Monthly Archives: February 2011

Robben Island (SA)

Unlike Alcatraz, the prison does not take up most of the space on Robben Island. The prison seemed small in fact. There are four or five sections but they mainly consist of common rooms and showers. 30 people would be sleeping on the floor until beds were introduced in the late 70s. The food and the clothes were different for Bantus (less of either) and Coloreds & Indians.
We were shown the kitchen and the B section which was the section that held the political leaders. They had a small courtyard in each section and there was space for a tennis net. We also saw Mandela’s cell. There were no toilets in the cells, only buckets.

Robben Island prison - one part of it

Mandela's cell

The kitchen

The tour was held by a former inmate. He was at Robben Island prison from 1983 until 1990. The prison was closed down officially in 1991, he came back in 2007 to heal himself with this job.

After the tour we all got on a bus and were shown where Robert Sobukwe was held in solitary confinement. ( He had a small house and there was another small hut for when his children visited. After he was released dog kennels were added here, not the type of dogs I would walk.

Kid's bedroom

There is also a huge leper cemetary on Robben Island as this is where the lepers and the mentally ill were held. The mentally ill as well as the prison inmates were working at the limestone quarry, the limestone was used to build the prison.

There are some small houses on the island as people still live here. There is a school with 16 children and two teachers, one of them is also the principal. You can see a small lighthouse as well. The road around the island is 12 km long but as a visitor you don’t get to see the rest. The tour is run precisely at 3 hours including the first boat ride which takes 30 minutes. They sell out every day and every seat is accounted for.


Table Mountain (SA)

Today I conquered Table Mountain. It’s a hiker’s dream as you can get up from various points. All of them are steep and take forever, and everyone will tell you not to hike by yourself.
Silvia and I took the most direct route, up the hill from the front, all sunshine and no shade. Supposedly it takes 2 1/2 hours up but we needed 5 due to many many breaks, too many for me actually – guess I am fitter than expected. The entire way consisted of rocks to climb over, it went straight up all the time.
Up on the mountain you can walk across the relatively small flat part that gives the mountain its name. The area as such is huge but only the flat part and Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head are visible from the city skyline. Most days you can’t get up at all due to the weather, i.e. clouds move in fast and cover the area (“tablecloth”). We had a well deserved beer at the cafeteria and took the fast cable car down.

Afterward we met Silvia’s relative and a friend at the Water Front and listened to excellent live jazz performed by a bunch of old farts while enjoying a beer or three. I also complimented an Italian architect on his colorful shirt (Desigual rocks!) and met two fishermen (+ Dad) from Norwich. Finally I decided to have sushi near the B+B which was tasty but definitely more expensive than expected (New York prices if not more). Totally beat now, a long day…

I must miss that truck (SA)

It’s 4pm on Saturday and I’m sitting upstairs on a balcony of a Kurdish restaurant overlooking Longmarket in Cape Town. I need to take a break from the heat, the people, the buzz everywhere. I checked out Long Street for cheaper, younger options, but the Backpacker Street or mainly its audience is not for me. I’d rather pay a bit more but don’t have to look at skinny white dreadlocked guys in Teva sandals.
The only problem here is that I don’t seem to get service.

Yesterday I bought a two day ticket for the hop on + off bus which turned out to be a good idea. It has two routes and I started with the shorter one, shorter only because it has less stops. It took me around the entire city loop and I got off at the beautiful Botanical Garden and the not that exciting Fishermen’s Wharf only. It still took about 5 hours including the Botanical Garden and I didn’t even go hiking there. However I got a good appreciation of the size of the city and how different each area looks. We passed the Imizamo Yethu township as well as the beautiful beaches numbered 1-4 (for each category of people there’s one, if you happen to be a celebrity or a model you would go to beach 3 I believe) and saw where the rich live and how they are transported up diagonally to their million dollar homes via a small private person lift.
The area where I’m staying, Greenpoint, also has beaches though you can’t swim here because of rocks and plants.

After a very late lunch I decided to take it easy and shop a bit but in the end I went running again (!) and relaxed in the evening.
Today I rode the red route which takes you through the city center, to the cable car at Table Mountain and again to the seaside. Roundtrip is 2 hours and I didn’t get off this time because I have plenty of time to check out the city center on foot this upcoming week.
After a break I did however get back on and rode to the District 6 museum.
District 6 was a neighborhood with all types of people who lived in perfect harmony until the government decided in the 50s to move everyone out and separate them according to their race and skin color, and flatten the houses. The area is still flat, i.e. nothing has been built there since, and the previous locals are still mourning the loss of their community. The museum is run by previous residents inside a former church.
The Apartheid museum in Joburg is far more obvious about the effect of racism against the people, but this museum brought home actual feelings of individuals and the destruction of an entire community. It affected everyone, not just the blacks.

