Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Photos - Soweto


The following day, we were to be guided round Soweto. ‘Township Tours’ are easy to find in Johannesburg and you can pay a lot of money to see poverty. Looking for a tour that wouldn’t feel like another safari and that might return the revenue generated to the community, we came across Taste of Africa. Run by Cedric, it offers tours, lodgings and home-stays in Soweto and uses public minibus taxis (minibuses which are called taxis – as opposed to metered taxis which are regular taxis) rather than a big coach to get around, reducing both the price and the insularity of the experience. Of the 270,000 visitors in Soweto every year, he told us, only 70,000 of them get off the bus on the way through, the rest taking pictures through the window.

As he waited with us, barefoot, to catch the minibus-taxi, he talked us through the basics of the hand gestures required. Pointing your index finger skyward indicates that you want to go to the city centre, pointing it downwards says that your stop is local. Holding up two, three, four or five fingers means various other things which depend on where you’re hailing the taxi from and is not a rude gesture, as was often supposed by road users that did not speak the language, Cedric told us. Once he’d waved us off, a fellow passenger saw the note he’d written for us with the name of our stop and shouted it over to the driver, who had already been told by Cedric and shouted back to us, “Don’t worry!” We thanked everyone for looking after us and another passenger assured us, with perhaps a little exasperation, “We’re hospitable people!”

A township is not a slum. A slum is an informal settlement where inhabitants may or may not have some kind of tenure security (and usually don’t) and live in obviously impoverished conditions. A township is “a suburb or city of predominantly black occupation, formerly officially designated for black occupation by apartheid” (Mac Dictionary) and, in the case of Soweto, plots are allocated to families and their future descendants. We were told that the population in Soweto could be as high as eight million. Instead of shacks made from mud and corrugated iron, a township has actual houses with bricks and windows. Like most areas, and perhaps we were na├»ve to be surprised, it has rich and poor parts. It’s easy to see the difference; the original government houses all have the same basic Monopoly design while the richer occupants have rebuilt their houses always in a different, and impressive, style. Probably the most impressive house belongs to Winnie Mandela, divorced from Nelson not long after his release from prison. “Wow, it’s…” I paused, trying to find the right word. “Big?” finished Eunice, our guide. It sure was.

Our first stop was in Orlando West, the part of Soweto where Nelson Mandela used to live. The clean and shiny museum that now stands on his previous address (now owned by Winnie Mandela with a 60R entrance fee that was a bit rich for us) is on a street nicknamed Beverly Hills and looks similar to the rich suburbs of Johannesburg, with the same high security fences, sprinkler systems and BMWs.

The date was June 16th, exactly 33 years to the day after the killing of thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson, the first person to die when armed forces opened fire on a student demonstration protesting against the teaching of lessons in Afrikaans, ‘the language of the oppressor’. After visiting the museum commemorating his death and the history of the struggle it signifies, we stood on the spot where he died, behind which, in an obscene paradox to Hector’s sad yet optimistic symbol for student solidarity, autonomy and power, is the Coca-Cola branded sign for Orlando West High School.

We had lunch at the hostels that used to accommodate Johannesburg’s miners back when they still mined. For the same price as an adult single into Mandela House, we had two of the best meals we’ve had in Africa so far, including beers. Alex cooked the meat on the braai with all the men while I talked marriage with Eunice (don’t worry Le Poo, I put her straight x).

It was a valuable surprise to see that an area with the reputation of Soweto can become as desirable as Orlando West clearly is. It seems an audacious and satisfying response to the horrifying policies that first gave the area foundation. After the tour, we asked Cedric if he thought it was safe to visit Soweto without a guide. To our surprise, he said yes, that it was safer than Johannesburg, and that his ultimate ambition was for visitors like us to do exactly that. In fact, though, I would recommend a guide as it is easy to get lost and there are still areas in Soweto, like anywhere, where you don’t want to be an easy target. I would definitely recommend the flexibility of Taste of Africa’s tour and Cedric’s impressive philosophy and attitude towards tourism – he would rather you spent your money with Soweto’s businesses than on his own transport, making the cost at 200R per person at least half those of all the other tours we saw. Most of all, I would recommend that you get off the bus.


