In the last installment, I arrive in South Africa which is the home nation of my lovely girlfriend. I explore Joburg, meet her dad, and experience the chill South African lifestyle of braais.
Now, the real part of the trip was to begin.
All the while, I should mention, Trevor Noah loomed in the background. Yes, by coincidence it was the same week that Trevor started at the Daily Show! I’ve always been a big fan of Jon Stewart and I was really looking forward to it. It was a big deal, his face was everywhere. South Africa seems to be pretty proud of their native son taking over my countries best political comedy show. His face was on every newspaper. Especially after the now legendary Trump-as-African-dictator bit.
(Although the place we mostly stayed at had cable, soon I would be without it, without even Wi-Fi on my laptop to catch up with TV. I’d eventually catch up, I always do, but to tell the truth being off the grid was hard on me. More on that in a moment. )
Also, people paid attention to the Rugby World Cup. Not only am I an American, I am an American who doesn’t follow sports. I didn’t really care. People seem to care a lot still. Something or other happened, Japan, Samoa, Wales, New Zealand. I don’t know.
Okay, on with the story.
Days Five to Nine
Day Five was a busy day. In the morning we went to downtown Pretoria and saw the capital Union Buildings. Then, transferred to another parent and in the evening we were to spend time with the mother. Again, I was anxious. Again, it was no big deal and everyone was totally welcoming.
I suppose being in one’s thirties, parents would have to accept whomever their daughter chooses to be with. Even me.
An uneventful evening, and then the next day the trip to the Kruger Park began!
Oh no, I knew it would partake of some driving, I knew it would be a challenge, but I didn’t know it would be that much driving.
My girlfriend’s mother’s husband drove, and we sat in the back. For days on end, we were driven around sitting in the back. Felt as if I was twelve-years old again.
Luckily I had my iPod. Got a lot of audiobook listening done: Gun Machine by Warren Ellis. I recommend it, a good listen.
First day out, a slow drive north with many stops at sleepy little towns where there’s nothing to do but buy postcards and trinkets from locals. Finally we arrived at Grasskop to stay at log cabin guesthouses on the night before the Kruger Park camping started. A nice town, an interesting art hotel nearby, and we ate decent Portuguese food.
Another thing about these old people I was hanging out with, they are serious morning people. Nice people, absolutely generous people who are kind enough to support and show me around their country on this tour. But seriously morning people. And I happen to be not. Had to get used to that.
At dawn left for the Kruger Park. Finally made it!
The way the Kruger Park conservation park works, is that it’s not some zoo with animals on display for you. It’s an enormous area the size of a city or province. The animals simply go about their life. There is a fence around the edges, and I’m sure the rangers control the animal populations to some degree. Yet for the most part the animals are living exactly as they would in the wild, and any visitor can certainly get the sense that this is no zoo. No zoo pretensions here, it’s totally authentic nature, the way South Africans like it.
One just drives around, on dirt roads, following a map if one likes or only wandering, and see what animals turn up. If there’s a lion, roll up the window. If an elephant is standing on the road, no choice but to wait until he decides to walk on (please don’t antagonize the elephants).
Right off the bat I saw a lot. Giraffes chewing on the leaves of trees. Zebras hanging around. Families of elephants enjoying the day and spraying themselves with water to cool down. Endless herds of impala. With my binoculars, I sat in the backseat and we parked around various locations and took it all in. I got some good pictures.
The campsites don’t open until the afternoon, so we really took it easy. Like, hours and hours of taking it easy. After a certain point, I was listening to my iPod and reading my thick George R.R. Martin (Storm of Swords, best book of the song).
The campsite parts of the day were more chill. You aren’t even allowed to go for a drive when it gets dark, unless it’s a guided tour, so we stayed in. Read in the cabin, relaxed. Swam if there’s a pool. Listened to the noisy frogs at the nighttime pool. Read some comic files on my computer, unitizing my laptop best I could though there wasn’t even any Wi-Fi! Used up the airtime on my phone fast.
Every day we went to a different campsite, each with its own stylized bungalows. “Round hovel” or something it’s called in Dutch/Afrikaans. The first had these silly-looking blue-headed guineafowl birds that walked about.
The second included a rhinoceros exhibit with a fenced trail, and we happened to even see a rhino walk right up (sadly no camera on me so no rhino selfie). Poor endangered creatures, least they have their horns here.
The final was near Crocodile Bridge and filled with baboons and vervet monkeys walking around the site chill as can be – do not ever feed the monkeys.
Every night, of course this being South Africa, we drank wine and had a braai. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but it’s not my scene to be so into nature. I could have used a little bit more technology to pass the time. I mean, the stars were beautiful. The animals were indeed beautiful. Like that scary late part of the night when the leaves were rustling and the flashlight revealed a baby elephant came right up to edge of the camp to munch on greens. I was so nervous upon approaching. That was some moment. Even the hyena was beautiful.
