A Day at the Races–The Langa Township Tour

A while back, in the Klein Karoo town of Oudtshoorn, Cindy and I went into an information center which was manned by two female representatives. On the left sat the black rep, on the right sat the white rep. We were greeted by both as we entered but since the person on the left was closer and more oriented towards the entrance, Cindy and I immediately made eye contact and quickly engaged by directing our questions right to her. As she started to answer us, the other rep interrupted her to take over the Q and A. We got our questions answered and left, and would not have thought much about what had just happened except it was not the first time we queried a black person only to have a white person over-hear and intercede in getting our questions answered, the black person always deferring to the white. As we’ve learned more about the South African history and legacy of race relations, it seems many circumstances have a racial component to them, though, class and social hierarchy appear to have a role as well.

Before and during the system of apartheid was in place there were four race and/or class distinctions. Whites were considered first, followed by Indians since they were ‘brought here and given the opportunities’ by whites. Next in line were “coloured” people who are mixed race, lighter than native Africans but darker than whites, and at the bottom of the hierarchy were native Africans or blacks. In the U.S. we don’t call non-whites ‘colored’ any more since white skin can also be considered colored. Yes, there’s political correctness involved, too, but the fact is, white skin is colored skin. Though, any time I tried to explain that to anyone here, it didn’t seem to make any sense. To whatever extent I can only imagine, it seems those race and class distinctions still exist.

Apartheid-era sign

Apartheid-era sign

This system of race distinction was explained to us by our tour-guide, a local resident named Chippa, while taking a tour of the township of Langa. Townships were originally set up by whites when they were in power to segregate and disempower the native non-white populations, though, they still serve as the cultural and identifying centers of the native African/black communities. One of the first things Chippa told us was that no question was ‘off topic’ or not worth discussing.

Langa alleyway

Langa alleyway

There are low, middle and high income residents of the townships, though, the vast majority of its 80,000 residents live in extreme poverty. These are primarily the descendents of the KhoiKhoi people who lived here for thousands of years. The San bushmen, hunter/gatherers, were the other peoples indigenous to the area around Cape Town. Chippa taught us how to make the three different ‘clicking’ sounds, though, I heard them spoken to a much greater extent east and north of Cape Town where we came into contact with people of the Xhosa tribe.

Just after passing through the gates, we entered an area where there was trash strewn everywhere, and at one cross-road there were unopened packages of prophylactics among the rest of the trash on the ground.

Langa crossroads scene

Langa scene

We went into a few of the residents’ houses to say hello and take a look around. The poorest lived in dark shacks and had no electric service, open fires burning in the middle of the shacks. When Chippa took us into a local pub, we were genuinely welcomed in and invited to join them. Chippa broke out in call and response chant and the older guys who were hanging out heartily followed along.

A local brew-meister

A local brew-meister

Tasting some Langa home-brew

Tasting Langa home-brew

I wiped off the beer-mustache before leaving.

These folks were living in the container “house” behind them in a room about 5 feet square…

Langa family

Langa family

Container "homes"

Container “homes”

Sheep’s heads are considered a delicacy here. We saw the process of them from raw, newly severed heads with the jugulars still red and lying around in groupings of 3 or 4, through them getting cooked over a fire, then filed down to the final product of fine, pink flesh with bucked-teeth sticking out.

Cooking local delicacies

Cooking local delicacies

A local delicacy. Really?

A local delicacy.

The ‘middle income’ domiciles were commonly occupied by 3 families sharing tiny kitchens, bedrooms with bunk beds, and perhaps 6 or 8 sleeping in one room.

Chippa has a following....and some lollipops!

Chippa has a following….and some lollipops!

A short distance from the corrugated tin and wood slatted shacks were houses of people who had relatively high incomes. We asked Chippa if there was any animosity between the ‘halves’ and ‘have-nots’. He said ‘no’ but added that they didn’t associate with each other much.

