• Sarah Royal

Cape Town & Kruger: A Ridiculous Amount of Animals

Hi, folks! I last left you about to board on my four-flight exciting transfer day from Mumbai to Cape Town. After trying to confirm five times with the hostel guy (who didn’t speak much English) that there would be a tuk tuk waiting for me at 2:30 a.m. to take me to the airport, and being told, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, it will be there,” it wasn’t, of course. I had to bang on the now-locked hostel door five times before he woke up and came to the door looking stunned, and I said, “Remember that tuk tuk?” Luckily he made a phone call and one came right away. At the airport I checked in with one airline but was switching to another after two of the flights, so I only received the first two boarding passes. “So what do I do when I get to that point? I don’t have much time in the airport.” She reassured me that I could easily go to the gate and check in to receive the next two tickets – she just couldn’t print them out there. “And my bag will be in Cape Town when I get there?” Absolutely, don’t worry, don’t worry.“ You can see where this is going. The multiple flights were actually quite pleasant – I got the window seat in the emergency exit row twice and watched One Fine Day with George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer (which is as old as I am, I think). Arriving to connect to my third flight in Zimbabwe, we were shuffled off the plane into this skinny hallway and our brains were scanned in a very sci-fi way for Ebola. After this check, we spilled out into a small space where seemingly the only option was to pass through immigration. I asked around, given that I had a flight to Durban, South Africa that was boarding in 20 minutes, how the hell I connect to it, and no one seemed to know. I really can’t have been the only person to ever transfer flights in this airport, I thought, but hell, maybe I was. The fifth person I talked to said to wait by a door and a guy would come pick me up and drive me to the terminal – just show him my boarding pass. "But I don’t have a boarding pass yet,” I said, realizing how ridiculously complicated this was, and then I spoke to at least eight more people. All of them made some refrain of “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” and then the ninth one, after looking at my itinerary, said, “This flight is boarding!” No fucking shit. He took me through a back door, which I guarantee would be illegal in the U.S., talked to the customs people about how I wasn’t actually entering the country, but needed to go to a counter to get a boarding pass, and then brought me to the new airline’s counter. They, of course, were confused as to where I came from and why I didn’t have luggage, but eventually some guy not even looking at the computer, it seemed, printed two passes quickly, and I grabbed them and ran back through my illegal passageway and amazingly caught the flight on time. After another window seat and pleasant flight, I cruised through the baggage claim area and onto the connecting flights passageway (there actually was one of those in Durban), excited for my two-hour layover, when the guard stopped me and said I couldn’t come through until I collected my luggage. I explained to him that it was in Cape Town, he said it was impossible as there were no more flights to Cape Town on that airline tonight. I showed him my boarding pass for the flight, and upon closer inspection, the flight number was different than the one my bag was supposedly checked to, and in fact, the flight on the boarding pass had already taken off a half an hour ago. A woman from the airline came over to me and told me that the original flight number where my bag supposedly was hadn’t operated for at least eight months. OK then. A whole insane airport debacle followed, including searching for my lost bag in their creepy baggage room, opening a lost baggage claim ticket and trying to describe what a backpacker’s backpack is, bouncing back and forth between airline counters to talk to new people, and finally getting them to get me (without my bag, of course, but just me) to Cape Town that evening on British Airways. Everyone was super nice, I must say, and that really made the difference. I went through security, exchanged my money for some Rand, drank a South African Castle beer, and then proceeded to my gate – just when the loud speaker said, “Sarah Royal proceed to your gate.” I figured it was good news, that they had found my bag, but when I got there they told me my ticket on British Airways was invalid, and they were going to try to get me on another flight leaving at the same time on a different airline because of “internal politics,” and I had to go back outside of security. Right. I bolted outside, and running towards the counter saw the woman who had helped me earlier. She thrust a new ticket in my hand and said, “SORRY!” I don’t even think I mumbled a thank-you, and bolted again through the thankfully-short security line, ran to my new gate, and again just made the plane in time. I sat between two South Africans that were incredibly cheerful and sorry that my experience had been a bust so far, and we all drank wine and shared stories and I instantly was back in a good mood again. Fuck my baggage – on to Cape Town! After a good chat with my cab driver and the guy working at the hostel, I had an awesome sleep and then was already getting picked up in the morning for another bicycle tour – this time to the Cape of Good Hope. As always, we had a great hodgepodge of nations on the tour, and we had a ridiculously cheerful and friendly tour guide, who brought us to more places than I even thought I signed up for, including an island full of hundreds of seals and a beach full of penguins. We cruised around gorgeous mountain curves with the ocean right beside us – on an exceedingly clear day, which everyone was saying was pure luck – and then hopped on bicycles as we entered the Cape of Good Hope preserve area. And damn, was it preserved – I expected that such a key geographic spot in all the world’s history would be somewhat run-down and over-trodden, but it looked like beautiful untouched New Mexico desert and called to mind zillions of moments on Bike & Build as we cruised south in the super-heavy winds. I obviously fucking loved it. 

