Friday, August 17, 2007

New York City

As I am wont to do, I sneezed from the bright sunlight when I went out to do some shopping this morning. Someone walking by on the sidewalk said,"Bless you." New York City!


After a 3 day journey, we're safely home.

Monday, August 13, 2007

we miss/we will miss

After 3 months abroad, we have mixed feelings about leaving South Africa. We've seen so many breathtaking parts of the country and met so many inspiring people. It might be hard to imagine this, but, we've reached vacation saturation. We're ready to return to our normal lives, be reachable, get back into routines and work towards our various goals.

We're looking forward to:
Having friends again
Continuity in our daily lives
Driving on the right side of the road
Toilets with water in them
Some different clothes
Comfort foods: bagels, takeout coffee, sandwiches, hamburgers
Cooking for ourselves
Indoor heat
Our bed

We will miss:
The very warm and engaging people
The mellow pace of life
The cost of living
The lack of automobile traffic
Reading Afrikaans translations(so similar to English, and yet so silly)
Foods: boerivors, fresh fruit, rusks, biltong, warm milk with coffee, nougat, cheap wine
The lack of fast food

We hope to keep with us:
Lessons in hospitality
Perspective on Africa's social issues
The pace of life
Wine knowledge
Ability to spend a lot of time together and still enjoy each other's company(most of the time)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Taking Table Mountain by Storm

Well, today is our last day in Cape Town and South Africa. While we're both ready to get home (and wish we didn't have two more nights away, one on the plane and one in London), we have really been charmed by Cape Town and its environs.

Our favorite, and I wouldn't have expected this, was wine country. We went up to Stellenbosch for just one night, but got very lucky with the weather. Stellenbosch has 180 wineries and is only a 45 minute drive from the very center of Cape Town. What an amenity for people who live here! Our cozy little boutique hotel in town ran us a princely $90, breakfast included. The wine tastings were really fun, and Meghan and I found that we like the relaxed pace of sitting over a quarter glass of wine, picking it apart, figuring out the flavors and characteristics and just talking. We bought a wine-tasting guide and marveled over the vocabulary that the industry has chosen for itself (quaffable pencil shavings!). We started at Boschendal, famed more for its scenery than its wine. We had a pleasant tasting with local cheeses, then had lunch at the cafe. I had a bobotie that was really top notch. Mostly, we just soaked in the natural beauty of a glorious day in beautiful country. Saw a malachite sunbird, managed to identify the chirping crowd that followed us around as swee waxbills (!). Just slowed way, way down. And it's not like we were super-stressed to begin with.

Then, we tried and failed to go to tastings at a couple of other vineyards like Tokai and Thelema, but they were closed as last Thursday was a public holiday. Women's Day as it turned out. We ended up making it to Rustenberg at closing time, but they let us in after some deliberation. The hospitality, wine, and setting were all top notch. Their Brampton cabernet sauvignon is probably one of the best deals around.

We had dinner in Stellenbosch at a place called Fishmonger, which came highly recommended and didn't disappoint. Really great food and service. I'm not ready to take back my slandering of South African restaurants from a few posts ago, but this was a very good experience. The seafood here is really fantastic and reasonably priced. With one exception: prawns. South Africans seem enthralled with prawns, the bigger the better, but compared to the quality of the calamari or fish down here, the prawns/shrimp seem overpriced and are often overcooked. The problem, I think, is that South Africans can't afford their own prawns and lobsters. We have frozen South African lobster tail freely available in the States, and I've heard that a lot of the best seafood goes straight to Japan, so globalization has forced your average South African to compete with everyone from a Minnesota family to a Tokyo businessman for the bounty of their own seas. I've always thought of shrimp and lobster as overrated anyway. At Fishmonger, my favorite dish was the squid heads sauteed in butter. Delish.

At the end of a trip this long, your reserves of wonderment are pretty low. We had an idyllic couple of days in wine country, and if we were still harried New Yorkers as we'll soon be again, we would've tried to extend our time there at all costs. But we're tired of travel and just want to be in one place for a while, have what we do one day impact upon the next day, be with our friends, be in our own space.