High income housing at Langa

High income housing at Langa

Anyone who has the financial means will send their children to private school as class sizes in local public schools can range up to 140 kids. Corruption of public officials is notoriously rampant and there are a number of public policies that were created to get the vote of an uneducated population. For example, any woman who has a baby is automatically given the equivalent of $30 per month until the child is 18.

The township tours serve to educate visitors as well as expose them to another side of South Africa they won’t see, except by glances from the highway at high speeds. Before the tour, we were wondering about what was behind the wood and corrugated tin shacks as we sped by. We felt like we got more than a passing glimpse after doing the tour. It really made us ponder the fate of South Africa and its peoples.

Chippa drove us to the other end of the township which used to have a tightly controlled border. Just across the road was another township, this one for people of mixed race or ‘coloured’ people, as they are still called by many.

Townships border

Townships border

On the way back, Chippa asked if anything stood out for us. Cindy and I both said that we felt the residents were warm and welcoming. He replied that that was a general characteristic of South Africans. We agreed and found that to be the true across the country.

Hope springs from the young

Hope springs from the young

Chippa couldn’t help but have an optimistic attitude about the future. At the same time he thought it could take generations for significant improvement.

I recall first learning about apartheid in grade school and feeling totally dumbfounded about how something like that could happen. South Africa is rarely on the radar screen in the US but I remember there being a lot of violence in the ’80’s, and of course, the watershed moment of the end of apartheid in 1994. I couldn’t help but feel some levity as I thought about a song from the play, “Avenue Q”…….

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Cape Town

Cape Town

We hit Cape Town with a blast. Back at Buccaneer’s Lodge and Hostel in Cinsta we’d met (a guy named) Guy who, when he found out we were headed for Cape Town, gave us the name of a couple of friends of his who had a summer home they might be willing to rent out. We gave Sid and Elle a call when we were approaching the Mother City (Cape Town) and although they didn’t have suitable accommodations, we found ourselves with a dinner invitation for Saturday night. Upon arrival, we were pleasantly surprised to discover it wasn’t just an evening over someone’s house, it was a full-blown dinner party with about 20 guests. What a wonderful way to arrive in a new place! We had a great time, met a group of wonderful and friendly people (though, we haven’t met any un-friendly South Africans) and Elle turned out to be an amazing cook, to boot!

We really enjoyed the experiences we’d had staying in hostels meeting lots of like-minded travelers, but since it would be a long stay of 2 1/2 weeks in Cape Town we were a bit torn as to where we would hang our hats. We called ahead and checked out a few places to stay in town; easy to do while we still had our rental car. More living space and good cooking facilities won out and we found a pretty swanky, well equipped one-bedroom apartment/condo in the Greenpoint section. It’s turned out to be an excellent location and neighborhood.

Our digs are a couple of blocks off the main road to the right of the stadium.

Greenpoint, the Stadium, and Robben Island in Table Bay

Greenpoint and the Stadium. Robben Island lies off the coast in Table Bay

Rentals like this are called “self-catering”, which in this case means paying for electricity and the internet connection in addition to food. The wi-fi set up we had upon arrival was a very weak system and connection, but the owner of the condo was nice enough to purchase a wi-fi (or, mi-fi) router which works quite well through the 3G network; the down-side being that we have to pay for the data. In the end, though, I think we’ll be saving money vs other short-term solutions over the time we’re here.

The day after setting up ‘home’, we drove out to The Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point.

Cape of Good Hope

Cape of Good Hope

The spectacular scenery in South Africa never fails to amaze and delight; driving up, over and through amazing mountain passes again and again and again. It never gets old, and although it requires a driver’s strict attention, it never gets tiring. After every bend, a new and beautiful scene unfolds. Surprisingly, the Point was crowded with tourists. It is the low season after all, but after a couple of days of rain, and it being a weekend, people are bound to come out to enjoy the sights and good weather.

Cape Point lighthouse; Cape of Good Hope off to the left

Cape Point lighthouse. The cliff drops 249 meters to the sea

We headed back with stops at Boulder Beach and Simon’s Town. It’s home for a large colony of African Penguins. Boy, their waddle is pretty funny to watch.