After bicycling down to the Cape of Good Hope and dodging the crazy baboons that hang out in the area and open people’s car doors, we hiked up a mountain with wind blowing in all directions to Cape Point, the other edge of the cape that is (somewhat) the dividing point between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans (although neither is actually the southernmost point of Africa – that’s a bit further east). It was stunningly beautiful, and I didn’t quite expect it.

We cruised back to the city, I ate ribs for dinner at a local spot and had a South African IPA (which was awesome) and chatted with the bartender for a long while about how fucking deliriously cheerful everyone in Cape Town seemed to be, and then took a cab to Long Street to go to Mama Africa, a bar/restaurant that was supposed to have great live music. They did – this band of three wooden xylophones, a drummer, a saxophonist, and two singers had zero amplification and played cover songs with an African beat, as well as originals. The two singers sounded like fucking opera singers, they were amazing. I sat with a few of my new friends from the tour, and eventually the band was working the crowd and pulled us up to dance. At one point one of the singers was passing around a tamborine, trying to teach people how to play with the beat, and then he passed it to me and was impressed with how quickly I picked it up. Thank you, TriSarahTops. The next day I decided to buy a ticket on one of those double-decker buses, since it was as cheap as a single cab ride (well, with the tourist tax) and took me literally everywhere. Again, I had a perfectly sunny and clear day, and went to a ton of beaches, ate great sushi, had a ton of fun people-watching, went to wine country and got a nice buzz chatting with a lady from Syracuse, watched paragliders, and marveled at how Cape Town was like Portland. Everyone was young and happy and semi-retired. Just when I thought I should hike Table Mountain, the crazy-huge flat-topped mountain looming over the city, the infamous “table cloth” cloud blew over the top of it and spilled over into the city, spoiling whatever view I would get from up there. Oh well, another day. After partying with a bunch of future Dutch doctors who were at my hostel doing an internship at the hospital where the first heart transplant took place, I woke up early the next morning to get picked up to go to Gansbaai, a town a few hours away where you can go cage diving with Great White Sharks. Uh, yeah.

I had seen a poster for it when I arrived, and though it had never crossed my mind to ever do this in my life, much less having a plan to do it in South Africa, I decided that I should. Before I knew it, I was putting on a damp wet suit on a boat in the middle of the ocean and climbing into a cage off the side of the boat.

I had imagined a single-person cage, with you fully submerged the entire viewing time with an air tube sticking out of the top. It wasn’t like that at all – the cage was long along the side of the boat and could fit five people side by side, and you donned only a diving mask and a wetsuit (unless you were the German guys trying to be tough, as pictured above, who did actually put on wetsuits for their second time, because duh). You stood on the back bars of the cage (the ones against the boat) and held onto an inside metal bar of the cage (protecting your fingers from the outside of the cage, of course) and waited about neck-deep in the water. To the right of the cage on the boat was the bait guy, who was swinging a rope with a floater on the end with two giant tuna heads attached to it and dragging it in front of the cage to attract the sharks. When a shark would come by, he would shout “DOWN DOWN DOWN DOWN DOWN” and everyone in the cage would take a deep breath, push themselves under, and watch the shark pass by. The bait guy would pull the bait away just in time before the shark got it, and then the process would begin again. I couldn’t help but laugh the entire time – humans are so fucking ridiculous that we do shit like this. But I was loving it. 

