In Review: Our Top Ten

Though narrowing a year’s adventure down to pick out our top ten experiences is a nearly impossible task, we tried to do it anyhow. After all, it seems to be what everyone most wants to know. So here it is, the ten experiences we most loved, ordered not by rank but in the order in which we did them.

1. Hiking Torres del Paine

Of all the landscapes we saw on our trip, I think the mountains of Torres del Paine were the most majestic. The sheer beauty of this place was breathtaking for each and every moment of the four days we spent hiking the W.

2. Traveling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu itself is mindboggling and not just because of the altitude. The amazing architecture and well-preserved state of this city in the sky wowed us. But what made seeing it really special was the intense three days of hiking through the Andes that we had to do to reach it. We also got to enjoy the company of my brother Gregory on this part of the adventure.

3. Cruising the Galapagos

This was eight days of pure bliss. From swimming with sea lions, sharks, and penguins, to laughing at the antics of blue-footed boobies, to marveling at the beauty of the natural landscape, to watching the stars rise from the deck chairs of our catamaran, our experience in the Galapagos was top-notch. It was far and away the most budget blowing of our adventures, but it was worth every single penny.

4. Living it Up in Buenos Aires

An apartment in a nice neighborhood, big steak dinners, ice cream every day (at least once), and a visit from my parents…our stay in Buenos Aires was like a vacation within a vacation. The city is vibrant and easy to get around with great architecture and atmosphere and tons to do.

5. Going on Safari in southern Africa

We saw our first lion in Kruger, got up close and personal with rhinos in Hluhluwe Imfolozi, encountered more elephants than we could count in Addo, found a few new species at Mountain Zebra, and became king of cheetah spotting in Etosha. We did a lot of safari-ing and never once got tired of it. In fact, I’m ready to go again.

6. Seeing the Surreal Landscapes of Namibia

Namibia might not have many inhabitants but they sure do have impressive landscapes. At Fish River Canyon, in the Quiver Tree Forest, atop the red dunes of Sossusvlei, in the forests of Naukluft, or along the Caprivi Strip, we were pretty much constantly snapping photos.

7. Meeting the Lovely People of Likoma Island

Until we ended up there, Likoma Island was never even on our radar. Malawi was supposed to be more of a pitstop on our way up east Africa, but it turned into one of our favorite spots. There’s not a lot to do on Likoma Island besides lounge on the beach and enjoy the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi, but the people are among the most friendly, welcoming, and fun loving that we met on our journey. I think we wore a constant smile the entire week we were there.

8. Trekking with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is not a misnomer as trekking through the dense forest is not easy, but every step is worth it for the opportunity to spend one hour in the presence of mountain gorillas. These magnificent creatures left us all awestruck. They are impressive in size, in expressiveness, in the way they reflect so much of us and we of them. Another pricey experience, but again worth every penny. Plus we had the good fortune to get to share the experience with Jeff’s parents and sister.

9. Learning to Scuba Dive

Experienced scuba divers claim that once you start, you can’t stop, and they know what they’re talking about. We’re already addicted and can’t stop thinking about when and where we can next dive. Take any of the underwater shows you’ve ever seen and multiply the magic quotient by 100. It’s that good.

10. Exploring Rajasthan

India was tough, but we did greatly enjoy our foray into Rajasthan. The forts, palaces, and heritage hotels preserved fantastic architecture and the feeling of glory days now gone. Though hassle was still present, it was low in comparison to other parts of the country, and we met some very friendly and interesting locals. This seemed to be the India of lore.

Boulder Beach Penguins

Though most people associate penguins with Antarctica and other cold, icy landscapes, our experiences with penguins have been in places that are not only not snowy but are, in fact, downright hot. Most recently we visited the penguins of Boulder Beach, South Africa, just down the peninsula from Cape Town. On this beach, thousands of African penguins, also known as jackass penguins for their characteristic braying sound, live. we were fortunate enough to visit during their molting and breeding season, which meant that the majority of the penguins were up on land rather than hunting for food out at sea. With boardwalks that lead right through their habitat and with a few of the penguins venturing out of protected territory and right onto the bathing beaches, we were able to get an up close look at penguin life.

Casting a shadow on the boulders for which the beach is named.

A little self admiration.

Contemplating life.

Venturing outside the bounds…and wondering how the heck to get back in.

Hoping that there is safety in numbers.

But sometimes losing the battle to the gulls.

Penguin father settling in to keep the eggs warm immediately after his partner laid them.

