The many faces of Cape Town

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After just over two weeks in the desert and the bush, we made our re-entry into civilization via Cape Town. We both found Cape Town to be visually stunning and politically fascinating. On the visual front, it’s a cosmopolitan city sandwiched between mountains and beautiful beaches. On the political front, the city is still dealing with the after-effects of apartheid policies, as well as current political struggles. We had many interesting conversations with taxi drivers, tour operators, and other locals, but we’re still eager to learn more and keep up with the country’s progress.

Cape Town is known for its unpredictable weather, so they say that when the sun is out and the winds are calm, you should not hesitate in visiting Table Mountain. So that’s exactly what we did on our first full day in Cape Town, which happened to be a brilliant day. Table Mountain forms the backdrop of the whole city and is named for its very flat and broad top. When the fog rolls in, it tumbles over the top of the mountain and is called a “tablecloth.” There are two ways to reach the top of Table Mountain. You can either climb it, which takes about 2.5 hours, or ride the cable-car, which takes about 3 minutes. We opted for the latter option. Since it was such a clear and sunny day, the views from the top were just beautiful.


We signed up for a half-day tour down to the Cape of Good Hope, which contrary to popular opinion, is not the southernmost point in Africa, nor is it actually where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean. That honor belongs to a place called Cape Agulhas, which is slightly further south. But it is the southwesternmost point in Africa — and we have a photo with the sign to prove it. We also did a nice 15-minute climb up to the Cape Point lighthouse, which provided excellent views in all directions. Throughout the half-day tour, we saw whales along the beach, a colony of penguins, and even three baby ostriches.



Another highlight of our visit was a tour of Robben Island. This island is about seven kilometers from Cape Town and houses the prison where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held between 1961 and 1991. Mandela was here for 18 of his 27 years in prison. It is a very poignant and informative tour, part of which is guided by a former political prisoner. Unfortunately, we decided to visit Robben Island on a particularly windy day, so we had an extremely rocky boat ride in both directions through some extremely high swells. Quite an adventure. (I am concentrating on shuffling cards in the photo below — our strategy for diverting our focus from the rocky seas.)


On our final full day in Cape Town, we signed up for a Township Educational Tour that took us through several different townships, including Langa and Khayelitsha. We felt it was important to do this tour in order to see all sides of real life in Cape Town. In large part due to past apartheid policies, there are extreme disparities in wealth and living circumstances. Our small group tour was led by someone who grew up in Langa township and included visits to a traditional pub, government-issued housing, a pre-school, and the Philani Child Health & Nutrition Project. The tour was extremely eye-opening and informative. It is hard to believe that these townships and the glitzy beaches along the coast exist in the same city, let alone the same country.



We also had some great meals in Cape Town, which were not hard on our wallets thanks to the South African exchange rate that is soundly in our favor right now. A few highlights included: savory crepes at Harrie’s Pancakes, cob fish for me and ostrich fillet for Dan at Cafe Balducci, great burgers and an avocado/mint milkshake at Cafe Royale. In terms of atmosphere, though, my favorite was Mama Africa. Here, we enjoyed some traditional African food (bobotie and chicken curry), but the real highlight was an African rhythm band playing live in the bar.


Zoos will never be the same again

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We knew our trip to Africa wouldn’t be complete without a view of the local wildlife, and since we didn’t want to do a self-drive tour, we instead decided to book a room at a game lodge on the edge of Kruger National Park. So, after leaving Namibia, we flew back through Johannesburg, then over to Hoedspruit, a tiny airport near Kruger. As our plane approached the runway, we got our first glimpse of this wildlife — a giraffe walking down a dirt road through the brush below. This was the beginning of four great days of wildlife viewing, selections of which you’ll see sprinkled throughout this post.


