My stay in South Africa unexpectedly lasted well longer than I had planned. But that’s the beauty of this trip. I let the journey take me, answer when opportunity knocks, and see what happens.
Pretoria became my defacto home base for a while. I befriended some awesome American diplomats and government workers, which made the trip a helluva lot more fun, interesting, classy, and fattening. Eating out often while nursing a foot injury and moving little as a result, cost me more pounds than I’d like. But few things match the delicious delight of a long meal out in good company.
I decided to roll with it, budget and health, be damned. Carpe diem and carpe the ten-to-fifteen dollar 1-pound filet mignons, half-pound T-bones with bone marrow, and surf and turf. Hell yes to the $3 coffee martinis and La Trappes, the $4 escargot and solid $10 bottles of wine. I tried many, many craft beers, including one called Naked Mexican, which I admittedly enjoyed in a similar state on a nice, sunny day. Had to do it.
So, yeah, I went a little overboard, but justified it because it’s an experience that would cost me 4 times as much at home and in many countries. This country knows meat, loves braaiing, and, with a favorable exchange rate and great incredible value, I wasn’t about to let willpower get in my way. Sorry, Argentina, ZA wins when it comes to meat.
The hikes I did in the Drakensberg, Kruger National Park, and along the Garden Route were incredible. Being a solo traveler prevented me from doing a few more because SAN Parks has a lame 2 or 3 hiker minimum for some trails, no exceptions.
I finally got a chance to learn more about rugby and cricket here, too. I hit 3 rugby matches, two of which featured the South African National Team, were packed, and a lot of fun. The South Africa vs Australia ODI was a good time, even though we left 4 hours in, just about halfway through. These things are long. I leave here a lot more knowledgeable about these two popular sports for sure, and wouldn’t hesitate to be in the stands for more in the future.
My visits to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and District Six Museum in Cape Town were memorable. Both provided a real, raw, and sobering look at the history of racial injustice in South Africa, especially the former. The experiences I had at both museums left me pensive and in disbelief. It’s been 22 years since Mandela came into power and Apartheid was abolished. But a deep divide – psychological and socioeconomical – and palpable tension still exist in the Rainbow Nation.
I made it to Beitbridge, the border with Zimbabwe, on a hot, packed bus, upon which I devoured Verne’s Around the World in 80 days. I’m taking my time and pushing 365 days right now, since I didn’t bet anyone.
Unfortunately, Beitbridge was 15 km from Musina, where my car rental awaited for my trip to Mapungubwe National Park. So, I jumped in a shared taxi and backtracked to find a place to stay in town. This was a true African experience: the driver hotwired the car to start it, got a push to get it moving, and off we went with some of the weakest headlights ever.
I spent the following two nights camping in Mapungubwe National Park. Except for the buck & monkeys in the campsite and a herd of 80 elephants, plus some zebras, the game viewing was disappointing. So was the much-ballyhooed archaeological site, but the museum was nice, and the landscape enjoyable.
The last twelve hours of my stay in South Africa couldn’t have been more South African. Another solo traveler, Gert, was in the campsite next to me. He rocked the obligatory short shorts (think early 80s NBA) and cammo that some Afrikaans are known for. Despite his racist leanings and outlandish remarks, he was an amiable older dude who shared some good stories with me, as well as some Savanna Dry ciders on my final night. The next morning he kept pouring Amarula for me. I couldn’t be rude and decline, especially because it’s so delicious. So, I ended up with a nice buzz at 7 am, just an hour-and-a-half after waking up completely sober. That was a first.
For ol’ times’ sake, I picked up my final hitchhikers of the trip on the way back to Musina. 50 km later, I handed in the rental and began walking to the border. I got about halfway there on a nice hot day while listening to an audiobook. It was then that Johannes put his bakkie in reverse and offered a ride to the border. I’d never picked up hitchhikers and been one myself on the same day before, so that was cool.
And just like that, my stay in South Africa was over.
My time there was everything I’d hoped it would be and more. Met great people, faced unexpected challenges, experienced successes and failures, truly enjoyed the great outdoors, and got to know Pretoria quite well. This country is an absolute gem and I will be back.
But, for now, A Great Journey continues in Zimbabwe! My first 48 hours have been a very busy adventure with surprising experiences on both ends of the spectrum.