Three rastafaris are sitting next to me, none are wearing Tevas.
Also, I just got a beer and a meze platter.

At 6pm I will reboard the bus for the last time as a night tour is included in my ticket. After that I will sleep like a baby, again.

You can shop till you drop in Cape Town and it’s not even that expensive. However the three things I need so far I cannot get: raw almonds, zipper pulls and a cheap battery for my camera. The latter is available at 100$ – half the price of my camera.
It also remains to be seen what will happen to my ipod. It died and gave me weird digital displays on the long truck day here. However it is fine now, having been plugged into an electric outlet again. Will it die on the most remote part of my trip again or should I just buy a new one and have the ‘ifixit’ store transfer my music? I guess I will find out the hard way.

Btw, jogging around the world cup stadium takes 17 minutes.

Hello Atlantic Ocean, we meet again… (SA)

So we’re in Cape Town now. And even 24 hours after arrival I have not yet seen enough to have an opinion or good description of the city. I will take it slow as I have a whole week on my own ahead of me. I pitied the folks who had to rush up Table Mountain on the same day because their agenda didn’t allow for time to enjoy the city. Must be tough to go back to a job…


Anyway here I am, in Greenpoint (actually it’s Mouille Point), sitting in the sun by the ocean with my silly green hat on. Today I want to do what I’ve been trying to do for weeks, i.e. read. At the campsites there was never enough time somehow with all that relaxing and eating, and on the truck it was too bumpy. Once we were done with dinner it was dark already and I never felt like using my flashlight. A few times I tried to read a page or two during the day but evidently sitting behind the tent out of sight and reach from everyone was not enough of an indication that I wanted to be alone for a while.


I didn’t expect it but I’m actually a bit tired today, and glad I don’t have to talk, sit on the truck or beat the sunset to get organized inside a tent. I checked out of the mediocre and totally sufficient hotel in the city center used for the tour end this morning and checked in to a fancy B+B in Greenpoint 10 minutes later. This place was recommended by my friend Tess who I believed lives in Cape Town now but she’s actually in Amsterdam. She just told me to email Lily and mention that I’m her friend and I did without knowing what their relationship is. I got the most curious emails from Lily back (“wonderful Tess…what an honor”) and when I met Lily this morning all made sense. Tess had stayed here many times and this was probably not a personal relationship at all. Furthermore Lily is a character. She’s probably in her 70s with black hair, long flowing dresses, lots of jewellery but no black bird on her shoulder (or a broomstick in sight). She is very warm, welcoming and any other adjective that comes with friendly quirky old people. She put me in the so called roof room which is on the 3rd floor and I assume climbing those stairs a few times a day is what keeps her fit.


The place, from what I’ve seen is probably best described as plush. High ceilings, fancy decor, very inviting. My room is large and has more than I need. The bathroom is twice the size of mine at home. I did not get a nepotism discount but the price was very reasonable considering what I would spend for this elsewhere.


First I hit the bed. A nice daytime nap was exactly what I needed. Then I headed to where I am now. It’s 10 minutes away and I passed the soccer stadium. No vuvuzuelas to be heard but you can imagine their sound and the World Cup atmosphere well.

That round thing in the middle by the ocean is the soccer stadium.

The sun is actually hotter than I thought despite the ocean breeze so I will now head on. Just a quick walk and to get my bearings, then hopefully out for a run. Tonight I’m planning on taking it easy, maybe even skip a meal. The past days have been calorie-heavy and exercise-dead and last night’s beers after dinner with the group certainly didn’t help. What a poor statement considering we’re in a country where some people are still starving.
On second thought I passed a sushi place on the way…

Stupid questions (SA)

A trip like this offers plenty of opportunities for stupid questions.
Our tour guides even answer them occasionally. So on a previous tour the already ridiculous question about how to identify a male from a female zebra was answered like this: the male zebra is black and has white stripes whereas the female zebra is white but has black stripes. Genius! Evidently the satisfied group then happily spent some time pointing out to each other which zebra is which. They must have been Germans. Evidently the sex of lionesses is not clear to some native English speakers either.
Not answered was the question whether giraffes travel in flocks.


