Experiences of a med student with an incurable travel bug.

Archive for April, 2008

Robben Island

To add to an already action packed weekend, we went to Robben Island on Sunday. For those of you less familiar with South African history, Robben Island is where Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 total years of imprisonment. We had a half hour ferry ride to the island, followed by a bus tour to see island landmarks. Prior to becoming home to a prison, Robben Island (“seal island” in Afrikaans) was a leper colony. Few remnants, including a grave yard, remain from this era. The island, which is now a museum, is generally empty save for the cluster of barracks constituting the prison itself and a small town where island employees and their families live. Following the bus tour, an ex-political prisoner led us on a prison tour, describing prison life and showing us the cell where he had resided and the 2m by 2m cell Mandela was confined to for 18 years. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could survive in one of these cells under such conditions for so long, “let alone orchestrate one of the greatest sociopolitical movements of the century.” (M. I., Captain’s Log, April 20) [Plagiarism is strongly discouraged here.]


Wine Tasting, Round 2, and Best Train Ride Ever

Though I’d already done a wine tour in Stellenbosch, I was excited to go again when Stephanie set us up with a great deal – her dad has connections with these guys who own a winery here, and they had offered to give us a wine tour and tasting, for FREE! What college kid is going to turn down anything free, especially wine?! So early on Saturday morning we got ourselves on a train to Stellenbosch. We enjoyed brunch at a little café before heading to Beau Joubert, the winery, around 1. Here we met Andy, our tour guide for the day, who happens to be a Green Bay native! A great afternoon ensued, in which Andy gave us a private tour of the place and let us sample 11 – yes, eleven – different wines, some of them right out of the cooling tanks and aging barrels. He even drove us through the vineyards and out to the wooded area of their grounds where they have fresh spring water they’d like to bottle. Through it all we were talking about all things Wisconsin, with a mix of South Africa; any time you find a stranger from home you both just get so excited to talk about the things you both know and understand (ie: Brett Favre).

After this pleasant day we headed back to the train station to catch the train home, thinking we’d reached the end of the day’s adventures. We had checked to see what time the train went back to Cape Town, so when it arrived as expected, we hopped on and settled in for the ride home. The compartment doors slid shut, and the train did indeed depart – in the opposite direction. Having been here for a while, we’re used to things going wrong; in fact, it’s more unnerving when things go right. This, however, posed a few more problems than we had bargained for that night. It was now getting dark, and we were heading in the wrong direction on a form of transport we’d been told by everyone in the city not to take after dark. Ok, not a big deal, there were five of us and there were plenty of people around. We just asked a fellow passenger how we could get to Cape Town. She told us not to worry, the train would turn around soon (relative term, of course) and go back to Cape Town. Great! We were set.

The train did indeed turn around after a while and head back toward Cape Town. We had arranged for a taxi to come pick us up when we arrived at the station as it was now too late to take a minibus, so we just waited for the train to pass all the other stops. When the train pulled into the Belville station, we didn’t think anything of it, it was just another stop on the line. Then the lights turned off and the train locked down. Perfect. So we open the compartment door and wait for the employee walking the length of the train to reach us; we asked about getting to Cape Town, and he informed us that the train was just stopping there in Belville that night. Ok then, wonderful. He did walk us to the police station about 100 meters away where we could devise our next plan of action. The police didn’t mind us loitering in their station too much, but they were reluctant to give us a ride home without charging us. So, we got our cab driver to come allllll the way out to Belville to pick us up and drive us home. During the wait, Molly nearly got herself arrested for taking a picture of the police station; they let her off with a lengthy lecture on needing to ask people for permission before taking their pictures, and having her prove to them she had deleted the picture. Mind you, the picture was of the station from the outside, so while there was some of the station’s window in the picture, you couldn’t see anyone inside….

Eventually our taxi arrived and delivered us safely to our homes. He was even more defiant than we were about the police not bringing us back; he insisted that it’s their job to get stranded people, such as ourselves, to safety. The thing is though, like most things here, what the police are supposed to do and what they actually do are two very different things, often determined or influenced by lack of financial and other resources.


When I came to South Africa, it was under the impression that I was going to a country where I’d be able to get by with my somewhat decent knowledge of the English language. Little did I know, there happens to be a whole different language of slang in use here, influenced by a mix of Afrikaner, British, and assorted others. Unless you pay close attention, it’s pretty easy to have no idea what someone’s talking about.