The sharks got REALLY fucking close. The water wasn’t that clear that day, but man, you could still see them in front of your face. And they were huge. The best “pass” was one where the shark with its mouth wide open swam directly at the cage and bumped into it, showing its teeth to the girl most terrified to be there, of course. She immediately wanted out of the cage, and the rest of us immediately wanted to slap her since she just got the best experience and wanted it the least. But I was super lucky on my third chance in the cage, as the shark actually was too quick for the bait guy, caught the bait, and struggled to break it free so hard that it was slapping its entire body against the cage, and at one point wedged itself between the boat and the bottom of the cage so it made the cage shake and tilt on a diagonal angle. So. Fucking. Crazy.

As if that weren’t enough, on the way back to Cape Town we stopped at a whale watching spot on a beach that had cliffs that dropped immediately into the ocean, so that the water very close to shore was really deep. As a result, the whales came right up to the rocks. Sure enough, we showed up and there were at least six whales visible, and we got quite the show when a younger one was breaching continuously and leaping out of the water 87 times. I don’t think I’ve ever really seen a proper whale breach, and then I saw it repeatedly. Even the photographer guy next to me stopped taking shots because it happened so many times. Unreal. I constantly thought of my whale-obsessed friends in Portland and said “Life’s a breach” over and over in my head and cracked myself up.

After a quick cruise back to Cape Town, to my surprise I found my luggage waiting for me back at the hostel. (I left out the parts where I called the airline 14 times to check up on it). The long sticker that indicates what airport it flies to said CPT on the outside and had about 12 other stickers piled up on the inside. I think my bag had traveled more than I had. I took a shower and changed into some clean clothes – well, relatively – had a nice drink, and hit the hay. The next day was 100 degrees (or 38, depending on where you’re from) outside, and due to that fact, the fact that I couldn’t wrangle anyone else to accompany me, and the fact that countless people had said DON’T HIKE IT ALONE, I decided to not be a stupid stubborn tourist and hike Table Mountain, and instead cheated and took the tram up (you’re welcome, Mom). The tram meant I had a lot more time at the top, of course, as I had a flight to Joburg to catch later, and I explored the insane views that reminded me of the Grand Canyon, except greener and with more vegetation and with a city and an ocean in the background. It was stellar, and I stayed up there in the sun for hours. 

Since I had a little bonus time post-non-hike, I took a bus to a beach and went swimming in the frigid water after having a nice group of Dutch ladies watch my purse. Everyone was out doing all sorts of beach things, but mostly hiding under umbrellas, and being covered in salt and sand was a fine way to head back to the airport and move onwards to Johannesburg. 

I actually got to Joburg successfully and my backpack was one of the first out of the conveyor belt – for the win! Due to the immense size of the city, though, my cab driver didn’t really have much of a clue as to where he was going or where my hostel was, but eventually we called the hostel and figured it out. And it was a good thing, too, because the hostel had an enormous grass-covered backyard with dozens of plants and palm trees, a swimming pool, and a huge thatch-covered shack in the backyard with a bar in it. I settled into my room and halfway greeted my roommates, one of whom would be joining me early in the morning on the tour of Kruger National Park the next day, and had a nightcap beer in the bar and chatted with some Brazilians about Brazil but mostly about New York City. Everyone is excited either about New York or California when they hear you’re from the states, and I’m proud to report that on this trip New York was winning. Not by much, especially in South Africa where everyone loves surfing, but still ahead. We were a “late” pickup at 6 a.m., and me and my new Austrian friend piled into the backseat of a mini-bus and began the long trek to Kruger with an Italian lady, two separate groups of Dutch girls, and a Swiss guy – all speaking English together, of course. We had a great time swapping stories on the way to camp, and after dropping off our stuff in our tents (made by Campmor in New Jersey – classic) at our peaceful-except-sometimes-leopards-came-around campground, we went for an evening tour of an animal sanctuary, where they take care of wild animals that have been caught in snares or would otherwise be killed by farmers by messing with their land or livestock and what not. We got up close to lots of animals – three of the Dutch girls were chased by a giraffe that was wildly kicking its legs and “wanted to play” – and heard a really interesting talk from the ranger showing us around about how big-game hunting makes money for places like Kruger and the animal sanctuary to survive, as much as people don’t like to think about it. We ended the tour checking out a honey badger. The ranger was holding some leftover meat scraps that he was feeding lions with, and the honey badger was freaking the fuck out, trying to grab it through the cage. Contrary to its reputation, it really did give a shit.

