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A South Africa Trip Report in 4 parts

Part 1
December 16, 2005

My partner and I had booked frequent flyer tickets through Delta Airlines for our trip to South Africa. For 50,000 miles, we could depart from Paris > Cape Town via Johannesburg and the return was Cape Town with an eight day stopover in Johannesburg and then back to Paris. In order to get to Paris, we had to either redeem more miles or arrange our own way there. We decided to book ourselves on Wizz Airlines, a budget airline flying from Budapest. The taxes for the ff tickets came to $109.00 and our R/T flight on Wizz was $150.00 for the two of us.

We landed at Beavais 2 hours after we took off. Where is Beavais? It is not Paris, but a suburb airport. Delayed by having a cup of coffee on our arrival, we missed the bus to Paris. Tickets for the bus are 16 Euros each. It was freezing cold outside and the bus does not have a sheltered stand to wait, poor planning. We were told the next bus would be at 6:00 pm a whole forty-five minutes from the time we asked, but it did not show for yet an additional fifty minutes at 6:50 pm. It only appears when there is a flight coming in and the last flight was delayed, thus the bus is delayed also.

It is a direct bus to an open parking lot in downtown Paris. From here, we took the metro to the B and B where we were staying. Our host Christian Petitjean was waiting for us. His flat accommodates two people and he charges 47.50 Euros a night for both of us including a French breakfast (petitjean75@wanadoo.fr).

The ‘B and B’ is a nice flat, but with only one bedroom in the 2nd Arr. It is perfect for a couple, but no more. When he lets it out, he sleeps in the living room. There are two water closets or specifically one has the toilet only, while the other has the tub and sink. He is on the 6th floor with a lift in a very convenient location. Christian’s English is perfect since he is an English professor at one of the universities, but is retiring at the end of the spring term. He rents his room for the extra money, stating that the cost of living is becoming beyond his means.

It was late and we had not had dinner, so we ventured around the neighborhood. There were literally dozens of restaurants for any cuisine one could desire, but the prices were shockingly high. We did come across a Lebanese restaurant that looked appealing and was reasonable. The food was excellent and the cost was modest.

The bed and bedroom were well suited for our need for sleep and quite comfortable. Breakfast was coffee and toast with an amazing assortment of jams and jellies, many of which he orders from Corsica.

We had met up with one of my former students from Hungary and spent the next couple of days touring the city with her. We revisited a number of places we had been to before, but did take us to places we had not known about. The modern buildings at La Defense were an interesting contrast to the historical architecture of Paris. Next is Dec. 19th.

December 19, 2005 Paris to South Africa

We have our flight from Charles De Gaulle airport at 7:30 pm. We will have to take the RER from town. Christian said it was not a problem leaving our things with him, so we went to St. Eustache Church, which was interesting, but I did not take pictures of it. Ron did though.

It was raining and cold, the kind of cold that permeates your bones and then it is difficult to warm up again. From the church, we went to an underground mall and found the RER station closest to Christian’s flat. He had recommended we buy our tickets ahead of time to avoid any lines when we needed to leave. We followed this suggestion. The RER tickets were 10 Euros each and if you take the direct train, it is 45 minutes travel time.

We were inspected three times by ticket inspectors while in Paris. This seemed surprising since they have large gates you must go through to get to the actual transportation.

There were numerous times I held the thought of summer in South Africa to get me through the chill of Paris. Regardless how lovely Paris is, cold is cold and it is difficult to appreciate things when you are shivering all of the time and fearing getting sick before your trip actually starts for real.

I had called South African Airlines a few days before leaving Budapest to reconfirm our tickets and reservations. They agent who was a man, very pleasantly stated that it was never necessary to reconfirm paper tickets with them. Part of the trepidation was the fact that they were frequent flyer tickets through Delta Airlines and I did not want any last minute screw ups.

We arrived at the airport 3 hours prior to our flight and feeling noble about being the early birds until we found about 150 people in line ahead of us. I have to say that SAA is very efficient. We were checked in with boarding passes in hand within 30 minutes.