Upon arrival at the Hoedspruit airport, we were greeted by a driver who took us to the main lodge at Thornybush where we awaited a transfer to our lodge, Serondella, which is another lodge in the same reserve. While waiting for our transfer, we saw warthogs on their knees munching on the courtyard grass, nyala (a small deer-like animal) wandering around, and even a group of unwelcome baboons running around the dining area. After taking a short drive to Serondella, we saw that things were no different there, though the baboons seemed slightly better disciplined. Animals were all around on the lodge grounds, though the elephants were kept away by an electric fence.


At Serondella, we quickly fell into the daily routine:

5:30 – wake-up knock on the door
5:30 – 6:00 – coffee
6:00 – 9:00 – morning game drive
9:30 – large brunch
3:30 – 4:00 – coffee, tea, snacks
4:00 – 7:00 – evening drive including sundowner
7:30 – dinner

Our private hut was great. It included a large bathtub, huge bed, and lounge area with a view of the water hole, where many of the reserve’s animals come to take a drink. We spent much of our afternoon free time relaxing and reading in the hut, taking occasional notice of the giraffes, warthogs, and baboons right outside the window.


However, while the lodge rooms and food were both great, the real highlight was the game drives. Our ranger and tracker took us and the other guests out twice a day to drive around the reserve looking for animals. All lodges on the reserve used the exact same type of vehicle, a green Land Rover with three benches of open-air seating. Our ranger explained that the animals are used to seeing these, and that they view the car and people as a single large animal that they will not attack. While the ranger had a large shotgun in the car, he said he has never had to use it, and it became clear that most of the animals were at relative ease with a car full of guests in front of them. For example, the mother cheetah we saw had no concern about us sitting right in front of her and her three cubs.


Each drive lasted about three hours and included a stop for drinks — coffee in the morning, and a sundowner in the evening. The rangers of the ten or so lodges on the reserve communicate via radio, sharing animal sightings and coordinating viewing times. The reserve has a policy of not allowing more than two Land Rovers to view an animal at a time, and since it is private, there are no other vehicles around. Because of this, the chances of seeing “big five” animals up close in their native environment is very high (though of course not guaranteed). Within three drives, Abby and I had seen all five.


The “Big Five” animals are: the Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino, and Buffalo. While these animals are very impressive and well worth going out of your way to see, Abby and I also enjoyed the runner-ups in the animal popularity contest, specifically the Giraffe, Cheetah, Baboon, Impala, Nyala, Steenbok, and Kudu. The most interesting sight we saw a performance by a “Suicide Bird”, who, in a rarely seen act, impresses its mates by flying high into the air, then closing its wings and tumbling in a free-fall until it’s very close the ground, and finally re-opening its wings right before impact and flying out unharmed. We were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and to have a skilled ranger who recognized its call.


As you can see, we had an amazing time during this segment of our trip! It far surpassed our expectations.


Desert Delight

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The tiny, five-seater Cessna that would transport us into the desert looked like a toy parked next to the jet that had just deposited us at Windhoek International Airport. Backpacks in hand, we followed our pilot toward it with equal parts nervousness about flying and excitement about being there. This would be my second trip to the desert of Namibia and Dan’s first. I last visited Namibia in February of 2004 after leaving my job at U.S. News, packing up my apartment in D.C., and sending most of my belongings home to Seattle via the U.S. Postal Service. To say that my memories of being there were wonderful is a vast understatement. I’ve kept a photo of the road outside of Viktoria and Andreas’ farm next to my desk since then, and Dan still makes fun of me for bringing photographs of the area with me on our first date (in my defense: we had originally bonded over stories of travel). So, needless to say, I was very excited to share the desert experience with him.

Once we were airborne, I was fairly sure that we were safe in that little plane, and I have to say that it was a fantastic way to see the vast and varied landscape of Namibia. We passed over mountains, plains, and canyons before catching a glimpse of the red sand dunes for which the Namib Desert is famous. The desert’s fairy circles came into sight just about five minutes before we landed at Wolwedans Lodge. Viktoria was waiting for us at the lodge’s small airstrip and I was positively giddy to once again run up and give her a hug in the desert. Viktoria and I were assigned as freshman year roommates at Bowdoin and have become lifelong friends despite the challenges of geography. Viktoria has been living in Namibia since December 1998 and has created a rich life there in the form of a wonderful husband, an absolutely charming daughter, and a thriving environmental education center (more about that later…).