Yet, I sometimes feel worried that there is something wrong with me. I cannot appreciate it the way other people can appreciate. I need something to read. I need some interactive media to comfortably remind me that the rest of the world exists, some distractions. I like that. Unlike locals that are ever content listening to the winds on a slight buzz. All the while, I partly felt like there was this underlying conflict because I wasn’t having some spiritual epiphany out there in the African wilderness.
Perhaps I’m an empty person. Or perhaps I’m over-analyzing. I liked it, I’m me, and there was some nice experiences albeit the slow drives could get dull. All pretty much very good.
With a sense of completion, I can say that on the last day I saw real lions. Cats, being cats, are lazy and sleep all day, so it’s not easy to see them. On the very last day I woke up at friggin 5:00 a.m. for a drive, in order to see some of the more nocturnally animals that aren’t out in the middle of the day. Very luckily, some juvenile lions decided to go for a walk.
I made sure the windows were rolled up.
Have I left anything out? Warthogs, various bison, hippos in the water, wild dogs, and sleeping leopard. It was incredible, and I recommend visiting to everyone. Only, that is, make sure your iPod is charged because there will be a lot of downtime.
Days Ten to Thirteen
The drive back was a quick respite. By lunchtime, back in Pretoria to hang out at the father’s home. It was good to relax there, and of course get back online and catch up with all my book release business! Not to mention catching up on Trevor Noah…
It was a good day. The official goodbye to my father-in-law figure. Some heavy conversations that night. I really like the family, and I hope they liked me.
Next day, we were dropped off at the Gautrain station and went back to the airport. No, I wasn’t going home just yet. It was the final leg of the journey: Flying to the western coast to experience Cape Town. A short domestic flight, before we knew it we made it and my ears were popped for the rest of the day. I hate flying, but can’t be helped.
The guesthouse was awesome. The neighborhood at Long Street was great for exploring a modern, hip cityscape. Went bar-hopping a bit, ate veggie burgers. There was even a movie shoot. The never-ending stream of meth junkies asking for donations was pretty annoying, although one guy really seemed to appreciate the veggie burger leftovers and that felt rewarding. The park with squirrels that walk right up to you, strolling through markets, meeting European travelers at the guesthouse, and all that food.
Main event was going to the waterfront! Sadly, it was a cloudy day and I didn’t get to see Table Mountain, nor was it worth it to take a boat out. The Mandela museum was interesting even without time to visit Robben Island.
The whole waterfront was a very dynamic area, with all kinds of interesting shopping and yet more eating. The bar with the rugby game being quite intense for the likes of me. I like the seals.
The next day, still didn’t see Table Mountain. I woke up early and went to the roof, to the view of more fog. Was a nice breakfast. We check out, left our big bags, and it was off to the waterfront.
Killed some time and went out to eat. Had a short argument about KFC; I hate to be that American but it was the one time I wanted to try fast food abroad. Besides, I don’t even eat chicken, I only wanted to have mashed potatoes without gravy which they won’t do at KFC in China. I am admittedly not a foodie.
We were soon picked up by my girlfriend’s sister and driven to the suburbs. More family… Only this time it was so refreshing to hang out with family members my own age! Cool people, girlfriend’s sister and brother-in-law with their adorable two-year old. I sort of became an uncle for the next three days. And we really spoiled him with so many toys and gifts, which is always fun.
First we went to a wine country place to drink wine and have a picnic. Not a bad place, not my particular style, but was nice. A playground for the kid and everything.
We found a pleasant Airbnb place to stay at near the beach – though a bit cold it is always fun to walk along the beach. We babysat the little boy. Ate pizza. Occasionally he cried. And, finally one sunny afternoon saw the mountain everyone was going on about.
Those last couple of days were very chill, and among my favorite times. Just relaxing at the bed and breakfast. No pressure. Watching cable TV. Enjoying the facilities. Met their dog, cutest ever. Of course another braai, but a braai with the freedom of my own space.
When the last day came, I was sad to go. It all went by too fast.
On the final day, Day Fourteen of the two-week grand adventure, twas dropped off and flew from Cape Town to Joburg. Then, I stayed at the airport and flew to Hong Kong by way of Addis Ababa transfer again. A long day of three airplanes, it had to be that way to fit the time. No complaints. I caught up on a lot of reading.
My girlfriend stayed another few days to catch up on other things in South Africa. It was a positive, brief, goodbye. I flew back alone, and made my way from the Hong Kong airport across the border to my Shenzhen flat all alone. A very long day. (Soon I would pick her up at the pier, and all was well.)
The trip was amazing. Epic. Awesome. So many words to use. Overwhelming as well. The only thing that was perhaps left out was visiting the Cradle of Mankind exhibit with the recently discovered homo naledi remains. It was too new to have been in the original plans. No complaints. All in all, my girlfriend’s planning was indeed incredible, with sufficient time to meet everyone and see everything, from beautiful animals to loving family. Upon current reflection, I am rather in awe.
I may never have a trip like that again.
Now, on to plan next year’s…