Sharing nest space with the kiddos.

Strutting their stuff on the white sands.

Robben Island Experience

Some people compare Robben Island to Alcatraz, but I think that’s a very unfair comparison. Sure they’re both notorious island prisons, but the people sent to the two prisons were very different. Those sent to Alcatraz had, in most cases, committed some rather heinous crimes. Those sent to Robben Island, had, in most cases, only committed the crime of wanting an end to apartheid and equality for blacks. I expected that a visit to Robben Island would be much more similar to a visit to something like a concentration camp than a visit to Alcatraz. What I mean is not that I expected to find something physically similar to a concentration camp with its death chambers and such, but I expected the emotional punch to be somewhat the same.

Some of Africa’s most brilliant black leaders gave their best years to Robben Island. When they could have been contributing who knows what to the world, they were locked in cells so small that I am not sure Jeff could stretch out across them or crowded into large rooms like cattle, not men. They had their every word listened to and their every bit of writing censored. They spent their days toiling at a quarry, their work not for any purpose but to break them. They contracted TB from the terrible working conditions, lost eyesight to the dust, and became old before their time. It’s heartbreaking.

But, unfortunately, that doesn’t come across very well on a tour to Robben Island. Instead, it does feel a bit like the tourist trip to Alcatraz. Half the trip is sent on a boat making your way the 12 km out to and then back from the island. Once on shore, you board a bus where you’re driven on a loop around the island, a guide pointing out various features that range from the animals that live on the island, to the church attended by lepers kept on the island before it became the apartheid-era prison, to the school attended by children who currently live on the island, to shipwrecks off the coast of the island, to, oh yeah, the buildings that housed political prisoners.

After the bus tour, your group is joined by a former prisoner, who leads you into one of the prison blocks. This part bears the most emotional weight as the guide tells you about his life and his experience in the prison. But then it’s look here in this cell, where you see nothing but a few bunks and lockers, and then walk quickly past Nelson Mandela’s cell, which contains a few blankets and a chair. That’s it. After that it’s back to the boat and back to Cape Town.

I don’t know what I expected. I don’t want morbidity for the sake of morbidity. I understand and appreciate that former prisoners have declared that they want Robben Island to be, not a monument to the evils inflicted by one man on another, but rather a monument to the power of the human spirit and the triumph of good. Yet, I think that could be accomplished in a much less sterile manner. I want to know about more of the men who were kept on Robben Island. I want to see photos of them. I want to know what they did (or were accused of doing) to end up there, what they did to maintain some level of sanity while held there, and what they are doing now. Who are these people, how did Robben Island shape them, and what have they gone on to do with their lives?

The Nelson Mandela Gateway, for where you board the boat to the island, is a museum containing some of this type of information, but once on the island, it’s seriously lacking. visiting the actual island felt a bit like stepping into a boxing ring, watching a serious punch fly at your face, and then feeling nothing but the wind of it missing by a few inches. It feels almost sacrilegious to say so, but if you’re in Cape Town with limited time, I’d maybe check out the Nelson Mandela Gateway but skip the actual island visit. And if you can find it, take in the recently produced documentary about soccer on Robben Island. We happened across it one day on the TV here, and we both felt like it was, sadly, much more meaningful and interesting than our prison visit.

The Otter Trail (and Otters!) at Tsitsikamma National Park

Tsitsikamma National Park is known for its famous Otter Trail, perhaps the most popular hiking trail in South Africa. It runs along the jagged coastline for 42 km along the well known Garden Coast. Climbing over boulders walking a split between a roaring surf crashing onto the rocks and 200 foot high cliffs on the other side, it is not an easy five day hike. Unfortunately for us, we did not have five days, nor did we book the trail a year in advance as is usually necessary.

Fortunately, though, there is a four hour day hike that “tastes” of the Otter Trail–the first 3 km–that anyone is allowed to enjoy.The sight that never gets tiring during the whole hike is to watch the waves crash into the rocks. The spray flies in all directions. The sound is intense, especially echoing right off the cliffs behind us. The seafoam in the tidal pools attests to the ferocity of the whole experience.

Our endpoint is a waterfall, although with the drought currently going on in South Africa (we’ve yet to see a river really “running,” they all seem to be dry or sitting still) it was more of a water drip.

And on the way back, the trail lived up to its moniker. It may seem surprising given all the incredible animals Africa has to offer, but I think I may have a new favorite. The African clawless otter. Surprising, huh? We saw one sliding around the rocks, which I was convinced was a seal until we saw the whole family. These live in both fresh and salt water … which I shockingly learned when they swam deftly out into the roaring surf.