African Penguin

African Penguin

On the way back, we also hit Polana Restaurant in the town of Kalk Bay. Originally, it was recommended by Patrick, the owner of Baby Bush Lodge in Zanzibar, who had lived in Cape Town, but it was also recommended by a couple of other folks we’d met along the way. The local specialty being oysters. We went to the lounge where there was a dramatic wall of windows that sat right over waves crashing on rocks a few feet away from us. There was a guitar duet playing rock/blues and while we enjoyed some of the famous and most awesome tasting local oysters, we met a local couple, Vicky and Duncan, who were out celebrating their wedding anniversary and quite drunk. Vicky gave us her number and said she would cook us up a 5-course gourmet meal. I wonder if she’d remember the invitation if we called her.

This guy and his friends were playing in the wild surf next to Polana’s……

Who's a good seal? Huh? Who's a good seal? You are!

Who’s a good seal? Huh? Who’s a good seal? You are!

Looking forward to seeing Cape Town on foot, we returned out rental car and set out to explore some sights and neighborhoods.

Bo-Kaap neighborhood

Bo-Kaap neighborhood

We went right outside of our apartment and walked down the streets and around the bend to climb the Bo-Kaap section of town, followed by a full afternoon of hiking. We started by catching the noon-gun on Signal Hill. The boom from the gun can be heard throughout Cape Town. Done as a tradition now, they fire the noon gun so back in the day the town’s folk could set their watches. We continued up to the top of Signal Hill and then set out to tackle Lion’s Head.

The noon gun

The noon gun

Cape Town. From left to right: Signal Hill, Lion's Head, and the iconic Table Mountain

Cape Town. From right to left: Signal Hill, Lion’s Head, and the iconic Table Mountain

Lion's Head. Conspicuously looking like a nipple, or what ?

Lion’s Head. Looks like a nipple to me!

It get's steep!

It get’s steep near the top!

The hike was lots of fun and most impressive were the unrelenting views of Table Mountain, the ocean, the city neighborhoods and the “City Bowl”, and the bays. We could even spot the eastern side of the Atlantic over Cape Town and the adjacent suburbs.

Lion's rump and the spine in the foreground

Lion’s rump (Its real name, and the physical top of Signal Hill) and the spine in the foreground

The 360 degree view at the top was a terrific reward for the efforts.

A View from Lion's Head summit

A View from Lion’s Head summit

That evening we joined our new friend, Lee, for dinner at The Market. Lee is the co-owner of a backpacker’s hostel/lodge we’d met at the dinner party a few days earlier. The Market is a real local joint. Set in a large hall in the Gardens neighborhood, the perimeter is lined by the cooks who sell their food, drink and desserts, and in the middle reside tables where people set themselves up to eat the food they just purchased. It’s a really cool set up and a fun (and inexpensive) place to eat.

Table Mt. covered by the "Table cloth". Gardens neighborhood in the foreground

Table Mt. covered by the “Table cloth”. Gardens neighborhood in the foreground

We took a tour of Robben Island which sits in Table Bay, 12 km off the coast of Cape Town. Now a museum, it was most notorious for holding apartheid-era political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela's cell

Nelson Mandela’s cell

On the way to Cape Town

On the way to Cape Town

The weather forecast wasn’t good for the days ahead as we left Oudtshoorn to cross the Little Karoo. Our plan was to take Route 62 West all the way to Montague where we were hoping to get in some hiking. We stopped at the Jam and Tarts Restaurant in Barrydale for some coffee, but our stomachs were calling for lunch so we dined on wood-oven fired pizza, soup and hot chocolate. Sun turned to rain as we ate, but it stopped before we finished our meal. We told the restaurant owner we were headed to Montague for some hiking but she thought it would be probably be raining there and suggested hiking the hills that overlooked the town just North of the restaurant.