South African Slang Essentials:

keen – anxious, eager
lekker (pronounced lekka) – good, cool, sweet, etc.
shame – too bad (same as U.S., but used approximately every 1.5 seconds in normal conversation)
howzit – how are you, how is it going
izzit – really, is that so
robot – stoplight
globe – light bulb
torch – flashlight
lift – elevator or a ride somewhere
jersey – sweater
takkies – tennis shoes
mealies – corn, corn meal (maize, not sweet corn)
hectic – crazy, busy
– honking of a car horn
sorry – excuse me, pardon me
cheers – bye, see you later

If ever you find yourself in a situation where you need to pass as a South African, just follow these simple steps:

  1. Initiate conversation with a laid back “Howzit”
  2. Respond to any remark with “izzit” or “shame”
  3. If asked when you will do something, say “just now”
  4. Bid farewell with “Cheers!”
  5. Rinse and repeat

You’ll notice that any question with a “when” element should be responded to with “just now.” This is a blanket phrase that is used to mean right now, soon, sometime within the next three weeks, or perhaps “never, but would you stop bothering me about it?” If you’re lucky, you might get a “now now,” which is a slightly more immediate form of just now, tending to indicate that it should happen within the next few hours – or days.

Well, I’ve been through the desert…

…on a horse with no name – only it wasn’t a horse, it was a truck (not a bus!), and its name was Lennon. And there were a few tour guides to make sure we didn’t kill ourselves on the strychnine plants or the deadly scorpions. It was pretty fantastic, particularly as we all managed to make it back alive and relatively unharmed. Here’s the break down:

Day 1: Departed from Cape Town, driving north to the Cederberg Mountain Region. After one of our shortest bouts of driving of the trip we arrived at the backpackers lodge and set up camp. We were using tents, old-school canvas tents that were actually much roomier than I anticipated, and very easy to assemble. As it was blasted hot, we changed and walked through the citrus fields to the river for a swim. The river turned out to be a small, small stream, with a strip of sandy shore line, and it was perfect, nice and cool while the sand was scalding. We’d been hanging out there for a while when a group of boys, probably ~9-11 year olds, showed up to swim too. At first they didn’t seem to know what to think about a bunch of tourists invading their swimming hole, but they eventually warmed up to us, probably because some of us had brought inner tube that we let them use. They were adorable, skinny little black boys just being boys, racing each other across the river and doing handsprings and flips into the water.

Day 2: We continued our journey north in the trucks, camping that night on the shores of the Orange/Gariep River, which constitutes a large portion of the South Africa-Namibia border. Once again, it happened to be hot, so we decided to go for a swim. Only this time —


Seriously. Not even 50 meters across the river, and we were standing on Namibian soil. I’m still amazed that we were legally able to do that; it’s not at all like the Rio Grande between the US and Mexico, where I’m fairly certain they don’t just let you swim across for fun. And here, there’s just no where to go after you make it across; there’s no one for miles in any direction in either country. That being said, I’m sure that people do come across the border here and in other places if they are able to make it to that point; the number of refugees in South Africa is astronomical, people fleeing from Darfur, Sudan, and everywhere in between. Having met a Darfur refugee, a doctor who was imprisoned and tortured for helping his people, who escaped and fled on foot from within Darfur, through jungles, and snuck across the South African border, I know that there are plenty of people who come to South Africa this way.

Day 3: In the morning we canoed 7ish kilometres on the Gariep/Orange River. Only it was more rafting than it was canoeing in this inflatable dingy (kinda like the rescue boat I spent most of last summer in, sans the motor); the river was absolutely still except for the 2 or 3 places that were kinda like small rapids if you used your imagination, so it actually took a bit of work to propel the boats through the water, whereas real canoes would have been super easy. It was really beautiful though.

That afternoon we officially crossed the border into Namibia, this time via truck. It may have been this day that the trucks just pulled over in the midst of all this crazy plants to tell us all about them. As it turns out, these bushes contained strychnine (in theory) – pronounced “strike-nine” if you’re African – and therefore incredibly deadly. Remarkably, we all resisted the urge to touch them, but Amanda and I did get a great picture of me restraining her from getting at the bush, which captured the theme of our relationship (“Amanda, that’ll kill you, please don’t!”). After setting up camp, we headed over to the Fish River Canyon, second in size only to the Grand Canyon, where we watched the sunset over the canyon.