In De Gaulle, the only places you can smoke are outside in the elements or in the Hippo Bar and Restaurant in the basement. De Gaulle is going through major reconstruction, so many parts of it in the International terminal look vacated. We bellied up to the bar for a beer and a smoke. We had an 11 hour flight of being smoke free ahead of us. Since we were not eating, they would not seat us at a table.

Boarding started to the minute that was on our boarding pass and we took off the minute we were scheduled. The plane layout was 2-3-2. It was not one a Boeing, but I forgot to note what type it was. It was nearly full though. We had the two seats on the right side, window and aisle. The problem was that our overhead lights did not work in the entire section and neither did the headsets for the video monitors. An eleven hour flight without some distraction is a long flight. There were about 20 rows of seats that had this problem, but the crew tried rebooting the computer unsuccessfully and could only offer an apology.

When they offered drinks, they announced that we should ask for all that we wanted then as there would not be any further liquor service after dinner was served. Dinner was beef stroganoff and surprisingly delicious. The crew was efficient and fast, but not friendly. They were not unfriendly, but very businesslike. They did their job and then disappeared. They did not resurface at all until breakfast was served two hours before landing. The crew reminded me of the Stepford wives, very robotic and there seemed to be an endless supply of them. They did not even do a follow-up with water, which has always been our experience with long haul flights in the past. Ron asked for crème liquor that is supposed to be customary to South Africa, after dinner was over. He received it, but received a negative look also.

The air turbulence was the worst that I had ever experienced in all of my years of flying. It was comparable to a ride at an amusement park and for the first time ever, I was getting a bit white knuckled. The ups and downs and side to side motions lasted for over two hours without a break. It felt like the plane was having epileptic seizures. At other times in the flight, it was bad, but not as much as those two hours. Not being able to read or watch the movie made is worse; there were no distractions at all. I started coming to terms with dying on a plane, but on an intellectual level only. Just as I was really getting into it, we were ready to land. I had just hoped it was on the run-way and the correct one at that.

December 20, 2005 Arrival in South Africa

We arrived in Johannesburg at 7:10 am, ten minutes ahead of schedule. For such a large plane, we still had to disembark onto a bus to be transported to the terminal. There were only three passport control booths for “All Passports”, but there were seven others for “African Nationals”. The process of getting through Customs took over an hour and after having a tiring night, I was not in any mood for this.

After we made it through, we had to collect our luggage and recheck it in to follow us on to Cape Town. A porter in an “official” orange uniform insisted on helping us with the luggage, though we did have a hand cart. He would not take “no” for an answer, though I told him we did not have any Rand yet. When we could not tip him, he suggested we venture over to the bank machine and get money while he escorted us over. I don’t think so, not with all of the advice we received about safety here. The signs do state that if the port assists you, you should give them a tip of 5 Rand (less than $1.00) minimum. There is nothing there about coercion. We promised him we would return and would look out for him. We did not include the day or lifetime that we would return, so it was not a complete lie.

We walked over to the Domestic terminal and asked six different people how to get to the Diners Club lounge, each time getting a different set of instructions that led to no where. We knew it was supposed to be on the 4th floor, but all of the elevators only went as high as the 3rd. Finally, we asked at security and they pointed upward. It was on the upper level after going through security.

I had forgotten my card at home or rather left it there for safety. I did have my account number with me and they were kind enough to let me in without it. By now it was 8:40 am and our connecting flight was not until 2:30 pm. The lounge was lovely in a tasteful African motif. There was a separate room for smokers with a heavy duty exhaust system, so when you entered, you still would not realize you were in a smoker’s room. Diners Club shares the facility with the airline lounges, therefore, there were all of the refreshments you would expect both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. In addition, there were sandwiches, cookies, muffins, coffee and tea as well as a variety of chips. It was eye opening for us to see chicken, beef, and billabong flavored potato chips as well as tomato flavored corn chips.

