Friday, 26 December 2014

Road Trip Post Mortem

After an epic 4595km trip around the country, the road trip has finally come to an end. It's been a fantastic journey and one that we will remember for the rest of our lives. However, as covered in some of the posts, things didn't always work out according to plan. So, for people who may be planning a similar trip, here's a little analysis of what worked and what didn't. In case you haven't read it, here's the post on some of the planning we did before the trip. Let's get to it.

Data Connectivity
Having data connectivity got us out of some sticky situations, especially when we were looking for last minute accommodation. The Huawei modem was a lifesaver, it worked pretty much flawlessly. As for the networks, MTN performed pretty well. There were some areas that were complete signal blackspots, but overall, it worked.

Blogger itself is a nice platform. Unfortunately Blogger's mobile app is, well, a bit rubbish. It's really old and in desperate need of an update. I really hope that Google give the app some much needed attention, and while they're at it, they can give the web version a bit of TLC too.

Photo Editing
Snapseed was fantastic. It was fast and easy to use and we were pretty happy with the results. The Patriot Micro USB adaptor also worked nicely. The iPhone did struggle a bit though. Whilst Instashare did a good job of letting us get the photos to the iPhone, it was a cumbersome extra step that could be easily resolved if Apple didn't stubbornly stick to proprietary connectors.

Google Maps was a crucial part of the whole trip, without it the trip quite frankly would not have been possible. However, there are some areas that it could improve. The big problem we encountered is that the app does not take into consideration the terrain of the road when choosing a route. This meant that it would sometimes direct us to a dirt road that is only really suitable for a 4x4, not a little VW Golf. The map already has the option to avoid toll roads so it would be great if there was a filter to avoid dirt roads as well.
As for Maps Engine, it proved really useful for planning, but the interface is a little clunky and could be streamlined a bit. There is also some functionality missing on the mobile app (compared to the web app) which made things a little difficult. The upside though is that it let us generate a cool map of the entire route (see below).

Luckily we didn't have any emergencies on the trip but if we did, the cheap Samsung would have worked great. The thing was a trooper with a battery life of about 4 days.

All in all, the things we bought along with us really added a lot to the trip. If you plan on embarking on something similar, I highly recommend giving the items above a look.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Final Stretch...

After the extreme heat in Augrabies we were looking forward to some respite from the sun. We hit the road early on Saturday morning and headed for Garies, another little remote town in the Namaqualand region, but this was our half way mark between Augrabies Falls and home.

The journey to Garies was pretty dry for the most part until we hit Springbok where we parked up and stocked up on supplies for dinner that evening. Our guest house for the evening, was a lovely little cottage in the heart of Garies called Sophia's (which is pretty much one main road/ high street) and since it was after midday on a Saturday afternoon the whole town, including the high street had pretty much shut down for the day and would only reopen again on Monday morning.

We decided to make the most of our living quarters for the night and cooked a good old "home cooked" meal, which we hadn't had much opportunity to do for most of the trip. Over dinner that evening we reminisced about our journey and how quickly it had all seemed to come to an end. We made the decision there and then that we weren't ready to go home just yet, so we decide to wiggle one final pitstop into our trip.

Early the next morning we packed our bags and headed for Fisherhaven in the Overberg region. My family have a holiday home here and Kaif and I have enjoyed many weekends away here during our time in Cape Town, it's sort of become our "time out" place from the world , where we get to take stock and escape from reality for a little while.

On our way to Fisherhaven we spotted the turn off for Riebeek-Kasteel and decided to make a little detour to the place where we had our mini honeymoon. The place brought back so many memories and since it was after all our South African wedding anniversary (for those that don't know, we have three anniversaries) we decided to treat ourselves to a gourmet meal at the Royal Hotel. 

This is one of the oldest hotels and their food is to die for. If you're ever visiting this little town, I'd highly recommend you check it out and try their steak. After a indulgent lunch, it was time to hit the road again. 

We arrived in Fisherhaven in the early evening and just as we parked up, the heavens opened up and began to pour down buckets, what a welcome :-) We spent the night in our little safe haven and the next morning we headed into the neighbouring town of Hermanus for a French breakfast of crepes. 

We hadn't really set a date in stone for our return to Cape Town, but we did have two considerations. First we wanted to be back in time for our family' annual Christmas Eve dinner and second, we had a dentist appointment on the 22nd which we absolutely could not miss, as the next opening was only at the end of January and this dentist is the bomb! 

