Our final stop on our year-long adventure was Johannesburg, South Africa. Wendy lived here for a year from June 2012 – June 2013 so this visit was more about seeing friends than seeing sights.
We stayed at an AirBnB in Sandton, a suburb of Joburg on the Gautrain (pronounced “how-train”) line. Advertised as the richest square mile in Africa, this is a relatively safe part of the city so we were able to walk to and from the train station and grocery store. Unfortunately the Gautrain is one of the few transit options recommended for tourists and it does not go many places so we felt somewhat trapped without a car. We were thankful for the cheap Ubers in order to get around to meet up with people. We were also thankful to have access to a kitchen for the first time since Australia.
On Friday May 31 we went out for dinner and drinks with Wendy’s former colleagues from L.U.C. Academy, Catherine, Eliza, and Ros. We enjoyed an authentic South African specialty – avocado on pizza!
On Sunday we had brunch with Ros and her friend Marina at a suburban art gallery featuring some impressive local works. After checking out Ros’ new workplace, we visited Wendy’s former employers and their son at L.U.C. Academy for lunch. We were treated to a braai and toured their property to see how the centre has evolved in the past six years.
Sweet braai setup.
On Monday June 3 we started our long journey home via Istanbul and Montreal. We were sad to leave Africa but it was an excellent conclusion to our year of travel and we were ready to go home to see our family and friends.
After paying more than anyone else on our truck in order to enter the country of Zimbabwe (seriously – Canadians pay more than Americans and Europeans), we arrived in Victoria Falls and quickly made our way into the national park.
On the Zimbabwe side, there are 16 viewpoints spanning an approximately 1km-long path along the ledge opposite the waterfall. We were visiting during the high-water season, so we got rather soaked. At the central viewpoints, we could not even see the waterfall through the intense mist.
We did not pay for a visa to enter Zambia, but pedestrians are allowed to walk on the bridge connecting the two countries. To be safe, we did not go beyond the half-way point.
The next day we went for a white water rafting tour on the Zambezi river, starting a few kilometres downstream of the falls. An older couple in our boat requested “no flipping”, so the guide steered us away from the largest waves and no one in our raft was ejected. On a calmer section of the river, we were encouraged to hop in and float around to “feel the power of the current”. It turns out bodies float faster than rafts, and after a few minutes we found ourselves frantically fighting the current so the boat could catch up with us.
Given that the town of Victoria Falls lies within a national park, it is likely that while walking around you will run into warthogs, baboons, and maybe even some elephants.
On our last day with a handful of our tour-mates, wanting to see the falls again without paying $30 each, we followed the advice of another traveller and found a path leading down into the gorge, underneath the bridge, and along slippery rocks to a viewpoint just a few metres from the rushing river.
That night we grabbed dinner and beers at The River Brewing Company – yes, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe is touristy enough to have a craft brewpub, complete with tasting paddles, Edison bulbs, and live folk-rock. The black IPA and pale ale were surprisingly good.
Visiting Victoria Falls, we got a small taste of the complex economic situation Zimbabwe is facing. Their own currency collapsed in 2009 and the ATMs are empty, so tourists need to enter the country carrying enough cash (USD, Euro, ZAR) for most small transactions. Credit cards are accepted at most tourist-friendly businesses. At the supermarket and other local stores, prices are marked in “bond”, an interim currency established in 2016. Bond cannot be exchanged with any other country’s currency, and is already being devalued relative to the USD. At the supermarket we bought bread, fruit, juice, and a jar of peanut butter for less than $5. A few doors down we bought a duffel bag for $7. In contrast, at the tourist restaurants, sandwiches cost $12 and beers cost $5.
Overall we had an excellent time on our land tour from Cape Town to Victoria Falls. We never felt unsafe, the food and campgrounds were excellent, and the sights were spectacular. For better or worse, the South African Rand and Namibian Dollar are relatively weak right now, so it’s a very affordable time to visit a special part of the world.