The lounge attracts a lot of families. They have a shower room you can reserve for free. There are 2 computers with high speed Internet services and Wifi connections. We ate drank and napped the hours away.

At 2:10 pm they started boarding our flight and 20 minutes later, we were leaving the gate for the runway. I wished I had my camera in my lap and not in the overhead. The scenery below was breathtaking patchworks of red and I would have loved to shoot some of it. The overhead was too congested to sort through it to retrieve the camera. As we approached Cape Town, the mountains were magnificent with the patchwork changing to greens.

While waiting for our luggage, we heard our names being announced. Our ride to the hostel was waiting for us. The cost was 90 Rand for the first person and 30 for each additional person going to the same location. Ron had forgotten his vest on the plane; we were sure it was lost for good. He stopped at Lost and Found before we left and it had been deposited there already.

The trip to Ashanti Hostel was 40 minutes. We traveled with a German woman, Maria, who had been here since November and was unwillingly leaving the next day. She was staying at a different place than us.

Ashanti is a large hostel http://www.ashanti.co.za in Cape Town that had great reviews in some of the budget online travel boards. We decided to risk it though our ages are well beyond the average backpacker. Actually, I feel like a degenerate entering these places with luggage, but they did not seem to notice. Our room was right by the pool, which seemed like a great idea when I booked it. We had a sink in our room, but the showers and toilets are communal. They do have another house with ensuite rooms. To save money, we chose to share. The kitchen is huge and fully stocked with anything one could need to create a dinner from scratch.

About 3 long blocks away is a grocery store called Checkers. Going there usually in the early evening became our daily routine. We bought groceries and cooked rather than eat out too many times. The food is much less expensive than in Budapest and there are many fruits and vegetables we do not have access to making it a treat to shop and cook.

We did go to a pizza restaurant tonight just due to tiredness from the travel. I had a large pizza with spareribs and Ron has a sun dried tomato with different cheeses. We each had a large beer. The total bill was about $12.00.

The hostel warned us not to walk in certain areas at night. If we wanted to venture to the clubs at night, we were advised to take a taxi there and back again. We are not club people, so it did not affect us, but we did keep the warning in mind.

Ashanti has a bar on the second floor with a great open patio. The view of Table Mountain is magnificent. Today was cooler than I had expected, needing a light jacket due to a heavy breeze coming through. Hopefully, it will start warming up as the days go by.

The rule at the hostel is that the noise stops at midnight. It seems it did tonight, but we were so exhausted from travel, we could has slept through it anyway.

December 21, 2005 First full day in Cape Town

We spent most of the morning, or actually all of the morning planning much of our time here. We booked a tour for Dec. 23, 24th, and 27th. Nothing is happening on the 25th or 26th, they celebrate Boxing Day. We went upstairs to the bar area for a latte. It is nicely decorated in an African theme also. The whole place is very tastefully decorated. They do make a decent latte and it is not expensive either. Twice the size of what you would get in Budapest.

We went downtown looking for the Pan African Market at the suggestion of the travel agent here at the hostel. There one could find crafts and art work from all over the continent and they supposedly had the best prices. At the street fairs, everyone greets us with the same greeting, “Hello, I make you a good price.” They all seem desperate to sell. There do not seem to be many tourists around yet. After an hour, it was either sensory overload or something else, the stalls all starting looking alike, though the masks are very different and each has its own story to tell. We stopped a restaurant for a snack and sat outside. We were waited on by a charming waitress named Tanya. She was very lively and friendly. Tanya told us that due to the crime, all of the businesses within a block pool their resources and hire private security guards to patrol the area. Still the center city is closed down after 6:00 pm. The hostel people told us to take a taxi to and from downtown if we go out at night, other wise it is too dangerous to walk.

