance at Africa's oldest pub, naturally – and head for more exotic and remote climes.

Posted by Gelli 22:13 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

The short life of Abigail

I drove for 5500km through the rain.

Sometimes it wasn't rain, but more along the lines of thunder storms, lightning storms and torrential downpours. To be fair, it wasn't raining all the time, but on occasions it certainly felt like it. If it wasn't raining at any point you could pretty much put your money on the fact that it would be within the next couple of hours – It followed us constantly, and so we went around bringing rain (and joy to some locals, if not always us) to some of the driest places on Earth, which had a certain novelty value at least, even if it wasn't exactly ideal for us.

Maaret had arrived at ORT pretty much on time, unlike me who got so delayed by other people's incompetence at the car rental place that she was already drinking coffee upstairs by the time I was free. Of Fred, there was no sign.

The only photo of Abigail that we posses, complete with the inevitable overland truck

Our trusty vehicle had, obviously, been named Abigail, although trusty she was sadly not. A Toyota Yaris with a boot, she had the instruments annoyingly in the centre of the dash, absolutely hopeless central locking (which was not really central, and pretty much never locked anything) and very rapidly, a large red engine warning light which came on and then refused to go out. She got us to the Northern Drakensberg mountains, a UNESCO world heritage site of vast natural beauty although most of which we couldn't see due to a combination of the cloud and/or rain, or because we were recovering from sleep deprived nights.

Sadly the dream was not to last. Abigail and her red light were just too temperamental to be trusted where we planned to trust her, and so on only her second day, at the cost of half a day's holiday (and car rental), 200km and a significant number of rand's worth of petrol, she was returned and replaced.

We did pass this site, however. Hands up who never knew that Winston Churchill had once been a Prisoner of War? Originally in the area as a newspaper war correspondent in the Boer wars, in inevitable style he successfully escaped barely 3 weeks later

Note – I should point out that from here until I leave Africa, not all the photos will be mine. Many will have been stolen from the lovely Ofelia who has photographic talent, a decent camera and knows how to take pictures. Pretty much any decent one from now on is hers, and the dodgy ones remain mine.

Posted by Gelli 14:10 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Shopping the saffer way

If Harare had given me some culture shock, Pretoria was a revelation. I was fine on arrival, walking through the city and getting a bus to the house of some lovely and welcoming CouchSurfers who I stayed with. But the following Day, with some things to get and some chores to do, I went to Menlyn Mall. And that really freaked me for a few minutes. It was so busy, so opulent and obviously wealthy, and in a way, so white.

Possibly for security reasons and possibly for logistical reasons (everybody pretty much drives everywhere in South Africa, so large parking lots are required), South Africa has developed shopping along American lines: Large malls out in the suburbs, with city centres not especially important, and in many towns and cities, virtual no-go areas. And there are malls everywhere: new ones are sprouting up all over the place, of ever increasing size.

Menlyn Mall was large even by South African standards, and to somebody who had been away for a while, it was an incredible shock. It was painfully obvious that I really am back in what some people would call civilisation.

My introduction to South Africa was slightly atypical, and pretty much involved all the big no-nos that guide books and locals desperately impart on you for your own safety. I arrived in Pretoria not really knowing where I was going, walked through the city alone with my bags, got on a city bus to my destination (even the driver seemed utterly confused by my appearance), and then on my first evening/night went to downtown Johannesburg. If you pay any attention to the guidebooks, that combination of events pretty much has me dead on the spot. A couple of weeks later, talking to 3 South African friends, all looked at me with utter horror at the thought of taking a bus: Between them, they had only made ONE journey (if you exclude 1 of their commutes on a school bus when younger) by bus in South Africa in their entire lives, and that event had obviously left such an impression on the girl in question as to as good as require her to go into therapy. City Buses in South Africa seem to mean poor, and black, and no white South African I subsequently encountered would ever dream of using one.

Johannesburg (or Jo'burg, Joburg or Jozi, depending on your preference) at night was not a death wish, but rather the chance to go to a concert which i couldn't really turn down. An annual music and culture festival, we got the chance to listen to a variety of musicians and styles from across Africa: Namibian, Senegalese, Mozambican and my favorites, a Tuareg ensemble from Mali were amongst them. It was the first 'real' live music i had seen in many months, and I loved it.

A couple of days later, i moved down to Jozi properly for a couple of nights. Not entirely by choice, I must admit, and I got treated to huge dust storms and a couple of magnificent thunder storms for my efforts. But I had to come to Joburg. Maaret and Fred were coming back to Africa, and had arranged to arrive at OR Tambo airport at the wonderfully user friendly time of 04:55. A quick glance at recent flights showed that it was averaging over 30mins early. And I knew there would be hell to pay if I was not at the airport to meet them.