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The trail was well marked and started at the East end of town circling around back to the road at the West end. It sounded like a great idea and we were itching to get some hiking in, so we paid the bill and drove down the road only about 150-200 yards to find the trail head quite easily. We scampered up to find a wonderful view of Barrydale and the surrounding valley. It was a great hike along the mountain ridges and had great views the whole way.

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I got a kick out of taking a great zoom shot of the Jam and Tarts from the ridge above; that was, after all, the genesis of the hike.

View of the Jam and Tarts from the mountain over Barrydale

View of the Jam and Tarts from the mountain

We got back in the car and continued our journey to Montague. The weather quickly turned very bad and we found ourselves driving through a fierce storm with driving sheets of windblown rain. The mountains that lined the road were invisible, shrouded in clouds and rain. The rain stopped just as we got to our guest house in Montague.

On the road to Montague

On the road to Montague

The next day was also planned as a hiking day and our luck and the good weather held out. On the way the trail we passed a small pond/conservation area that delighted us with its many birds.

Cape Weaver

Cape Weaver

African Sacred Ibis

African Sacred Ibis

Little Egret

Little Egret

It was even warm enough to hike in a t-shirt, and I though, “Wow, this is winter!”. We hit the Badskloof trail which ran through a spectacular gorge alongside a riverbed. It was lined with wonderful quartzite formations and was a bit of an obstacle course as we had to cross the river several times via rock-strewn crossings. Those quartzite shapes never ceased to amaze and delight.

Quartzite formation on the Badskloof trail

Quartzite formation on the Badskloof trail

Winter hiking....in a t-shirt! Yeah, baby!

Winter hiking….in a t-shirt! Yeah, baby!

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Expecting the weather to turn at any time, we felt very lucky again as the rain held off until we were on our way to Hermanus. Two hikes in two days dodging the rain. Sweet!

The landscape changed again as we moved inland on the way to Hermanus

The landscape changed again as we moved inland on the way to Hermanus

We went to Hermanus for the reputed shore-bound whale watching and booked ourselves into a luxury hotel in to treat ourselves for our birthdays. Cindy’s was the 13th and mine the 17th. Hermanus and our hotel didn’t disappoint. We saw whales about 100-200 yards off shore the afternoon we arrived and the next two mornings we woke to see whales from our room and then continued from the restaurant as we ate breakfast. Incredibly, they just hung out wallowing in the seas off the shore. They even seemed to lie on their backs with dorsal fins up and out of the water. There were several whales including a mother and her calf.

Getting them on camera was not an easy task, however, especially with a compact camera. Often, the whales would surface, sometimes even exposing large parts of their bodies, and I’d click the button only to find the focus and shutter delay too slow to catch any good action. It took some patience but I was able to catch one or two decent shots. Cindy won the prize with this one, though………….

Wallowing whale from the shore of Hermanus

Wallowing whale from the shore of Hermanus

While there, the weather turned bad once again with rain and driving wind but we were snug in our large room and a wonderful sea view. Indeed, it was a nice birthday treat.

Likin’ lichen

I was struck by the vivid shades of orange that I first noticed on the rocks by the shore.

Lichen at Tsitsikamma

Lichen at Tsitsikamma

This huge rock wall on the North side of the Swartberg pass was almost entirely covered with lichen.

Lichen at Prince Albert

Lichen at Prince Albert

I’d mistakenly thought the orange lichen was only at the shore. Barrydale is in the middle of the Little Karoo and far from the ocean.

Lichen at Barrydale

Lichen at Barrydale

I’ll take a pass or two

I’ll take a pass or two

As we headed North to Outdshoorn, we went through Outeniqua pass to view a fantastic wide, expansive green valley in front of us. Beyond that valley lay the Little Karoo, a wide expanse of open terrain stretching for hundreds of kilometers and bound and dotted with several mountain ranges.

Outeniqua mountains

The Outeniqua mountains

The Swartberg Range

The Swartberg Range looking across the fynbos of the Klein (Little) Karoo

The Swartberg pass was officially closed to traffic. I asked the owner of the guest house we were staying in about it and she said it would probably be open in a few days and that biking down it wasn’t even possible. But when I asked at a local backpacker lodge who ran adventure tours, I was told that the pass was definitely drivable as well as bike-able. So I left it up for the sheep to stay at home and trusted the intrepid backpacker lodge owner who turned out to be dead on right. The pass road was dry as a bone with a few snow balls of snow in the shadows of the slopes.