Yesterday, we climbed Table Mountain, an unremitting slog of 700 meters to the top, and a cable car down. It was beautiful, though. The cableway had been closed due to wind for a few weeks and so the top was a madhouse, but we're glad to have done it.

Overall, Cape Town has been a real eye-opener for us. It's far more integrated, far more safe, and at least as beautiful as any other place we've been in South Africa. We're very grateful to our friend Elaine for the use of her apartment in Sea Point, a part of town where you can relax and walk around and just generally feel human for a bit. We're a bit bummed that our trip to Robben Island got cancelled due to high seas, but we've seen enough to keep us dreaming about South Africa for a long, long time... and we have to save something for next time, don't we.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

5 hour drive, 3 hour boat ride, 30 second shark sighting

Several people, when we mentioned Cape Town, had excitedly queried whether or not we planned to go shark diving. Apparently, the coast of South Africa is the only place in the world where you can reliably see Great White Sharks year round, and particularly during the SAfrican winter. As they are nomadic beasts, it is impossible to keep them alive in captivity and hard to predict where you might find them in the ocean, unless of course you have an island of Cape Fur Seals who go swimming/fishing every morning. Yum! As I have an irrational fear of sharks, that I was hopeful to overcome, and am willing to try anything once, I was game.
The process of shark diving is simple enough. You pay admission to one of 10 boats in Gamsbaai and catch a ride out to shark territory. They suit you up with a full wet suit, dump some bait into the water, and wait for a sharks. Then you climb into a cage, submerged in the water, and watch the shark swim by, if you're lucky, at very close range.

Day of dive: We woke at 6am to tackle the 2.5 hour drive to Gamsbaii for the boat's departure time of 9am. When we arrived we met other tourists who had spent their lifetimes obsessed with great white sharks and we were reassured that this was the place and the company to be diving with. It was a gorgeous day, blue skies, temperature in the 60's, and the water looked calm, almost flat. Twelve tourists and our 3 guides piled into a boat and headed out to sea. As the boat pulled away from the dock and started to go over the 15 ft lumpy swells that were not visible from shore, all I could think to myself was "don't puke, it will be over soon enough." And the 3 hour struggle to maintain my breakfast and my dignity began. Arriving at "shark territory"(which is anywhere in this bay with more than 8 feet of water), we suited up, dumped our chum, tethered the tuna head, and waited. We learned from the guides that there's quite a bit to learn about tides, currents, boat shadow, chum, etc to increase your chance of attracting a great white, yet these sharks are incredible hunters. Our skipper's knowledge might have increased our chances of seeing a shark by only 10%. The sightings are merely a matter of luck. Also, the mature, and therefore massive sharks, don't bother scavenging for someone else's leftovers, so we should only expect the younger, smaller sharks.
After 30 minutes a great white arrived. It was awesome. About 10 feet long, grayish, scars on its face, and graceful. I was the first one into the cage and I was terrified. I could see my legs dangling below me, little fish all around, and I knew there was a shark circling. I also realized that despite the shock of the f-f-f-freezing water, the cold water and company of fish were far preferable to the above-board stomach turning, rocking of the boat. Rich got in the cage moments later and we caught sight of this shark twice as it powerfully glided by. After about 30 minutes in the water I realized that I could no longer feel my extremities and would have to resume the above-board discomfort.
The highlight of the day came when a shark, unnoticed by any of us, emerged from the depths, broke the surface of the water and displayed 12 feet of silvery grey muscle. This shark was 10 feet from all of us, it tore the tuna head and the rope from the boat with a thrash, and disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. That was the one moment that we'd all spent so much time, effort, and discomfort to see.
Shortly thereafter we headed for shore and embarked on our soggy journey back to Cape Town. I walked away from this experience intending to leave any future shark chasing to Natural Geographic, planning to watch it in high-def from the comfort of my sofa.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

More Otter Trail

Also: hiking poles. I'd have been lost without them. They prevented at least half a dozen falls onto sharp rocks that could've had grave results. They also made hiking with a pack much much easier.