On Day 14 we crossed the border into Botswana and set up camp in Ghanzi where we visited some local San people. While they’re no longer able to live a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, some of their knowledge and cultural traditions have been taught to the younger generations. We went on a bush walk with them and learned about the medicinal uses of the native plants. In the evening the group of San people put on a song and dance performance with surprisingly complex syncopation.
The next day we drove into Maun and set up camp while a portion of our group entered the Okavango Delta for a two-night add-on excursion. We had our chance to view the delta for a day trip on Day 16. We were transported into the delta by mokoro, navigating between the tall reeds and hippos. The locals also took us on a walk on one of the delta’s larger islands, only walk-able right now due to a recent period of drought.
Our group reunited on the morning of Day 17 and we drove to Nata to visit the Makgadikgadi (pronounced Mahadihadi) Salt Pans. The major sight here is the thousands of flamingos chilling in the shallow water. It turns out thousands of flamingos and their droppings smell really really bad, but it was an amazing view.
Feather and footprint evidence of flamingos.
All those dots are flamingos.
On Day 18 we visited Chobe National Park and saw more elephants than we’ve ever seen before. Botswana is home to the largest population of elephants in the world and many seem to enjoy hanging out and staying cool by the Chobe River. While visiting we happened to see in the news that Botswana lifted an elephant hunting ban that had been in place since 2014. The idea is to allow farmers and local citizens to hunt nuisance elephants that can destroy crops, but the change in legislation is also opening the door to poachers looking to harvest ivory.
Get out of the road!
In the late afternoon we took a cruise on the Chobe River and spotted a few more hippos and crocodiles.
On Day 8 of our trip we were given a full day in Swakopmund to catch up on internet, get some clothes cleaned, and if we chose, take part in some adventure activities. Wanting to spend more time exploring the dunes, we set out for a half day driving into the desert on quad bikes. Based on the advertising we expected a more leisurely ride, but ended up cruising at 50 to 60km/h up and down the dunes, occasionally becoming accidentally airborne. At one of the biggest dunes, we stopped for some sand sledding. It was much more successful than our attempt in Saskatchewan last year, largely thanks to the Chevy Chase strategy of spraying WD-40 all over the boards.
Foggy start to the day by the coast.
The remnants of German colonialism are still evident in Swakopmund. At the local Bierhaus we enjoyed a plate of African game goulash and spaetzle.
The next day we left Swakopmund and made our way to the giant rock formation at Spitzkoppe and got a taste of the rock art left by the San people when they inhabited this area. That night we camped at Brandberg White Lady lodge, named after the nearby rock art.
On Day 10 we hiked out to see the White Lady painting. Turns out the person depicted is neither lady nor white, but rather a shaman. The paintings on this rock face are 2000 to 4000 years old and are in remarkably good condition. We were quite impressed with the art – the paintings were clear, large, and one of the few examples we know of using multiple colours.
From there we continued north to Etosha National Park, arriving early afternoon on Day 11. That afternoon and on Day 12 we rode on our truck for game drives through the park. Named after the immense salt pan within the park, Etosha is a large, dry, and mostly flat game reserve.
We were able to spot many zebras, giraffes, elephants, ostriches, springboks, kudus, oryx, rhinoceros, and even a few lions. Our guide told us Etosha has many rhinoceros now, mostly black but even some white as well, but the exact numbers are not disclosed to reduce poaching.
We camped in the park for two nights and visited the campsite watering holes. One night we were lucky enough to view 5 rhinos, including one calf and two adults butting heads.
On Day 13 we drove to Windhoek (the capital) and took part in a brief walking tour of the city centre. We learned more about Namibia’s history, including the Herero and Nama genocide that took place from 1904-1907 and Namibia’s struggle for independence from South Africa and its apartheid system.
We also learned that North Korea was one of several countries mining for uranium in Namibia. They were also hired to build 6 buildings in Windhoek and then constructed the new national museum as a gift. Since then, Namibia has cut ties with North Korea at the urging of other nations though China is still a regular customer.