When we finally made our way home on a humid Monday afternoon we were both filled with mixed emotions. We were sad that our little adventure had come to an end and that we would soon be leaving this beautiful country. But for the most part, we were elated to have had such an amazing experience and to have truly seen South Africa in all it's beauty and diversity.

We made it to the dentist in the end.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Easy Star Augrabies

All backpackers are the same. The one that we are staying at in the remote town of Augrabies features all of the usual characteristics you find in places like this around the world. Pretty run down and dirty, that glossy orange paint on the walls that you assume is only there because it makes it easy to wash off bodily fluids, messages written on the walls from previous travelers, grim toilet and, most importantly, really odd people.
Whilst sitting in the bar area a man who looked like he could be in his 50s (although I suspect that he is probably in his 40s and let himself go a bit) starts talking at us. I say "at us" because he was drifting between a mumbling stream of consciousness and the occasional question directed to us. He was friendly enough, asking about where we were from and where we were headed. A French traveler in the bar asks the (potentially) old man where he is from, to which he replies, "I live here sometimes".
The man gets up and says "I'm going to play some music now, but feel free to change it if you want". He pulls out a laptop that looks a little worse for wear and plugs it into the beer stained amplifier in the corner of the bar. He starts playing a track with a long intro, it sounded familiar, but I wasn't sure what it was. Then the first chord dropped and I knew what it was straight away. It was the opening track to the album "Dub Side of the Moon" by the Easy Star All Stars (a dub reggae cover of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon". Both myself and the French traveler turn to the man and say that we recognised the track. The man's eyes lit up, "you know what this is?” he asked excitedly. We both nodded yes. The man puts his hands together in a namaste gesture, bows, and says "then you understand what wavelength I am on... thank you".
This exchange answered a question that had been on my mind for nearly a decade. What do those eternal pot smoking crusties that go from festival to festival do outside of festival season? They come to live in weird places like Augrabies.
Augrabies really is one of the most barren places we visited. The landscape is almost completely flat with only small pockets of civilisation. It looked closer to the surface of Mars than South Africa. I suspect that if you were an eccentric recluse then living out in the middle of the desert might be quite appealing (I'd certainly be up for it).
After a nights sleep at the backpackers, we got up early in the morning to visit Augrabies Falls. In the middle of this nothingness is a gigantic waterfall running through a canyon. It made for a nice morning before we headed off to our next stop, Garies.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Wrong Turn

It was meant to be an 8 hour drive from Ficksburg to Kathu but, as with most of this trip, things didn't end up as we expected. We are now driving into the Northern Cape. The lush green hills slowly disappear to make way for barren desert. After about 7 hours of driving we stop at a small town to fill up the car. As we pull away, our phone directs us through the town. We expected to be sent back on the highway, instead we were being directed to a long dirt road. There was no way the car was going to be able to do this, we would have to crawl through it and if we were to break down, there probably was very little chance of being picked up.
I checked the map, we were miles off course. We must have taken a wrong turn a couple of hours back, and the phone was desperately trying to get us back on track, even if it meant going through hostile terrain. We decided not to take the dirt road, instead we got back on the highway where we were going to get to the nearest town, Upington. From there we could take a different highway back and get to Kathu. This did mean that it would have added an extra 4½ hours to the journey, but at least it was smooth road the whole way.
The desert road to Upington was unbearably hot, we were both tired and starting to get dehydrated. Eventually, we got to Upington, it felt like an oasis in the middle of the desert. Desperate to get out of the car, we pulled up at a cheap steakhouse and grabbed a bite to eat.
Whilst there, we chatted about what we were going to do next. We had been on the road for over 12 hours, and it looked like there was another 3 hours to the guest house in Kathu. It also meant that we would be driving back on ourselves, not to mention a huge waste in petrol.
We decided to cut our losses and stay in Upington for the night.
We needed to relax. We were going deeper into the desert tomorrow morning.

Friday, 19 December 2014

From the city limits to the desert heat

We set out toward the Free State on a busy Wednesday morning. As we got ready for our next adventure, it was very clear that the city around us (Johannesburg) was still very much going about it's daily business. 

We were headed for Ficksburg in the Free State, land of the cherries. This small town is located on the foothills of the Imperani Mountain and was founded by General Johan Fick in 1883. 

The journey to Ficksburg was mostly smooth aside from a few roads riddled with potholes we made it there in one piece. The most amazing thing to see during this journey is the changing landscape, leaving a land of high rises and apartment blocks (Gauteng) and heading into the Free State with its gorgeous mountain range and wildlife, even the birds are amazing

The long-tailed male widowbird (Google it) is one of the most magnificent creatures I spotted on this route. It graciously glides through the air with its long beautiful tail swishing along behind it and it moves at a moderate pace, as if to say: "I own this runway b****, you will chill out and weep at my beauty."