It is hard to describe the beauty and the feeling of being in the Namib Desert. The mixture of natural beauty, wildlife, warm air, and solitude is just amazing — and exactly what Dan and I needed after our European whirlwind. “Take off your seatbelts, roll down your windows, and enjoy the desert,” Viktoria said as we settled into her double-cab “bucky” for the one-hour drive home that would take us through sand dunes and right past oryx, springbok, and ostrich. Viktoria and Andreas live in a beautiful farm on the Namibrand Nature Reserve, which is also Andreas’ employer. Although their nearest human neighbors are probably 15 kilometers away, they have ample animal neighbors who are fond of visiting a waterhole that is just outside their house’s fence. All of this adds up to an extremely beautiful, quiet, and relaxing place to enjoy dinner outside on the porch and catch up with old friends.


Dan and I spent our first full day in the desert doing absolutely nothing while Viktoria and Andreas were both at work. We slept in, drank coffee on the front porch, watched the waterhole, and took a lot of deep, contented breaths of desert air. At the end of the day, we all jumped in the truck and drove to the “house dune” for sundowners — one of my favorite traditions in Southern Africa. The idea is that you find a nice spot outdoors to enjoy the sunset with friends and cocktails. In V&A’s neighborhood, there is no shortage of beautiful sundowner spots. Their “house dune” is about a five-minute drive away. Again, it’s so hard to put the beauty of this place in words, but picture a bright orange sand dune speckled with bunches of tall grass, and set against a blue sky that fades to violet as the sun sets. On top of this dune, you can turn around in a complete circle and see not one other car or building — just an expanse of desert and grassy plains ringed by mountains in the distance.



We spent our third night camping in a restricted area of the NamibRand reserve. I didn’t think it was possible to get more remote than V&A’s farm, but this area was. It was just us and the tok-tokkies for miles. We set up our camp in a spot that would give us prime views of both sunset and sunrise. For dinner, Andreas cooked up a potjie, which is a South African tradition of basically stew cooked in a cast-iron pot that sits directly in the campfire. It was delicious. After plenty of singing and stories, the five of us snuggled into our bedrolls next to the truck and went to sleep directly under the stars. After packing up in the morning, Andreas drove us home via a route that took us directly up and over a series of very steep sand dunes. It was something like a Namibian roller-coaster. Alexandra was buckled into her carseat in the front seat, Jilly the dog sat on Andreas’ lap, and Dan, Viktoria and I were in the bed of the truck holding tight to the roll-bar. This is something that I would have only done with Andreas, who is one of the most experienced dune drivers around and knows the terrain intimately. Anyway, it was a total rush and so much fun. Andreas would find a path to power up one dune and then we would crest it and roll back down the other side. Andreas later made fun of us in the back for our chorus of “Whooohoo! Whoa, whoa, whoa.” The exhiliration and fun overtook the fear by about the third sand dune.

Jumping for joy at our campsite

Sunset at our campsite

The Kedings on top of one of the dunes we summited on the way home

The next day we accompanied Viktoria to work at the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust (NaDEET), a non-profit that Viktoria founded in 2003. NaDEET’s mission is to educate Namibian children about environmental issues and how they can make a difference through changes in their own lives. Groups of kids come to stay at the center for several nights and during that time they cook with solar ovens, track their individual water usage, and convert waste into reusable items like recycled paper fire bricks. It’s a wonderful example of hands-on, experiential learning.