On Day 1 of our land tour we got into a truck with 19 strangers and 2 guides and set out from Cape Town heading north towards Namibia. Our first activity was a visit to a rooibos and buchu tea farm and production facility in Cederberg. These plants can only be grown in the western part of South Africa. We all know and love rooibos but buchu is another beast altogether – minty and herbal and root-y.
Giant wood-burning boiler for distillation.
A lot of rooibos.
That day we also learned to set up our tents – large green canvas tents with unforgiving metal frames. Our first tent was un-pitchable. See below. We swear we got really good after this, with only minor amounts of cursing and blistering.
On Day 2 we drove up to the Orange river, which forms the border between South Africa and Namibia. With the landscape getting progressively sandier, we enjoyed a dip in the river and got to know our fellow truck travellers better over our traditional African dinner of stew and pap eaten with our hands.
Before crossing the border on Day 3, we got the chance to canoe down the Orange river for a few kilometres, appreciating the start of the Namib desert views. In the afternoon we got to have a quick dip in the pool heated by the Ai-Ais Hot Spring.
We rose early on Day 4 to walk the rim of the Fish River Canyon as the sun rose. Some say it’s the second largest canyon in the world, but it seems to depend on what metric is being considered. Regardless, we enjoyed the amazing views and canyon-side breakfast from our truck.
Next we visited the Quiver Tree Forest, featuring a dense population of these unique, aloe-related trees.
That afternoon we visited Giant’s Playground, where we climbed over immense stacked volcanic rock formations. The area really feels more like the ruins of some ancient civilization’s brickwork.
Day 5 served as a driving day, taking us deep into the Namib desert. We camped on a plain adjacent to the towering sand dunes of Sossusvlei, and were subjected to the harsh evening sandstorms that pummelled our faces and tents. That evening we started to become acquainted with the desert wildlife, hearing the barking geckos and watching out for the jackals circling our camp.
Ready for sandstorm.
Tents after sandstorm.
On Day 6 we rose early again to be the first truck at Dune 45. We started our ascent in the dark and made it to the top in time to see the sun rise above the horizon.
We spent the rest of the morning driving and walking through the red dunes of Sossusvlei. We made the trek by foot to the famous Deadvlei (Namibia’s “Death Valley”) to see the otherworldly dead, dark camel thorn trees rising out of a flat clay pan, surrounded by red sand dunes.
That evening our campsite host, a local bushman and desert expert, provided us with a guided tour of the enormous property. He demonstrated a few tips for surviving in the desert, including capturing (and eating) live lizards. There was also a watering hole near the campground and that night we witnessed a herd of zebras clashing with oryx for priority access. This excellent day in the desert was one of our absolute favourites from our time in Africa.
He didn’t actually eat the lizard.
Campsite on Day 6.
“The Lion King”?
On Day 7 we made our way north past the Tropic of Capricorn and then to the coast, spotting a few flamingos at Walvis Bay before heading up to Swakopmund. The transition from the scorching desert sun to the cool (and often foggy) coast was rather shocking, but with two nights planned in a hotel we were ready for a break from the sand.
The flight into Cape Town provides excellent views of the mountainous terrain of the Western Cape province. On the day we flew in there was low-lying fog and only a few seconds after entering the clouds in the picture below, we touched down.
Cape Town is quite tourist friendly, and it feels safe to wander the CBD and waterfront areas. We dropped by the colourful neighbourood of Bo-Kaap, walked through the waterfront, and visited the District Six museum.
With the exception of cloudy days, the iconic Table Mountain is a constant backdrop to the city. On one of the sunny and calm days we had, we set out to climb to the top via Platteklip Gorge. Reportedly the fastest and most popular route to the plateau, it’s still about 2 hours of non-stop stair climbing.
Our hotel was located on the same block as the Eastern Food Bazaar, a cafeteria-style Indian and Middle Eastern restaurant with insane portions. We found ourselves returning regularly and sharing single meals of shawarma roti, biryani, and “bunny chow”, which is South African for curry in a bread bowl. We’ve also enjoyed other South African staples such as biltong (jerky) and springbok bobotie (sort of like shepherd’s pie with egg topping instead of mashed potatoes).