Day 4: More driving. As we continued north the landscape got more and more sparse as we got closer to the heart of the Namib Desert. As can be expected in such an arid area with harsh conditions, the population density is extremely low; we’d drive for hours without seeing anyone, and the sighting of another vehicle brought on horn honking from both parties as everyone was just happy to see another soul. I think it was this day that at one point the trucks just stopped in the middle of nowhere, there was nothing around for miles except huge expanses of desert, and the guides told us to just go see what it was like to be in that huge empty space. We all took of running in different directions and just absorbed it; dead silence, nothing visible apart from barren desert for miles. Incredible. That evening we hiked around the Sesriem Canyon – or at least tried to. As it turns out, there was actually water in the base where we would have walked, so that interrupted the hike. We did find a cool cave in the side of the rock though, which we proceeded to crawl around in and attempt artsy pictures (with moderate success). Found deadly scorpion at dinner that night.

Day 5: Up before dawn to embark on a race to the sand dunes, attempting to beat everyone else there so our footprints could be the first on the fresh sand. At 6:00am sharp we were off, literally racing all the other cars that were trying to do the same thing, passing little cars in our beast of a truck as we rushed to Dune 45, one of the highest dunes in the Namib Desert. You might ask why it’s called Dune 45; our guides told us lots of reasons: it’s 45km from the campsite, it’s as high as a 45 story building, etc…all lies. Not the first, or the last, time they lied; if they didn’t know something (or even if they did), they’d just make something up for their own amusement. You’d have to with that job, fielding ridiculous questions from tourists all the time. By the end of the trip we were just pointing at things and asking them to tell us, no, to make something up, about the object in question, because we found it highly amusing as well. Oh, the real reason it’s called Dune 45? All of the dunes are numbered. No particular reason or pattern.

We weren’t quite the first people to the dune, but we were close. We began the trek up the side of the dune, which turned out to be a bit of a challenge; with every step you took you’d end up sliding down almost as far with the cascading sand. After a while though we made it and collapsed on the top ridge to watch the sunrise. There are a lot of minerals in the sand there, which has actually led to rusting in the sand, giving the dunes a beautiful reddish-orange hue, which changed by the second as the sun rose. It was positively gorgeous, and we did a regular senior-picture style photo shoot to try to capture it, even though you just can’t get that on camera.

After breakfast at the truck, we went to a place where some people went on a guided walk while the rest of us just played in the desert. We found a patch of parched ground that was most definitely the exact spot where Simba collapsed from dehydration and nearly died before being rescued by Timon and Pumba. Of course we re-enacted the scene.

That night was spent in Solitaire, supposedly the smallest town in Namibia with a population of ~32 and a mayor named Moose, who also ran the campground we were at. As Solitaire is famous for its apple pie (yeah, don’t ask) we finished off the night with a piece. Don’t worry, it was nothing compared to the homemade stuff back home, but still pretty good considering the lack of apples in the middle of the desert.

Day 6: Found deadly scorpion under Amanda and Stephanie’s tent, right next to ours when packing up in the morning. Meh. Drove to and arrived in Swakopmund, where we booked the next day’s activities with a group called Desert Explorers. As this company has hosted Brangelina in the past (Brad Pitt + Angelina Jolie for all the confused parents out there), how could we go wrong?

Day 7: SANDBOARDING! We did stand-up boarding, which was basically snowboarding except on the side of a sand dune. This also allowed us to do lie-down boarding, which was just like sledding down the dune on a bit of greased board. They clocked us going 60-80km per hour at the bottom! See pictures, and be amazed no one got seriously injured.

Day 8: On the bus by 4am to begin our long journey back, stopping in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, on the way through. We stayed just inside the South African boarder for the night at the same place we stayed on the second day where we swam to Namibia. ~16 hours of driving

Day 9: Left at 5 to finish the drive, arriving in Cape Town at 5pm. We had asked if they could let us out on the Main Road instead of driving us all the way back to campus as it would be closer to everyone’s houses and would cut the mountain out of our walk. As we drove in, wondering where they might decide to stop, they just happened to pull over right on the end of our street! It was amazing, we told Bernie, one of our guides, that we lived just a block away, and he responded, “I knew it, I could feel it in my bones!” hahahaha. From there they just kept stopping periodically along Main, letting everyone else off near their houses too. So nice.

So there ends my Namibian tour. While I can hardly do it justice in a blog and with photos, I hope you’ve enjoyed both, they were amazing!