Two defining characteristics of cities being fat people and porn, it wasn’t long before we’d seen someone wobbling past an adult shop. Johannesburg has a terrible reputation, like a school bully, big, threatening and unlovable. As we first approached the city, it looked like Africa was behind us and Brent Cross was in front of us, but it was exciting to see the skyscrapers appear on the horizon. It was the first time we’d seen any since Nairobi, some 3 months ago. Johannesburg is much more attractive than I had rather casually assumed and the only things that differentiated the area in which our backpacker lodge was located from a well-to-do European suburb were 9 metre walls, barbed wire and warning of electrocution notices.

Brown Sugar backpacker lodge is in the suburb of Observatory, right next to Yeoville, which has as bad a reputation as Hillbrow, which is the next one along. This means that no one coming out of the lodge has ever turned right. It’s a pleasant, well-fortified backpackers offering the essentials of bar, pool table, powerful (and sometimes hot) shower and kitchen, with the added bonus of lovely views over the city. It was home to a mathematician called Vincent during our stay who claimed to be able to determine your birthday using a formula that required only two pieces of information: you and your father’s dates of birth. He raised a few eyebrows, as you can imagine.

It was a Monday on our first full day in the city and turned out to be the wrong day to visit either the apartheid or national museums, the Market Theatre or the surrounding markets because they’re all closed on Mondays, meaning we ended up, perhaps inevitably, in a bar and then a curry house.

Photos - Kruger Park

Kruger Park

Where you can see the Big Five all in one day and then buy a zebra skin in the gift shop (which may or may not have died naturally). To clarify, the Big Five are: lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant. This has caused much debate. Why, at up to 7.5 metres high, is the giraffe not included? Nor, as long as the giraffe is tall, the crocodile? Nor, as the third most dangerous animal in the world as well pretty damn big, the hippopotamus? And why is the buffalo, essentially a cow, included? It's a hunter’s term used to refer to the five most dangerous animals to hunt. I’ve also read that it refers to the most elusive. Well, I’m sorry, but the buffalo is not elusive. There’s always a buffalo.

Buffalos don’t look particularly dangerous. Yes, they have those big horns, but they also have that middle parting which makes them look more sensible than unpredictable. In animal terms, ‘unpredictable’ is a quaint little euphemism, reminiscent of shouting at people who speak a different language, for ‘liable to attack’. If you get too close to a buffalo, or a warthog, or even a donkey, I think it is entirely predictable that it will attack. Instead, in an obstinate refusal to take a hint, we call that kind of animal behaviour ‘unpredictable’. During an episode of animals Caught In The Act, footage is shown of a herd of buffalo tossing a lone lion out of a tree and flipping it in circles though the air like a wet towel, even when it’s dead. The look of the lion as it tried to escape up the tree suggested that the buffaloes’ behaviour was entirely predictable. I didn't expect that, by pointing at a bird in a tree, I could send a herd of a couple of hundred buffalo scattering in panic, galloping across the road behind and in front of us. Our guide flicked his hand at me lazily and sighed. “You did that,” he said. “Sorry”, I replied weakly.

By the time we stopped for lunch, we had already ticked off four of the Big Five and all of the rejects. The only thing we hadn’t yet seen in Africa was the leopard (and a wild cheetah, but they’re not as big as leopards and, as prey, apparently a bit wussy). You can imagine our excitement therefore when, as the sun began to hang low and turn everything to gold, a car flashed it’s lights at us to tell us that a little further along, a leopard had been spotted. There was no mistaking the location, where 10 or 20 cars were jostling for a good position to catch a glimpse of the poor, stalked cat. Our guide may not have had the same charisma or enthusiasm of Animal, back in Amboseli, but the way he could find a whisker in a haystack in an instant was supernatural. They’re not the best pictures ever, but in the photos I took there is no doubt whatsoever that there is a leopard. The scenery wasn’t as breathtaking as it had been on the journey there, or in Amboseli, but Kruger delivered exactly what it says in the brochure.

Arrival in South Africa

It’s a funny name for a country, isn’t it? Like calling Britain ‘West Europe’, or Antarctica ‘South Earth’. South Africa is brazenly good looking, with mountain ranges almost as big as the sky, acacia trees posing like French waiters holding trays aloft, as well as offering all the comforts and conveniences of home. She dares you not to fall in love with her and you’d be worried about leaving your other half alone with her.

I had a certain amount of trepidation about coming here. History has seemed very recent throughout Africa, but nowhere more so than South Africa where the bitter taste of segregation is still fading. However, having found it very difficult so far to pay much attention to Lonely Planet’s rather bossy tone of voice, the section on South Africa’s history arrested me with its frank account of apartheid and optimistic attitude towards the future. But you have to deal with the fear first.