Biltong at Publik Wine Bar
They put avocado on pizza here.
Being in the Western Cape also gave us the opportunity to taste plenty of delicious South African wine. We went on a tour of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek with a knowledgeable Afrikaans driver who told us some of the history of the region. We did not realize how old the wine region is here; some of the wineries date back to the late 1600s. In Cape Town we spent a couple evenings at Publik Wine Bar, familiarising ourselves the South African natural wine scene. And naturally Dan insisted on seeking out a few South African craft beers – we accidentally crashed board game day at the Stone Circle brewery and also enjoyed the offerings from Riot, Cape Brewing Company, and Darling Brew.
Tomorrow we will be leaving on an overland tour of Namibia and Botswana, ending in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. We probably won’t have much access to internet so check back in about three weeks 🙂
On ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) Day we caught a Greyhound up to the Sunshine Coast and settled into the town of Maroochydore. It turns out Australia takes ANZAC Day fairly seriously and pretty much all the shops in town were closed, so we walked along the beach for a while and grabbed dinner from the cheapest open restaurant by our motel.
The next day on the Sunshine Coast featured no sunshine, so we took care of a few travel chores in preparation for our time in Africa. Thankfully the sun came out on Saturday and we spent a few hours on the beach. That night we caught a stoner rock show, headlined by local group Hobo Magic who were saying farewell before moving to Europe. The show was well-attended by the local surfer dudes (so much long blonde hair) and we had an awesome time.
We caught the Greyhound back to Brisbane to spend a few days with Wendy’s friend Gerry. She generously treated us to an evening kayaking on the Brisbane River and took us up to Mt. Coot-Tha to see the Brisbane skyline at night.
On Monday we caught the ferry to the gorgeous North Stradbroke Island, or “Straddie” for short. The island’s coast alternates between rocky cliffs and sandy beaches and features some of the bluest seawater we’ve seen. While wandering around we spotted a sea turtle, a kangaroo, a koala, a beached puffer fish, and hundreds of boisterous bats.
Beached puffer fish.
On our last day in Australia Gerry took us to King Island, accessible by foot at low-tide. Apparently the island was used for military target practice during WWII, though today all that can be found is a large inter-tidal zone with tons of crabs and seashells.
Crabs and crab holes!
Walk to King Island.
Queensland’s oldest banyan tree is nearby.
We are happy to confirm that we have escaped Australia without being eaten/bitten/stung/strangled by any of its infamous creatures.
Dan’s friend Liz hosted us for four days south of Brisbane in the Gold Coast and was an excellent tour guide. On our first afternoon she showed us around to the various beaches and towns lining the Gold Coast. We had heard from other travellers that Gold Coast would be trashy, but it turns out that this is limited to the city of Surfer’s Paradise, home to the sort of clubs, hostels, and people that can make beach towns unbearable. The smaller towns of Currumbin, Coolangatta, Palm Beach, and Burleigh were chill and charming.
Surfer’s was busy on Easter Sunday.
On Easter Monday we drove down to the famous hippie town of Byron Bay. Due to the holiday the area was packed – we couldn’t even stop to get out of the car to see the lighthouse. On the drive back we took a back road detour through the hinterland to see Minyon Falls.
The weather was not terribly cooperative while we were in Gold Coast, but on the least rainy day we made it out to the beach at Currumbin. It rained on us literally the minute we arrived at the beach, but we braved the short downpour and were treated to a few hours of sunshine.
On our last day we drove out to Springbrook National Park to do some hiking. Our former perception of Australia was mostly sandy beaches and dusty outback, so it was a pleasant surprise to find dense rainforest, rolling hills, and a silly number of waterfalls not far from the coast.
Brisbane reminded us of Florida – the city is relatively close to many beaches, it’s clean and quiet, there are a lot of waterfront condo buildings, and the public transportation is horrible.