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Headed up the Swartberg pass

Heading up the Swartberg pass

Still headed up the Swartberg pass

It gets steeper

The scenery was nothing less than stunning with geologic formations that are eye-popping. The climb and descent were both exciting.

Looking North from the top of the pass

Looking North from the top of the Swartberg pass. We were headed way down there

We were blown away by the phenomenally cool contortions of the quartzite canyon walls. They were formed by tectonic subduction and compression creating peaks, valleys and bent rocks that are shaped to boggle the imagination — and to wonder just how they came to be at such unusual angles. The roads were lined with retaining walls built 120 years ago.

Quartzite formations

Quartzite formations

Hairpin turns on the Swartberg pass

Hairpin turns on the Swartberg pass

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We continued heading North stopping for lunch in a small town on the edge of the Great Karoo called Prince Albert.

After lunch we looped back through Meiringspoort, another pass through the Swartberg. The road crosses the Groot river 25 times and features a waterfall that empties into a pool once thought to be “bottomless” but is actually 90 meters deep.

Meiringspoort waterfall

Meiringspoort waterfall

The next day I went down to the Paradise Backpacker lodge and arranged a ‘tour’ to bike from the top of the pass back to the lodge. The snow-covered peaks were shrouded in clouds and when I got dropped off, and the winds were so strong I could hardly open the car door. Although, it was windy it wasn’t nearly as cold as I’d thought it would be. I flew down the pass and got to the main road where I shed two layers of fleece and gloves before doing the 10-15 km or so of highway riding. I’d forgotten my helmet so I was grateful to have Abraham, the driver, ride behind me in the pickup running interference with the traffic, meaning the 5 or 6 cars that passed me from behind. I turned off on to a dirt road the rest of the way back and Abraham kept following me. I guess he had nothing else to do and I didn’t mind.

Circles in a forest

Circles in a forest

It was still drizzling so our day started with a sightseeing trip to Bretton Beach. It was another beautiful South African beach and this one had a lush dune capping the perimeter.

Bretton Beach

Bretton Beach

We had lunch in Rhenendaal, a small town in the foothills of the Outeniqua mountains. Cindy and I shared an amazing frittata; baked eggs with sausage, mushrooms and tomato mixed in. Mmmm, good!

The Rhendaal Frittata

The Rhenendaal Frittata

Dry warm weather returned as we headed inland to hike in the indigenous dense, wet woodlands of the Millwood Forest. There were two trails called, “Circles in a forest. Though not ‘advertised’, apparently the forest was the scene of an intense gold rush in the 1880’s which petered out as quickly as it began.

Not only are the roads well-marked in South Africa, but so are the hiking trails. These actually had mileage or, “kilometerage”, postings on the trail and a map indicating which direction to go on the trail. “.

This was one of the times I really wished I had my cyclocross bike. The trail was quite smooth with only a few spots that were un-bikable.

Kilometerage

Kilometerage

Cindy at one of those non-bike-able parts of the trail.

Cindy at one of those un-bikeable parts of the trail.

After enjoying a sweet sunset on the back porch of our guest house in a town called Wilderness, we went out to a restaurant called Zucchini’s and had the best meal yet in South Africa. The owner made his own pasta and used all fresh, mostly locally grown organic vegetables and cheeses. It was a good day for eating.

The next day we went to Wilderness National Park and rented a canoe to go up river to do a hike. The trail ended at a pretty waterfall, though, as the trail was 90% on a boardwalk, I’d probably call it more of a walk than hike.

Pahkin' the canoe

Pahkin’ the canoe

Wilderness "hiking" trail

Wilderness “hiking” trail

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Wildlife at Wilderness National Park

Wildlife at Wilderness National Park