We arrive in Ficksburg in the late afternoon and settle into our B&B, then we decide to do some exploring. The town is tiny and all of the stores are really weird. They have a couple of big brand stores and the only supermarket in the entire town is a Spar. Aside from that there are some unknown little stores that look like they belong to a forgotten era, selling clothes, electric goods, tyres and bric-a-brac. 

The people we run into are all really friendly, it's the kind of small town where everybody knows your name and probably your shoe size too. We only spend one night here and although short, our time here has left an impression on me.

Goodnight Jozi

Kaif and I have been regular visitors to Johannesburg over the past couple of years, however this is the first time we have actually gone there on a holiday with the intention of exploring all the city has to offer.

Our previous visits were always for business and we were both united in our mutual dislike of the city (sorry Joburgers) and the general consensus that "we could never live there". However this time around we discovered a different city to what we've become accustomed to, one with historical beauty, booming entrepreneurship and let's face it some pretty awesome hangout joints.

We visited quite a couple of places during our stay (which you can read more about in Kaif's last post- Johannesburg Electricity). One of the highlights was a journey we took out to a little town called Parys. The one thing that stood out for me about this quirky little town, aside from all the very niche shops was the fact that most things were labelled "vintage" and then usually had a significant markup on it.

Your grandmother's old sofa from 5 years ago- vintage
An old motorcycle helmet - vintage
A wooden crate freshly painted with the Bovril logo - vintage
Plastic lounge chair (remarkably similar to the kind found in local home outfitters store @Home) - you guessed it "vintage".

I did genuinely love some of the stores, like the old dark pub that looked like it belonged in one of the backstreets of Soho or the old school candy shop that really made me feel like a kid all over again.

We also visited Gold Reef City, the resident theme park in Johannnesburg. There's nothing quite like a raging roller coaster to make any grown adult squeal like a delighted toddler filled withjoy and  trepidation at the same time. I wasn't quite as brave as Kaif who attempted the park's most terrifying ride,aptly named the Tower of Terror.

But as we prepare to leave the big city and head further out toward the dessert I find myself with a bit of a soft spot for Johannesburg. For now though, it's time to hit the road and head out to the Free State. 

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Johannesburg Electricity

It's 2am and I'm laying in bed. Outside the rain beats against the window. Then a flash of lightning quickly followed by roaring thunder. The lightning storms in Jo'burg are a magnificent sight, they are intense and are usually over in about an hour or two; then it's back to glorious sunshine. The storm sums up the hostile nature of Jo'burg, everything is out to grind you down, even the weather. But the power behind Jo'burg, the lightning within the storm, is the people.
The city is young, just over 120 years old and was fuelled by the gold rush. The hunt for riches left behind it a rapidly developed city and a mindset that lives on to this day. People in Jo'burg don't fuck around. It seems as though everyone is here to make it big. Earlier in the day I saw a woman come out of a hair salon with curlers still in her hair as she marches over to the shops to finish her errands whilst texting on her phone. People are on a mission here, and that drive is what keeps Jo'burg running.
That drive has also led to the ugly side of Johannesburg, the crime. Houses have tall walls and electric fences, there are hijackings, home invasions and murders. Everyone in Jo'burg has been a victim of crime at some point. My friend tells me of the time her colleague was at home with her husband when a group of people broke into the house, tied them up and beat them before taking everything in the house. She herself was a victim of a smash and grab last week when stopping at a set of traffic lights. But despite all this, people here brush it off and get on with their lives. For them, it's just like the lightning storm, another harsh element for them to deal with. To focus on the crime is do a huge disservice to the resilience and ingenuity of the city's residents.
The crime has lead to the city developing in a unique way. The city centre is run down, big businesses pulled out and created their own district in Sandton. There's not many cities where the middle is a no go area at night. But Sandton is sterile, it's boring glass and metal buildings only serve to house big corporations and not to inspire the residents. But that doesn't mean that the city centre is a ghost town, on the contrary, it's full of life.
Johannesburg's city centre feels post apocalyptic, but not in a bad way. There are gigantic buildings left abandoned and crumbling. There's a certain eroded beauty and majesty to them. Yet, people have found ways to breathe life back into these structures, filling them with markets, small businesses and edgy clubs.
The rawness of Johannesburg is what makes it one of the most exciting places to be in Africa, long may it stay that way.