We spent our first day wandering the northern part of the city. The on-river walking path provided pleasant views of the downtown core. We checked out a couple breweries in the Fortitude Valley neighbourhood. Our lunch stop at Soapbox Beer helped us discover that Australia has amazing fish n’ chips – especially when done with barramundi.
The next day we walked through the Roma Street Parklands, which included a “fern gully” and at least one Australia-sized spider. We briefly stopped at the Queensland Museum and were impressed by the strangely large collection of taxidermy. We didn’t last long at the museum partly due to the overwhelming number of children on school holidays.
That night we witnessed our very first Aussie Rules football game. The sport is similar to rugby but involves a lot more kicking. Thankfully we watched a video before the match to help us understand the rules. The Collingwood Magpies absolutely obliterated the Brisbane Lions to a sold-out crowd of 34,000. Following the match we joined many other fans on the field to kick a football around with Wendy’s friend Gerry and her family.
The weekend was quite rainy so we aimed to stay indoors most of the time. Unfortunately on Good Friday that meant staying inside the hostel because everything was closed for the holiday. On Saturday we visited the Gallery of Modern Art which was hosting the Asia Pacific Triennial. There were some very impressive works by artists from Australia, New Zealand, and a handful of Asian countries, and we were pleasantly surprised that free access is given to such a large collection.
Finally we met up with Dan’s friend Liz and her partner Clint for a couple beers in the West End neighbourhood, strolling between watering holes in between sporadic downpours.
Prior to arriving in Australia, we had heard people compare Sydney to Toronto and Melbourne to Montreal. While we did not make it to Sydney, we can confirm that Melbourne feels plenty like Montreal: it’s a very international city with tons of good restaurants and bars, an active live music scene, neat-looking old homes, and plenty of art galleries.
Yarra River dividing downtown Melbourne
War Memorial in the Botanic Gardens
On our first full day, we caught the train out to the suburb of Ballarat to visit Belinda, Wendy’s friend from camp. Ballarat was an old gold rush town and features some period-related tourist attractions, but we were far more concerned with seeing marsupials so we headed straight to the Ballarat Wildlife Park.
Back in the city, we took in some culture at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Koorie Heritage Trust, the Centre for Contemporary Photography, and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. At the Centre for Contemporary Art, an exhibit from Tom Nicholson presented the controversial history of Melbourne’s land being “traded” to John Batman – it seems he forged aboriginal chiefs’ signatures on a treaty to give himself full rights to the land. It was cool to learn about local history while appreciating local art.
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art
John Batman, not Bruce Wayne.
Tons of street art in Melbourne!
One night we went out to the Horse Bazaar bar for an electro/funk/drum & bass show. We caught B-Syde, Mr. Manifold and the Resolution, and The Substance, all of whom put on great sets. B-Syde mentioned the decline of Sydney’s live music and nightlife so he was happy to be performing in Melbourne. We since read that lock-out laws have lead to a 40% drop in live music revenue and venues are being forced to shut down – even the Tiger Air in-flight magazine commented on Sydney’s “nosediving nightlife”.
Mr. Manifold and the Resolution
We had read in a list of free things to do in Melbourne that penguins can be spotted from the pier at St. Kilda. After missing out in New Zealand, Dan insisted that we catch the tram out to this suburb on Sunday evening.
We sat among the crowd waiting for the penguins to return to the rocks at dusk, and were able to spot a few swimming by.
While in the city we made sure to sample a few of Australia’s culinary specialities. We grabbed a delicious lamb and rosemary meat pie from the Queen Victoria Market. We also sampled Australia’s favourite late-night post-bar delicacy: the Halal Snack Pack. The HSP is a plate of chips (fries) covered in donair or kebab meat, and then slathered in your choice of sauces, with garlic/chili/BBQ being a popular combo.
We also made an effort to check out a few of Melbourne’s breweries. We were impressed by the IPAs from Fixation and had fun hanging out and sampling brews at The Mill.
One more similarity to Montreal was the availability of natural wine, something we had not come across much this year. On our last night in Melbourne we enjoyed some excellent fried chicken and funky wines from Belle’s.