We did find a mask we liked in the real Pan African market and negotiated it down to 350 Rand from 700. The salesmen were two brothers from Cameroon, thought the mask is from Swaziland, a separate country in eastern South Africa. When we walked through the Company Gardens park where Parliament and the President’s house are, we met this young man who moved here from Zimbabwe, named Gilbert (wirebundu@yahoo.com). He does bead work on wire to look like animal trophy heads. We would have bought one immediately, but we did not have enough cash on us. We told him we would return and we are sure he thought it was the usual tourist line. For bead work, they were very dramatic and beautifully crafted.

December 22, 2005
The weather forecast was cold and chance of rain, but we walked downtown ready to hop on and off of the Red Line bus. There are two different routes with only some minor overlap. The blue line has different stops. An all day ticket was only 180 Rand for both of us and was good until 5:45 pm. We decided to do a complete circuit to see the sights and then the second time around, we could decide where we wanted to stay longer.

One stop was the cable car station at the base of Table Mountain. The view of the “Bowl” the city below was fantastic, though a bit overcast. It was freezing up there and clouds were starting to cover the mountain, so the cable car was not running. Other stops were some of the beaches, which are pristine, but the water stays cold throughout the year. Recently, they have had a number of white shark warnings, so where you swim is closely guarded. For us, it was definitely too cold for swimming and the surfers are wearing skins all year long. It gave me goose bumps just watching people in their swim suits.

Our first stop off of the bus was the Catwalk Internet Café. Our bus ticket included coupons and one of them was for a free hour of Internet service each. The Catwalk has 85 computers linked to high speed Internet and is the cheapest place around at 10 Rand an hour without a coupon. It is open 24 hours a day as well as a little café that also serves snacks. If you are a smoker, the upstairs is set aside for smokers. You can drink your coffee, smoke, and surf the Internet all at once.

We walked around the block and down the street to yet another Red bus stop and picked up the bus again. We had a different guide on this bus; the guide is live and in English only. We went back up to Table Mountain cable car station and it was even colder than before.

Our second stop off was at the beach where we had lunch at Theo’s Restaurant, another coupon from the bus ticket. Our coupon was for 20 Rand off of a bill totaling 50 Rand. I had the most wonderful steak fillet covered with blue cheese sauce and chunks of blue cheese with small baked potatoes. Ron had King Klip fish, which he had never had before and really enjoyed it. We each had a beer, but the bill with the 20% tip that I added came to 121 Rand or about $20.00. Food is so much cheaper here than in Budapest for eating out and for grocery shopping.

After lunch, we walked along the beach front to the Red bus stop. We took the bus to the waterfront, which is a huge complex of boat docks, a large mall, dozens of restaurants, a slew of stores independent of the mall, two cinema complexes, and the Two Oceans Aquarium. There are also separate African craft stores with some interesting things, but we did not buy anything on that trip.

We learned on the bus, amongst other things that the population of the country is 40 million with 4.5 million living in Cape Town and the suburbs. The country is so large, you can fit in Germany, France, and still have room left over for part of Spain.

The bus had finished for the day, so we were on our own for a way back to the hostel. Taxis are metered and relatively inexpensive. It was suggested that we stick to a ‘Rikki’ (Phone number 021-418-6713), an open truck like taxi with fixed rates or to call Sea View Taxi for the best rates (Phone number 021-447-7333). There are also vans that go to different destinations, but we never attempted these. They are usually overcrowded and you have to be familiar with the route they are taking.

December 23, 2005

We had a tour today with Day Trippers (http://www.daytrippers.co.za/) so we had to start out early. They were coming for us at 8:15 am. Louise was our tour guide, but arrived late. However, there were only three of us on the tour, so Louise was able to give us lots of flexibility. Normally, they only take a limit of up to 9 people in a comfortable van. She offered to stop wherever we wanted to so that we could take pictures. We covered so much territory; the names are all a blur now. We went to beaches we had not been to before, coves, and bays. Our first scheduled stop was seal island, but this was an additional side trip for 35 Rand for the boat ride, so none of the three of us wanted to do it. This would have been 45 minutes, so we made up the time for Louise being late. After having a coffee, we moved on.