Posted by Gelli 04:09 Archived in South Africa Tagged shopping Comments (0)

On matters of Sewage Management

Sadly, i was rapidly running out of time and could only spare a few days in Zimbabwe. And in that time and without transport, it was pretty much impossible to visit either of the 2 places I really wanted to: Mana Pools National Park (the only National Park in Africa where you can walk around on your own amongst the animals) and the ruins at Great Zimbabwe.

And so i just pottered around Harare. I had chance to get over my culture shock, to enjoy people watching, browse the handicraft markets (the cheapest i have come across so far in Africa) and take in an excellent local play called 'Heal the Wounds' about the electoral violence and truth and reconciliation that came later: the very fact that such a play was even allowed to be shown is a great sign - Such a critical look of the government and other parties would have been ruthlessly clamped down and banned only months ago.

But I realised that Zimbabwe and Harare still had a long way to go on a visit to the Tourist Information office in the city. I stumbled across the building by accident, the staff seemed surprised to have a visitor, and the locals I had been staying with were amazed that such a place even existed: They had had no idea at all that it did. The staff were friendly, if bored, but what really did it for me was that the most interesting and prominently displayed leaflet (and there were not many) was produced by the City of Harare Water & Sanitation Department. And explained all about its Sewage Management program.

Only in Africa can Sewage Management be the item with the most information in the Tourist centre of the nations capital.

Posted by Gelli 04:08 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

2 Coffee's? That will be 24,000,000,000, please, Sir

There are stories – and true stories at that – of people going into shops to buy something. Whilst waiting to pay, the shop assistant had a phone call to be told that the currency had changed again, and that prices were now double. The customer, not having enough money, walked out to get some and came back 10minutes later to pay the new price. Whilst trying to pay for the second time, news came through that the currency had jumped again. The Zimbabwean Dollar in the late 90's and early-mid 00's descended into such hyper-inflation as to be utterly meaningless. Notes with ever increasing numbers of zeros on them were produced, culminating with a note of 100 Trillion. That is, 14 zeros.

Clearly, this could not continue.

And so after making it illegal to exchange Zim Dollars to hard (foreign) currency – though pretty much everybody converted their wages on the black market anyway – common sense kind of broke through, and the Zimbabwean dollar was officially withdrawn. Certain factors of the government want to see its re-introduction, arguing that Zimbabwe is a proud independent country and should have its own currency, although to this point these factions have yet to win through. Which all basically means that the once strong Zimbabwean financial system is a bit messed up, although you wouldn't necessarily know it from walking around Harare where large, gleaming offices of banks dominate much of the city centre.

Zimbabwe now officially uses the US Dollar: Government wages are paid in dollars, and all prices quoted in them. Refreshingly, Zimbabwe is also one of only 2 African countries (DR Congo being the other) that I have visited that do not care about crispness. Trying to use any note in most of Africa that is any way marked, torn, dirty or not looking in pristine condition is futile. In Zimbabwe, however, money is to be used, not looked at, so dirty well worn bills are the norm.

It is not quite as easy as all that, though.

Prices are given in dollars and cents, but there are basically no cents anywhere in Zimbabwe. You rapidly learn to mentally add up your shopping to ensure that you get as close to a round dollar number as possible to avoid loosing out. You also become accustomed to receiving sweets and candies as change to top up the sum. This is not unique to Zimbabwe – I have received sweets in Zambia, Malawi and Kenya on occasions – but is certainly much more regular in Zim. It does at least mean that you are not loosing out, although really the only people that can be happy with this situation are sugar addicts, kids and dentists.

An extra layer of confusion is then added by the fact that in most shops and establishments, you can also pay in other currencies at rates posted near the tills, and as these are not changed daily, if you know what you are doing and follow the market you can often get better value for money. But that leads to a situation where at least 4 currencies (USD together with South African Rand, British pounds and Euros) can be used interchangeably, whilst in places this rises to included Swiss Francs, Botswanan Pula and even Japanese Yen and Chinese Yuan Reminbi. Any change, naturally, is generally given in USD (and sweets) leading to some brain frying calculations. But apparently, this multiple currency system makes life easier. Hmmm.

The finally whammy is that whilst Zimbabwe has a good network of ATM's, at the moment pretty much none of them work: Allegedly, the system is in the middle of being converted to pass out USD, but at the moment getting any money in Zimbabwe means either bringing it into the country with you, or queuing for many hours (or days) to get into a bank and talk to a teller there. Such fun.

But it definitely makes life a bit interesting, and so for me, it's no problem.

A sign above a currently defunct ATM talking about the good old days

Posted by Gelli 04:02 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

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