I later learned they also have opposable thumbs that they use to catch fish, octopus, shellfish … it seems the eat just about anything they can manage. Fish they eat head first, which I think is what this guy is doing. He came up onto the rocks just 20 feet from me, gave me a look with his prize, and then was swept off by a gigantic wave. Pretty sweet animals.

My Bay

I’m nothing if not generous, and so it would stand to reason that the beach named after me, Jeffrey’s Bay, has what have often been called the “most perfect waves in the world.”

Everyone’s favorite spot is “supertubes” or “supers” if you’re in the know, and it is jam packed. The beautiful beach disguises a rocky sea floor (the reason for all the great waves … and why its not a “beginners” surf spot). We stopped for a few hours, walked along the beach and took some pictures ourselves, but didn’t dare take on the cold, rough waters ourselves. You know, since we know how to surf and all.

Elephants in Abundance

Just a bit north from the coastline of the Eastern Cape, you’ll find a game park called Addo National Elephant Park. While it boasts of the Big Seven (adding the Southern Right Whale and the Great White Shark, which can be found in the park’s small coastal section, to the typical Big Five), it’s named what it is named for a good reason: elephants abound. After first spotting a solitary bull male elephant casually strolling down the road and passing by our car so close that I could have reached out and touched him (or, seeing as he was absolutely enormous, I probably could have driven our car under him!), we arrived at a watering hole, where we happily found a large family group of about 20 elephants, ranging from teensy baby elephants to full-grown adults.

Having just recently read a National Geographic article about elephants and the way they interact in their groups (September 2008 edition, I believe), we were very content to just sit and observe the elephants. We watched as one elephant stood watch, as the tiniest baby elephant hid entirely underneath her mother, as multiple elephants splashed in the water, and as a couple of juveniles playfully trunk wrestled. We heard them grunt and bellow and even trumpet. It was cool.

But that was just the beginning. Apparently an elephant meeting was scheduled for the day at this watering hole, because just after noon, a parade of elephants lead out from the trees, down the hill, and to the watering hole. It was a seemingly endless parade, elephant after elephant, one behind the other, dust flying, and the grey of elephants poking out over the trees for as far as we could see. By parade’s end, probably somewhere around 50 or so more elephants had peacefully joined the approximately 20 already there. It was incredible.

We observed for nearly an hour before finally pulling ourselves away. At that point, one of the groups was beginning to depart, but plenty of elephants were still joyfully frolicking in the water.

On the rest of our drive, we spotted a few other animals, some we’d seen before (zebras, kudus, leopard tortoises, ostriches, black-backed jackals), and some that were new to us (meercats, as well as the dung beetle, which, by the way, has right of way in the park, so please don’t run over the poo!).

We also found another watering hole, where another group of elephants was cooling off. Though not as numerous as the group at the first hole, they were still fun to watch. Somehow it never gets old. Even though I have now, at this point, seen literally hundreds of elephants in the wild, I don’t tire of them. They truly are magnificent creatures.

An Insider’s Look at Life in a Township

During the era of Apartheid, blacks in South Africa were forced to move from white areas into designated black areas, which came to be known as townships. The townships were crowded and poor, and the people, many of whom had come from nice homes and stable lives, were left to live in squalid and often hopeless conditions. (Though, unfortunately, many also lived difficult lives prior to Apartheid as segregation and repression were not new ideas; simply more strictly enforced ideas.) Pass laws required blacks to carry passes designating when they could enter white areas and for how long they could stay. For these people, who could rarely find work, who were not given good education, who were forcefully kept out of society, the future—and the present—was a bleak one.

With the end of Apartheid, change came to Africa, but as with all such dramatic changes, it’s realities came slowly. Today, nearly two decades into the “new” South Africa, many blacks still live in townships. Some still live there, despite opportunities to move elsewhere, because it is now “home;” many others still live there because they, practically speaking, have no other options. For those visiting South Africa, a tour through a township is almost a must, an opportunity to see firsthand how the majority of South Africans live. Soweto, the famous township in Johannesburg where the uprisings that eventually led to the end of Apartheid began, is the most popular place for a tour.