Obviously every group has at least one person responsible for this nonsense. In our group it’s the person sitting at the campfire with a head flashlight. The prize winning question at Kruger National Park was “are these African or Indian elephants?”, followed by “is this the black or white lion?”. In third place came the demand for a timetable the turtles would adhere to on the night tour so that we know exactly when to get the cameras ready.


Unfortunately there is also a good amount of ignorance present, proven in statements like “the black people at the mall are racist, they were so rude” and “there are no clean toilets in the shanty towns”.


New people will join me after my week in Cape Town, and the questions will keep on coming…

Cape Town (SA)

I have arrived safely in Cape Town. It’s about as un-African here as I had imagined it. Currently I’m in an internet cafe trying to upload pictures…but it is still such a slow process that it may just have to wait. Some pictures made it onto this blog, but not the ones I had originally intended to be there.

Oh well…updates soon.


Hello Cape Town!

Ostriches in Oudtshoorn (SA)

Dear diary,

Today I rode an ostrich!

…Every entry should start like that. And it’s true! Here’s what happened:

Oudtshoorn is an ostrich area. Where you would normally see cows or goats here the fields are covered with the world’s biggest bird that look like can-can dancers in ruffly old fashioned underwear. They are giant, strong, fast, and have a face expression like they are permanently looking for trouble.

Male on the left, female on the right

The birds are expensive to keep as they eat about 5kg a day – of everything, including pebbles or pieces of metal or even a lipstick, basically anything that will get their digestion going (here’s a thought…). They are kept for their feathers, their leather (very tough), their eggs (rich in protein and especially cholesterol, also for gifts) and their meat. Their ground bones are used in cattle food.


They run at about 65kmh which makes them the fastest animals after cheetahs and should you meet a hostile one (usually the males) in the wild they can trample you to death or tear you open with their single toe nails on each foot. They can turn their heads more than 360 degrees and they hear well, too.
Their weak spot is their brain, it only weighs 30g and they completely rely on their eyes which weigh 60g each. Therefore should you ever have to fight an ostrich you must either blind them (have a paperbag ready) or clock them over the head in which case they probably drop dead instantly.


Ostriches are monogamous and only have one life partner ever. When they get ready to mate the females ruffle their feathers and the males turn red on their beaks and legs. I had a red tshirt on today so some of the ladies gave me second looks.
The mating call sounds like someone blowing hard into a trumpet but not getting a musical tone out. We also glimpsed at the male mating tool which is ginormous and pink and pretty offensive looking (it drops out when they relieve themselves noisily).
All male ostriches are good fathers who even look after other females’ kids. In return they get to be the better looking ones in the family; black feathers and white undercoat vs. the female brown/grayish feathers.


On closer contact the funny looking creatures are impressive and menacing. Even the curious or cheeky face expressions don’t help here (open beaks mean they are hot). We were encouraged to pet or even get a kiss from a female bird named Sally who has never had a partner at age 6 and was understandably neurotic. I fed her – she was a fast and messy eater – but wasn’t sure if my hand would still be attached afterward. The guide, who in his spare time probably tries at a career in comedy, didn’t make me feel much safer either by declaring that she was irritable today and btw she could kill me with a hard peck on my shoulder.

Sally going for food behind my back

Nevertheless I tried my luck as an ostrich jockey. For this there was an area squared away that held about 10 males who already wore saddle-like patches and looked rather dismantled to begin with. Two guys caught one and put a linen bag over his head to make him defenseless. Nothing is more ridiculous than seeing a confused ostrich with a bag on his head. I then had to climb up using a wooden staircase as they are pretty high up. I sat behind the hump (who knew they had one?), held on to the wings and then the bag was taken off… and off we went. The two helpers ran with us, one on each side, to make sure I wouldn’t get hacked to death or thrown off right away. I managed to stay on for a few seconds and it was definitely wicked fun, and exactly as I had imagined it would be.

Getting on an ostrich with help

Riding an ostrich


Later on we did other silly things like testing the strength of an egg shell by standing on it and getting a massage by a few ostrich necks by feeding the birds with our backs to them.


After the ostrich action we moved on to Cango caves – as the name suggests it’s a huge cave that nature formed over millions of years. Much like the one in Carlsbad or some other one I went to in China whose name I can’t remember now. I skipped the tour in favor of ice cream and air conditioning as today was a really hot day.


And finally the unthinkable happened! While the others were lounging at the pool I broke in my new sneakers with a 2 mile run. In the boiling afternoon sun!
How’s that for awesome!?