Everyone will tell you three things about South Africa:
1. It’s stunning, absolutely drop dead gorgeous
2. Go to Cape Town
We’ve heard about robbings, carjackings, kidnappings lasting as long as it took to get two days worth of ATM withdrawals. We’ve seen the high security fences, armed response posters and barbed wire. We’ve taken lots of taxis. And sometimes it is like Hackney, but I can’t help noticing that quite a few businesses make quite a nice earning out of the fear. Anyway, my parents forgot to have spare kids so we won’t be taking silly chances, and being careful is always good advice.


By the time we reached Maputo, our last stop before the last country on our list in Africa, I was 3 months behind on the blog so, apart from one day taking in the sites of Maputo (one of Africa’s most attractive capitals, they say, which seems quite true), I spent most of my time trying to catch up in the hotel.

There are two things Mozambican hotels needn’t advertise as included in the price of a room: continental breakfasts and television. Mozambican hotels consistently serve the most depressing breakfasts I’ve ever seen, usually a bread roll with a slice of Kraft cheese and a neon coloured ‘fruit juice’ that mainly consists of sugar. The only thing worse than the continental breakfast is the range of available television channels, although I began to quite enjoy CNN after a while with its hyperactive presenters and variety of lisps. The scriptwriters on Richard Quest Means Business are quite clearly having a laugh at poor Richard’s expense. What IS nice is having walls that you can’t see through, bathrooms with actual and not theoretical hot water, toilet rolls with more than a suggestion of toilet paper and no notices telling you to not steal people’s food from the fridge and to clean the bathroom when you’ve finished with it.

After finally accepting that I would need more than two days to be completely up to date, we hopped on the most comfortable bus we’ve seen so far and waved goodbye to Maputo, Mozambique and Africa as we’d come to know it.


Spelt like Tofo, pronounced like Tofu. The sun was setting behind silhouettes of palm trees as we arrived and the vast beach with long, elegant waves unfurling themselves all the way along, made me gasp out loud.

It’s better looking than Villanculos and another slightly ridiculous place to not go diving. If you tell a diver that you don’t dive because you can’t swim, they will instantly tell you that they know someone who also can’t swim and is actually a very good diver. I DON’T BELIEVE YOU. The thing about Tofo is that you don’t have to go diving to see the mad stuff. I saw whale sharks, manta rays and dolphins just snorkelling (which is a million times easier than swimming, incidentally). But, ultimately, diving really is the thing to do.

So, why don’t I dive? Well, mainly because of the not being able to swim thing, obviously, and having a healthy suspicion of large bodies of water. Also, it’s one of these labour intensive hobbies where you have to spend ages preparing to do it before you can actually do it. Also, it’s not cheap, perhaps equivalent to a week or three in South East Asia. And I’m bored enough of carrying a backpack around to want another one for under the water. Anyway, I did learn to dive, off the edge off the pool. I think I got to three metres.

When it comes down to it, a beach is a beach is a beach and the stuff you do on them is much the same. Some may be better for swimming, others better for diving, and some you just can’t take your eyes off. Tofo is one of those. So, if you like beaches, you’ll love Tofo. But you’ll barely know you’re in Africa.


It’s semi-ridiculous to go to Villanculos and not dive. It has a Weston-Super-Mare style beach (albeit with more sun and colour) which isn’t great for swimming in and is, truth be told, a bit sludgy with rumours of tiny creatures that like to lay eggs in you that turn into worms. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice, with a beach remarkable for its constantly changing appearance and the stealthy rush of the tide, but I’ve been rather spoilt for beaches of late and reserve the right to be sniffy. There’s some nice food to be had in town (Bar Tize, for example), and there’s a lively market, but overall it’s pretty much all about doing stuff in the sea.

We had a shockingly strong warning against staying at Baobab backpackers. A guy called Ed raped a girl on the beach nearby, we were told, plus the service is rubbish. In contrast, everyone, and I mean EVERYONE (well, not everyone, obviously) told us that Zombie Cucumber backpackers’ was The Place To Go. ‘Awesome!’ ‘Best hostel ever!’ ‘You gotta go!’ Advice, it would seem, it was sensible to follow. Well, this is how the conversation at Zombie Cucumber went:

US: First things first, can we get a beer please?
ZC: No problem! [So far, so good.]
US: Do you do food here?
ZC: Sure, here’s the menu.
US: Great, can we have your Regina pizza please?
ZC: Sure, I’ll give the chef a call. Can I use your phone? Mine’s out of credit.
US: …Okay…
[ZC has long conversation with Chef in Portuguese, and then hangs up.]
ZC: Sorry, you’ll have to go and get it. The motorbike has broken down.
US: I see. Is it far?
ZC: Yes, very.
US: Right. How about sandwiches, can you make those here?
ZC: Sure.
US: Okay, one cheese and tomato sandwich please.
ZC: Sure.
ZC leaves. Returns shortly after.
ZC: Sorry, no bread.
US: Ah. So, can you do any food at all?
ZC: No, sorry.