We, while interested in visiting Soweto, were also a bit turned off by the info we’d seen on the tours, as we felt it might feel too much as if we were treating the people and their neighborhood as a sort of “zoo.” You know, a big group of probably all white people, walking around, taking photos, and gawking. But we did want a chance to see a township and to learn more about life there. As luck would have it, we literally ran into the perfect opportunity. While walking down the streets of Graaff-Reinet, a man said hello and stopped to talk to us, asking about us, telling us about himself, and discussing the politics of the day (Presidential elections in South Africa are April 22, and the president of the ANC, the party of Mandela, was just that morning cleared of charges of corruption, though it seems he was probably quite guilty.).In the course of conversation, we learned that he was the guy listed in the Lonely Planet who gave excellent tours of the Umasizake township outside Graaff-Reinet. It seemed like fate, so we set up a tour with him.

It ended up being an excellent opportunity. It was just Jeff and I with our guide, Xolile Speelman, and he treated us like friends, talking to us with complete honesty. He didn’t sugarcoat life in the townships, but he didn’t dramatize it either. He didn’t make the people into martyrs, and he didn’t make them into sinners. He talked of their challenges (both others-imposed and self-imposed) and their successes. And being a popular guy in the neighborhood, Xolile (pronounced with a clicking sound as many of the words of the Xhosa people are) introduced us to many people, quite a few of whom asked us to take their photos (so that we could send copies to Xolile and he could pass them on, as many of these people don’t really ever get an opportunity to own a photo of themselves). We met an older gentleman out with his wife, women working in their yards doing laundry and preparing food (each house has water and electricity provided by the government), and a lot of children, a bunch who hammed for us while wearing Jeff’s sunglasses.

We also were able to get a close look at some of the houses, which ranged from shanties of discarded wood, cardbood, and tin roofs, to nice brick homes.

We saw the schools, which are getting better, but are still not great due to the past inequality in training of teachers as well as distribution of resources. We visited a clinic, where free health care is available to the population, of which 14% is known to have HIV/AIDS. But as we learned that number is probably low, because most people don’t get tested, and unfortunately the disease is still highly stigmatized (more on this in a later post). We talked about international aid and development, politics and voting, corruption and crime, employment opportunities and government handouts, the ups and downs of affirmative action, and the problems of poverty. It was eye-opening, interesting, and highly educational. We left the tour feeling as if we’d gotten a true insiders look at life in an African township, and were not left at all with the feeling that we’d imposed or treated the people as a tourist attraction. So if you’re ever in the area and want to understand a bit better how a huge portion of the population lives, look up Xolile (Irhafu Tours in the Lonely Planet).

Into the Great Wide Karoo

When we were first charting our course through South Africa, we asked at our hostel in Johannesburg whether the Karoo, an arid area that composes over 40% of South Africa, was worth a visit. The response: “Only if you like a whole lot of nothing.”

Well, apparently, we love nothing, as we bucked the advice, headed into the Karoo, and then stayed longer than we planned. Though on the surface it can easily seem like vast emptiness, it’s actually not at all barren, and the seeming endlessness of it all only makes its beauty more striking. Plains stretch out, flat as can be, until a mountain jumps up from the ground. Purple wildflowers break up a sea of golden grass. The sky is big and brilliant and blue, at least until sunset when it glows every shade of red, silhouetting the mountains and making you wonder if this is what heaven looks like.

If you love a sense of wide open space, it’s a perfect place. Mountain Zebra National Park, though not highly visited and not especially packed with game, is amazing. We didn’t see wildlife as up close and personal as we did in most of the other parks, but instead we saw them framed against magnificent scenery. It wasn’t just about the animals; it was the entire scope of life in the wild in Africa.

And the Valley of Desolation, inside Cambedoo National Park, left us feeling not desolate, but awed. Huge dolomite formations, some one hundred meters high, jut from the ground, while behind them the land stretches seemingly empty until the mountains on the horizon. Both Jeff and I were reminded of Meteora in Greece. To us, there’s something majestic about a place so stark yet so beautiful.

Adding to the wonder of the whole place is the fact that amidst all this natural beauty and so-called “nothingness,” there’s also a really fabulous town, Graaf-Reinet, the fourth oldest town in South Africa. It’s quaint, with a slew of Cape Dutch homes that have made the national registry, house museums, a tasty farmer’s co-op store, and a grand church. It’s also exceptionally friendly, as people said hello on the streets and shop owners took the time to ask where we were from and tell us about themselves or about all their favorite places in the U.S. We were so smitten that what was supposed to be a two-hour morning visit turned into a two-night stay.

For us, that’s the beauty of road trips: finding the unexpected and discovering that one person’s nothing might just be someone else’s everything.