After an awesome meal of meaty macaroni and cheese and boxed South African wine, we settled in to wake up at 4:30 a.m. and start our game drive in the park itself. Our guide was a guy named Lloyd who very clearly was in love with his job, and interviewed us all beforehand about which animal we were most excited to see. I said that, though it seemed sexist, I really wanted to see a big male lion with the full mane on his head. Others said hippos, leopards, cheetahs, zebras, elephants – pretty much everything. The “Big Five” animals of Africa, so called because of these five being historically the most difficult to hunt, are elephants, African buffalo, lions, rhinoceros, and leopards, with the leopards being the animal least likely to be seen. Five minutes into our game drive we saw a fucking leopard.

Lloyd was freaking out, so excited for us but also excited for himself, as seeing a leopard first thing is practically unheard of. It was about 10 meters away from us (I think in meters now), hanging in the shade, but got up and moved around a bit. It was badass and huge.  Only maybe a half hour later, BAM – we find a whole group of lions, including a “big male lion” with the whole mane thing. Unreal. We watched them laze around and lick each other and basically act like the cats they are for an hour. And yes, people, I did actually enjoy every minute of it.

The two days that followed really were perfect – in the first day we saw the entire Big Five, and throughout our whole trip we saw more of the Big Five plus elephants, hippos, giraffes, zebras, baboons, monkeys, crocodiles, a shitton of impala, water bucks, wildebeest, nyalas, warthogs, and a zillion birds. We even saw not one, but TWO cheetahs eating a water buck carcass that they had just killed. Cheetahs are even more rare than leopards, and as we were watching them Lloyd was giddy and just said, “This isn’t supposed to happen.”

We kept making jokes that Lloyd was just calling ahead to his buddies to release the animals on cue as we pulled up to certain spots. Elephants and giraffe waltzed up to watering holes just as we arrived. Hippos could have been miles in either direction along a riverbank but were situated right in front of this blind (they called them “hides”) that we walked into. At one point when it was crazy hot and we asked about hyenas, Lloyd said, “Ah, I wouldn’t bet on seeing them in this heat,” and then we saw three of them. Just before we left the last day, we saw lions eating the remains of a buffalo carcass that they had killed. Nature was really putting on a show for us, and I don’t know who was the good luck charm, but man – even Lloyd was perplexed at how perfect our experience was. “People come here for 20 years on end and never see a kill, let alone two or a cheetah kill. Christ."  I have a zillion photos, of course, and better ones of zebras, but I thought you’d appreciate the selfie-gone-awry. All in all, we could hold our heads high and be insanely proud of how flipping lucky we were to have seen all of that (and to have a guide who can spot a hyena standing in the woods at 80 kph). Our group was super fun, too, and somewhere sometime I’ll have access to good jumping photo we did at sunset one of the days. We got back to camp, jumped into the pool in our clothes since it was over 100 degrees, and had a campfire party over thick steaks and more wine telling life stories and relishing in our success. And next: Joburg for a few days, and then back to the UNITED STATES for a few weeks for my cycling trip and camping. Holy balls, how am I there already?

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