Ever seen Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch? It’s similar. So, we decided to take our chances with Ed the Rapist.

To clarify, I don’t mean to be glib about an allegation as serious as rape; it’s not a laughing matter. But I’m 100% sure it was an allegation to which, as a party that stood to suffer quite badly from it, Baobab deserved some kind of reply. And, as it turned out, it was cheaper than Zombie Cucumber, had a better, beachside location, offered chalets with a sea view and, as well as taking orders for food, actually served it.

We discovered it was a Monday having walked to the ‘nice but expensive’ Varanda restaurant and found it shut. It’s always shut on a Monday, which is fair enough. When we returned during opening hours, we ordered what I think we both agree was the best food we’ve had so far. I ordered the Best Prawns Ever, served with rice AND chips, three times, and it got better each time until I could barely see Alex over the pile of prawns.

Daytime activities on offer in Villanculos include diving (obviously), dhow trips (which we became familiar with in Lamu, a few countries further up the coast) and snorkelling, all usually taking in at least one or two of the surrounding islands. The snorkellers on our snorkelling/diving trip ended up feeling a bit like filler as we were told “Off you go, see you later!” but the snorkelling is great, although it can be very shallow in areas, and if you’re a bit flaily like me, you can easily scratch yourself on the coral, which is bad for both you and it (I’m fine, Mum, promise). Above sea level, the best view has to be from the top of the single most spectacular sand dune I’ve ever seen, on Bazaruto Island in the Bazaruto archipelago, with dazzling blue sea on one side and Jurassic Park on the other.

Villanculos is a pleasant way to spend a week, but you’re best off concentrating on what’s off the coast than what’s on it.

Friday, 19 June 2009

swimming with whalesharks in mozambique

you can do it at Tofo, which is on the coast of southern mozambique. probably the best place in the world to see juveniles, 300 of the world's 1,500 total population are there. they are very placid plankton feeders so no danger at all. the young ones are 6-9 metres, adults get up to 18m. i followed one for half an hour, right up close. HIGHLY recommend Tofo as a holiday destination, massive unspoilt beach, good surf, great seafood and excellent diving - and, by european standards at least, pretty reasonably priced. not the most "african" experience we've had - mainly about tourism and diving in Tofo. not a huge amount of integration with locals apart from at the town market, unless you wander into the small villages to get some coconuts. palm trees all around and cheap Tipo (local rum) at 1 pound for half litre. we stayed at Bamboozi backpackers, nice big chalets (25 squid a night, sleep 3) and cheaper huts also available. Bamboozi is better than Fatima's by all accounts. good seafood around this part of Mozambique - you can buy cheaply at the market and braai up at the backpackers.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

where are we now

just a quick one to say we are alive and well. for those of you who might be thinking that i have dispensed with Tania along the way ("Alex does this/that" - let alone the Britney-style megolomania that permits me to refer to myself in the 3rd person), we are still very much "an item" and travelling TOGEVA. we find that playing games is the key to tolerance on long bus journeys - we did the place name one (find all place names beginning with a certain letter) for a while and now are getting into "20 questions". Tania seems to know exactly which 80s musicians i like to think of, but will she ever be able to guess in as little as 3 questions, like our friends Nairi and Toby (some friends, they're not even followers of this blog).

we have spent about 3 weeks in Mozambique. we did some hiking / outdoor business in Penha Longa, up in central Moz on the border with Zimbabwe (beautiful) and the rest has been beach action on the southern coast. lovely, but the beach stuff has been decidely un-African.

we did an ocean safari and saw / swam with dolphins, manta rays and 8m whalesharks. i am now up to 18 dives and have seen lots of new stuff in the sea. manta cleaning stations are mental! can handle negative entry straight down to 30m too now, although i did almost burst an eyeball doing so.

so we are now in Maputo, cap of Moz, for a cpl more days and then into SA! 3 weeks left in Africa....

anyway, just wanted to say love to my darling T and to anyone missing us back home x