We went around a bay and a cliff with boulder holders. Louise told us a story about five guys who were drunk and went over the cliff in a Mercedes. They came out unscathed, so Mercedes decided to use this for a commercial.

The next stop was Simon Town. There was reputedly a great dane who hopped the train in Cape Town and rode to Simon Town where there was a naval base. He would run around the base and then hop the train back to Cape Town. When there were complaints, the navy made him an official navy dog, so he could ride for free and without complaints. He was given a military burial on the navy base when he died.

Boulder Bay was the next stop to see the Jackass penguins. They were initially named this since they have a bray that sounds just like a donkey. Later they found that there is another breed that makes the same sound, so these were renamed “African” penguins. They used to be allowed free range throughout the area, but as it became more populated, the dogs and people were killing them. There are still penguin crossing signs on the streets. Now they are barricaded and are on the endangered species list. There is a large boardwalk viewing area where people can walk to see them. They are not intimidated by humans. It was strange to see penguins in a sandy, hot climate, but they have adapted to it. The viewing area is called Foxy Beach.

On our way to Cape Point, we drive by Buffalo’s Bay. We had the option of doing a bike ride to our picnic spot. I started to attempt it, but the bikes had those narrow pointy seats. The first bike had a seat that was too high and Louise did not have the tool to adjust it. The second bike’s seat was cutting into my personal space and was smaller than my hand. By the time I had gotten to the picnic area, I would have been a soprano, so I bowed out and rode in the van with Louise.

We went to the beach where she set up the picnic in the back of the van. There are Chacoma baboons in the area and they are a protected species, the only protected species of baboons in South Africa. It is unlawful to harm them in any way, but they will come up to people and steal whatever they can get their hands on. Besides fruits, nuts, roots, and insects, this species is known to eat sandhoppers and shellfish. At first, I thought it was a joke, so I took off down to the beach. The sand had an array of seashells unlike any beach I had been to in recent memory. It was possible to stand in one spot and pick up at least 20 shells. If I had known, I would have brought a bag with me, but I used my jacket pocket. It is nylon and easily washable. I added some great new varieties to my collection. However, once when looking up, I witnessed a couple of baboons stealing things from someone’s blanket while they were in the water. The tour guides keep a sling shot and charcoal briquettes to intimidate them, but it is only a short term solution.

We were waiting for Ron and the other woman to complete their bike journey. It should have taken about 35 minutes. The woman returned, but after 50 minutes, Ron had not. When an hour passed, Louise started getting nervous and took the van to go look for him. She did not return for 20 minutes, but she had Ron in tow. He had missed the turn off, which was difficult to recognize and had continued on down the road. When he was rescued, we had lunch of lunch meats, cheeses, lettuce, tomato, macaroni salad, dips, and cookies.

The next stop was Cape Point, the most southern point on the continent on the western side. There is a more southerly point on the eastern part of the continent. At the top of a high cliff is an old lighthouse that is no longer used. The hike up is approximately 40 minutes long if you are a good uphill walker. It is steep at parts, but there is a paved walkway. The other option is to take a funicular, but Ron decided we should walk. Not being an outdoorsy person, I was not overly enthused with this option, but I have to admit that the view was spectacular. It would have been missed or gravely shortened in the funicular.

Louise met us at the bottom, suggesting we should hike out to Point of Cape of Good Hope, which would be another 45 minutes. She would meet us at the bottom with the van. From where she pointed, it looked like a boardwalk along the mountain. Okay, this is very doable and off we went. Again, the views of the water were never done justice with a camera. It was amazing how many colors water can be side by side.

After 15 minutes of walking, the boardwalk stopped. For the rest of the way, it was climbing over rocks, gravel, and more rocks. In some areas there were steps cut into the rocks, but other places you were on your own. It took the three of us over an hour and a half to reach the summit where we could look down and see the car park. All long the way, we spotted geckos in various stages of shedding their skins. At the summit is where we saw the animals that look like guinea pigs, but they are called Rock hyrax. Strangely, their closest relative is the elephant. Go figure. Their gestation period is 248 days and pre-evolution, they had tusks. Their endocrine system is identical to the elephant.