Another highlight that must be included in this post was our visit to the Sossusvlei dunes. Viktoria, Alexandra, Dan, and I left the house just after 5 a.m. in order to (1) see the dunes in the sharp morning light and (2) beat the growing afternoon heat. The Sossusveli area is one of the key tourist attractions in Namibia. The main stretch of road is sandwiched between two rows of absolutely massive, bright orange sand dunes with sharp ridges that curve down to meet the ground. A few of the dunes are open for climbing, which is exactly what we did on the dune known as “Big Daddy.” We walked up the ridge of this dune, with Alexandra making the climb as well, at times on her own and at times on Viktoria’s shoulders. It’s a pretty narrow path on the ridge, with sand falling away steeply on either side, but not at all scary, because how bad can a fall into sand really be? Once we reached the top, we sat down and enjoyed the view for about five minutes before running straight down the steepest part of the dune’s side. (Viktoria and Alexandra included some butt-sliding in their descent as well.) We laughed the whole way down. Our next stop on this day trip was Dead Vlei, a river pan that has been cut off from its source of water and is now bright white and speckled with dead trees. Visually speaking, this is one of the most striking sights I’ve ever seen. Once again, the colors are just amazing. Bright blue sky leads into bright orange dunes that run into this bright white pan with stark black trees. The only problem is that there is absolutely no shade, so we beat a hasty retreat after about 15 minutes.

Sunrise in the desert

“Big Daddy” — the dune we climbed up

Dead Vlei

All in all, our time in Namibia was wonderfully relaxing and restorative — just as I remembered it from 2004. Although a long trip to get there, we can’t recommend it highly enough. I suppose it helps to have wonderful friends like the Kedings who welcome you with open arms into a desert bungalow with a shower that has a direct view to the waterhole, but we’re sure there are also many wonderful lodges in the area…


Desert Solitude in the Company of Friends

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After our crazy pace through Europe, being able to spend eight consecutive nights in the same bed was a very welcome luxury for us. Even better was the fact that the bed was in the detached guesthouse of my college friend Viktoria’s house in the Namib Desert, so we would have eight nights in our own little desert bungalow, as well as eight nights with dear friends who provided great company.

During our time in the desert, we caught up on life with the Kedings, climbed sand dunes, camped in a private area of an already private nature reserve, toured the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust, baked bread, drove straight up and back down the sides of more sand dunes, enjoyed the solitude, and watched springbok and ostrich from the window of our room. The desert of Namibia is a stunning place — with its natural beauty and abundant wildlife — and completely restorative with the solitude and calm it provides. Making a life there provides a variety of challenges, but the rewards are many.

We have now said goodbye to Viktoria, her husband Andreas, and their amazing daughter Alexandra. We just spent one night in Johannesburg and are boarding a flight to Kruger National Park in about four hours. In Kruger, we will stay in a small lodge and hope to see some big animals on our game drives. We don’t think we’ll have internet there, so you should expect to hear from us again when we arrive in Cape Town on the 17th. We will post much more detail about Namibia then, as well as all of the stories from our time in Kruger.

For now, here is a photo of one of our adventures in the dunes. On our way home from camping, Andreas provided us with a thrilling ride over some of the most beautiful desert landscape that either one of us has ever seen. Dan is behind the camera, but you’ll see me and Viktoria in the bed of the truck (Hold on tight!), Andreas at the wheel, and Alexandra buckled into the passenger seat. Plus Jilly the dog poking her head out the window. Woohoo!


What Is It?? Round IV – Official Results

We are impressed that we actually have a winner this round. We thought this was a pretty tough one, but Senior Beller (a.k.a. my dad, Dave) pulled through with the correct answer of fairy circles. This photo was taken from the tiny Cessna that transported us from Windhoek to the desert on our first day in Namibia. We saw all sorts of different interesting landscapes, but this was the most striking by far. In certain spots, the Namib desert is covered with these circles of brush that are called “fairy circles” and make the ground look polka-dotted from the air.

No one really knows what causes the circles, but theories range from fungus to termites to radioactive soil. We’re pretty sure it’s aliens.

We’re going to pull a Palin and also give a “shout-out” to Deanna, who correctly identified the photo as a view of the desert from a plane. But Senior Beller is our sole winner this round for correctly identifying the fairy circles. Great job, Dave! And thanks to all who participated in this round of What Is It??

Note: Now that we have a faster internet connection, we’ve replaced the original picture with a higher resolution version. (See the original post)