Other than the hospitality shown us by our Afrikaans cabinmates, the first three days were pretty unremarkable. The walks were not stunningly difficult, though the views were stunning. The scenery was dramatic and the pounding of the waves against the rocks was a constant source of awe. The weather varied from sun to wind and rain. We hiked some in the rain, some in the dark, mostly in the forest. The centerpiece of the Otter Trail is the Bloukrans River crossing on Day Four, so I'm just going to skip to that.

So, after rising at 3:30 on the fourth day with the intent of making it to the mouth of the Bloukrans River in advance of low tide, Meghan and I got out at 4:20 and hiked in the dark for a couple of hours, kept company by a full moon that set as the sun started to lighten the eastern sky. The full moon meant that we were to cross the river at a spring low tide. This was always a very good thing in our planning of the trail, as the Bloukrans is wide and we'd heard that people who'd crossed at a neap low tide--when the difference between high and low is at its nadir--had sometimes had to swim the river. We are both strong swimmers and were prepared for this eventuality if something went wrong and we didn't make it by low tide, though we didn't relish the prospect as our previous river crossings had familiarized us with just how numbingly cold the water in Tsitsikamma Park is. (Tsitsikamma means "place of much water"... We were about to figure out that sometimes it'dd too much water.)

The hike in the morning was really challenging for the first six kilometers or so, with lots of rock scrambling and a couple of slogs through the aforementioned thigh-deep sea scum. I use the word scum rather than foam simply to indicate its disgustingness. It smelled powerfully of seaweed, or rather the sea. Whatever taste it is that makes oysters appealling (if they appeal to you), multiply that by ten. Not off-smelling, but not pleasant. My hiking boots still smell like the catch of the day... yesterday. I cannot, however impugn the experience too much, as I was wearing shorts and the sensation of cool foam against my legs was actually rather delicious. I'm thinking of waterproofing our apartment when we get back and renting a foam machine.

We made it to the overlook above the Bloukrans just minutes after the official low tide of 9:36am. Our Afrikaans hosts, one of whom had injured himself, had arrived twenty minutes earlier and looked grim about the prospect of crossing. The river mouth is daunting. A hundred yards wide, and you have to cross it at an angle to reach a slipway between two swaths of jagged rocks, or go directly across and then scramble along the rocks to where the slipway joins the trail. The waves out at sea were measuring 20 feet or more on their faces. They came rolling up the river mouth carrying lots of debris and driftwood, including some pieces bobbing around that were thicker than telephone poles and about ten to fifteen feet long. The river itself was pretty sedate and pretty low, given the rain we'd had. It was simply a matter of the surges that rolled up the river every fifteen seconds or so.

Meghan was undaunted. She'd made up her mind. We were going to try. Our fellow hikers asked us incredulously if we were going to cross. I said repeatedly that we were going to try. We got down to the rocky shore and proceeded to get all our stuff into the thick plastic survival bags we'd bought just for this purpose. The others looked worried, tried to talk us out of it. I started to take their side. It looked dangerous and was getting more dangerous by the minute. This was not the time to hurry. It was time to make a considered decision. Meghan was adamant. We'd hiked four days to get to this damn river and we were going to cross it. In the end, it was Piet who urged us to cross halfway without our packs, just to assess the conditions, then come back for the packs. We made it five feet. A couple of ice-cold waves smacked us near the shore and we immediately burst out laughing. It was insane to even think about, but we needed the shock of water to bring us to our senses. I'm glad it was the first five feet that convinced us that crossing was dangerous, rather than five feet in the middle, or a five-foot log carried by a five-foot wave. We were never going to cross that river. I'm very glad, though, to have tried. We, at least, had put our feet in the water.