From the summit, it looked like a sheer drop down to the car park. I thought I would spend the rest of my life there, since I am petrified of heights and though I am a Capricorn, I am not a rock climber. I stood there for a good ten minutes weighing my options: die of humiliation if I refuse to go down or die of falling off of a sheer cliff. What to do? What to do? Something to my right caught my eye and then I realized that there were ‘steps’ and I use the word euphemistically, going down the side. It was more like the illusion of steps going down a winding path, but was enough to give my courage a stronghold for descending. Mentally, I kissed the car park pavement once there. My heart was beating faster than a whirling dervish on speed. The tour was fantastic and highly recommended. I am sure that all of the guides are great, but Louise was fantastic.

We took a trek off to Checkers, the grocery store conveniently close to Ashanti, to shop for dinner. I had to get my fill of pumpkin, sweet potatoes, mangos, and papaya, since they are unknowns in Budapest.

Christmas Eve December 24, 2005

The wine tour is booked for today with Cape Wine Tours at www.cape-winetours.com . Our tour was supposed to start with a pick up at 8:45, but the guide did not arrive until 9:15. He explained he had to make a delivery to a group of Germans who were too inebriated to cart home the wine they had purchased the day before. Our guide was Robby, one of the owners of the company, which only provides wine tours. There were a total of nine of us for the tour, six of whom were women.

Our first stop was in the Stellenbosch region where there are over 127 wineries in this region alone. There are 14 wine regions in South Africa. The most impressive winery was the Simonsig winery. It is the largest family owned and operated winery in South Africa. They gave us a tour of how wine is made and showed off their production units and well as the grounds. We were given lessons in how to look like a ‘wine snob’ by holding the glass at an angle to the point of almost pouring the wine. Look at the color of the bowl and then at the crest. The clearer the crest, the younger the wine. Twirl the glass and sniff the ‘bouquet’, then take a mouthful and swish it in your mouth like you are using mouthwash. Finally, swallow and note the aftertaste. We tasted six wines here, but had the option of tossing what we did not care for into a bucket. We tested six wines with an explanation of each one before hand.

The second stop was the Franschoek region. We went to the Goat Wine and Cheese Winery. As you enter, there is a goat yard in the front. The goats have a silo like structure that they are free to climb and rest in a room at the top. We were able to test 2 white wines, then sample the cheeses, then 2 red wines, more cheese, then lastly 2 other wines of our choice. At this winery, we were given a list of the wines we could choose from based on the color of our sticker. We were left to our own devices for making choices, though the wine stewards were there to answer any questions we had. Also, you are on the honor system for sticking to the limit of six samples.

The Romano goat cheese was excellent as was the soft cheese rolled in herbs. There were seven cheeses to test and the samples were unlimited.

For a lunch break, we stopped at an old Huguenot village. It was a small village with one street of stores, restaurants, and tourist items. We all went to the same restaurant where we were able to order off of the menu and it was included in the tour. Beverages were on our own. My chicken Cajun pasta was excellent. Our meeting point after lunch was a handmade chocolate shop down the street. I bought a few pieces that were good, but not outstanding.

Our third and last winery of the day was different than the one advertised. The one we actually went to had a cheetah rescue sanctuary on the grounds. For an additional fee, you could go into the cheetah area and pet them. Robby said that this was the most commercial of all of the wineries, set up to take all of your money the minute you arrived.

The tasting bar was small and the number of wines was limited also. We had five choices to make here. Outside, in a carnival like atmosphere, there is an old African woman who will paint your face according to your personality. She is supposedly able to read your personality and then apply white paint. Robby insisted we each do this, so we complied.

Since I am not much of a wine drinker, of the 17 wines I had tasted, there were none that I was tempted to buy a full bottle.

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