The other group of hikers who came along shortly after our foray took one look at the river mouth and immediately went for the escape route. Meghan and I changed out of our wet, cold clothes and followed the other hikers. Tsitsikamma has 12 (or in this case 13) hikers leaving every day, including Christmas, on the Otter Trail and they've really got their act together as far as the escape routes go. The escape route itself was brutal. Eight hundred meters at about a forty-five degree angle. At that point, we decided we'd had enough. The rest of the hikers got picked up by a ranger and brought to a trailhead directly above the next hut. There was one more day's hiking. They wanted to finish the trail, but for us, the spell had been broken. Getting a lift from one place to another was cheating. Nature had won. We weren't in the mood to ask for a rematch. We decided instead to go back to Storms River Mouth at the start of the trail, where they have lovely chalets overlooking the ocean. We checked into one of the "honeymoon" chalets, which had a living room and kitchen, but we were mostly interested in the hot shower and clean sheets. We had an early dinner. (The concept of a restaurant was at that point stunning to me... A place where you tell them what you want and they just bring it to you? Genius!) And we hit those clean white sheets with no regrets, waking up twelve hours later to a beautiful day and a full breakfast.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Rich's Impressions from the Otter Trail

First: ouch. Before setting out, if anyone had told me that I'd have a hard time hiking 26 miles in five days, I would've scoffed at the idea. Pack or no pack, I figured I'd be fresh as a daisy every morning except the last, which would come after a ten mile hike and a river crossing. But the Otter is not very playful. We didn't have time or energy to sit around watching birds or otters or any of the hundred or so dolphins. This was hard hiking. I've hiked 15 miles a day for three days in a row in Patagonia. I've gone to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back in a day. The Otter Trail is not to be scoffed at.

Second: if it's going to be even a little bit chilly, it's hard to overpack on instant coffee/tea/soup. We budgeted our food weight pretty tightly, but there were many times I wanted a cup of something warm and a nice little break, but couldn't do so without robbing myself a few days hence of the same pleasure. Next time, plenty of this kind of stuff.

Third: Bring one book. I brought four, including my South African bird book. The rain we had on the trail made that and my binoculars pretty useless. I really thought I'd have a lot more time to read, but quickly found that backpacking offers a mix of strenuous exercise, lots of sleep, and huge amounts of futzing (a.k.a faffing). Add to those the fact that there's tremendous natural beauty about and you really need to be disciplined to get an hour's reading in. This dictum extends to traveling in general. I brought a half-dozen books on this trip and have been lugging them all around. I should've brought two, max.

Fourth: Tides. The Otter Trail is principally ( at the time we did it at least) a race against the tide. River crossing at the coast is very dependent on the tides. Over the first few days, we rushed a few times to make it to a river crossing at low tide only to get there and be greeted with a knee-deep river and some gentle surges coming up the river from the crashing waves a couple hundred yards away. At that point, it's easy to wonder why you got up early and busted your hump to get there when it was obviously an easy crossing. Several times, though, the group that came after us had a difficult crossing only an hour later. Meghan and I stopped on the far shore a couple of times and watched an easy crossing turn into a daunting one within the space of forty minutes or so. This made timing pretty important, which brings me to my two last points.

Fifth: If you're planning on doing the Otter Trail, the estimated hiking times are very low, bordering on irresponsibly so. Leave plenty of extra time for steep ascents, rock scrambling, unforeseen obstacles (such as thigh-deep sea-scum), and such niceties as eating and drinking. It took us five hours on the last day to get to the Bloukrans river mouth, the most significant crossing. This had been estimated at four hours, and the whole day's hike at six hours.

Sixth: Faffing. On the last day, we rose at 3:30am and were out the door by 4:20, but only got to the river at about 9:45, right around low tide. Every day, we left about a half hour after we'd intended, and our companions, who were five people, took up to an hour of faffing to get ready. I'm convinced that the bigger a group is, the harder it is to get it going, and that's because there's a bunch of permission-to-faff being passed from person to person. You look over and say to yourself, "Jim's not even got his shoes on yet, so I have time to repack my pack so the snacks are on top." Then Jim gets his shoes on, looks over at you and says to himself, "Rich isn't even packed yet, so I have time to..." The more people, the more this gets passed around and the harder it is to get going. I thought again and again of getting an army up and going in the morning. There's a reason for that strict discipline. Without it, half the day would be taken up in getting ready for it.

Phew. I was going to tell some stories from the actual crossing, but I'm beat! I'll just echo Meghan's sentiments that our South African cabin-mates really showed the best of their country and culture. A nicer group of people, you'll never meet.