Monday, 1 July 2013

The South African Pin

SOUTH AFRICA (Saturday 04 August 2012 - Sunday 03 February 2013)

Our pins: Cape Town, Cape of Good Hope, Simon's Town, Gordon’s Bay, Hermanus, Cape Agulhas, Struisbaai, Bredasdorp, Stellenbosch, Calvinia, Kuruman, Mcarthy's Rest


Cape Town – Struisbaai – Mcarthy’s Rest: A total route of 2070 km has been covered in 6 months and so made our space-time more indefinite than ever. For the first time, we were looking for the deeper meaning of "luck" and "time" within our endless travel project while at the same time a large South African community of Afrikaners (including an Irish and a British) was standing by us like nobody else so far.

Saturday morning (04/08), we landed at the International Airport of Cape Town flying with Air Namibia through Windhoek, crossing overnight the Equator and landing in the Southern Hemisphere. Despite of the fears and worries that many locals in Ghana tried to fill us about the flight safety and so on, both flights were simply the best and we dare to say that they are in our TOP3.
The airport in Accra was decent, the flights were not even a minute delayed, the aircrafts were brand new, the staff was very kind and polite and for the first time we asked and got double portions of food. Despite the fact that there is no competition -in European terms- within the African airlines industry that influences the prices and the overall customer experience, there are several airlines that are doing fine like Air Namibia, Air Nigeria, South African Airlines etc.

Cape Town City Centre
We went straight through to The Big Blue Backpackers where we had already booked for our accommodation and planned to stay waiting for Zikos’s arrival. The BP was fairly good, the kitchen was well equipped, there was free Wi-Fi on a decent speed and a bar full of bank notes from all around the world. It was very close to almost everything and the walking distances to the main attractions were not longer than 15 -20 minutes.

The next 47 days until Wednesday (19/09) when Zikos’s container arrived, we totally escaped from our daily travel routine and in some terms we became tourists trying to reasonably spend our savings by not doing tourist activities! We did not climb into the Table Mountain (the most famous natural landmark in the Mother City) or even dive in a cage to see sharks. Cape Town and South Africa in general attract thousands of tourists every year which means that there is an endless range of activities, extreme sports as well as a number of National Parks that are generously available to the hordes of Germans, Swiss and English youngsters that visit SA for two weeks and finally leaving with the impression that the whole Africa is quite similar to what they experienced in SA.

V&A Waterfront & Signal Hill
Cape Town is a beautiful, modern metropolis but certainly it’s not Africa. It faces all the common African challenges like AIDS, crime and poverty but find a big European city that has not quite similar problems and you win a return ticket to Cape Town! It is the capital of the province of Western Cape which is the most "white" province-wide population and at the same time, the legislative capital of the country. Moreover, it has lower rates of poverty and crime than the Gauteng  province (Pretoria and Johannesburg) and it is the only province which is governed by the white opposition party, DA. In Cape Town, you can meet all the colors, races, clashes, languages and dialects compared to Jo’burg where you can only see blacks and whites. The whole country has 12 official languages and a wide range of local tribes and kings (Zulu, Khosa, Southern Sotho etc) while the country is ruled and governed in democratic terms and conditions. In general, you can say that South Africa is the most multicultural, multiracial and colorful nation in the political history of the world that is aptly referred as a Rainbow Nation by the archbishop and Nobel Prize awarded Desmond Tutu.

Talking about the Pin Project, before landing to SA, we had already regretted our decision not to continue driving all the way down from Ghana and so crossing Nigeria, both Congos and off course Cameroon. The fact that the Ghanaian shipping agent cheated us on his final quotation by not mentioning the whole cost of the shipment from Tema to Cape Town, played a critical role. Since we arrived, his partner and clearing agent from Durban asked for another 2000 USD for clearing the cargo while he kept threatening us of not clearing the car when we let him know that we would not make use of his “expensive” services. Eventually, we managed by ourselves to find another clearing agent through the help of the Happag Lloyd guys (the shipping company) who advised us to get a quote from Wayne and ECONOTRANS who, eventually, asked half of the money.

What is more, despite the fact that the initial transit time promised by the Ghanaian agent was 18 days, Zikos arrived in Cape Town Harbour after 45 days following all the West Africa scenic route. This is translated in extra money on food and accommodation that were not in our plans and budget. For the records, the ship WADI ALRAYAN carried Zikos through Lome and Lagos to Durban and then the container was loaded to the ship HANJIN ROTTERDAM that carried him in Cape Town through Port Elizabeth. What a stressful route!

Not to mention the misuse of one of our VISA debit cards and the electronic transactions in hotel reservations and other purchases that we found out few days before leaving that amounted to approximately 1.200 EURO. We have no idea how this happened as we never used our card except withdrawals. However, some locals told us how sophisticated means and ways they implement to steal your pin and personal details and we realized how unsafe someone may feel in SA.

Mouille Point Llighthouse
In general terms, we really enjoyed Cape Town and, in a way, we feel lucky for not choosing the port of Durban as final destination of the container. The weather was relatively good and we used to take long walks within the city centre, the famous V&A Waterfront (a stunning Victorian style commercial complex which is a natural extension of the commercial port that overlooks Table Mountain), the colourful Muslim neighbourhood of Bo Kaap, the popular surfers beach of Camps Bay, the Canal Walk and the ​​Century City (for some, the biggest shopping mall in Africa) and the Sea Point district.

Georgia & Feraidoon
During our stay at the backpackers we met a lot of people. Sean (half English, half Irish, born in South Africa), Vaughan (white Afrikaner), Tender (Zulu South African) and Jade (white Afrikaner) were the people with whom we used to have daily contact and spent several hours together. However, Feraidoon (a Muslim guy with Afghanistan roots that was born in India and lives with his parents in Denmark) became one of our best friends and it is the type of personality that a traveller must meet in his travels around the world. He was taking his 6-month internship through his university by joining a local kindergarten. Great strength and passion from a guy that practices on MMA and looks like Drogho (the brutal chief of Dothrakes in the legendary book series Game of Thrones).

In Cape Town, we also met a Greek couple, Kostas and Ariadni who were the most recent immigrants from Greece looking for a better future. They left everything back in Greece and moved to Cape Town with Kostas to have a very good contract and Ariadni to become very quickly one of the major and valued teachers of the Greek Community Private School in Cape Town. We spent some time together and we realized why Greeks are well known for their guts, their hard work and their concentration on delivering results. Good luck Kostas & Ariadni! May God bless you and make all your dreams come true.

On Tuesday (18/09), we unsealed the container and Zikos was again in the streets. While it was a bit awkward for us to drive on the left side of the road (in a left-hand car), it did not take us a lot of time to get used to it very quickly. The more you practice, the faster you learn and, in any case, we had a long route to cover driving the opposite direction (in almost all southern African countries you drive on the left due to the British influence the last 50 years).

On Thursday morning (20/09) we headed south to the Cape of Good Hope which is also the southwestern most tip of Africa. After about 200 km along the coast and driving one of the most beautiful coastal routes in the world, the famous Chapman's Peak Drive, which is 9 km long and has 114 curves and an incredible view of the Atlantic Ocean, we arrived at the most famous cape of the continent. To be really honest, Cape of Good Hope is nothing else than a fenced vast land full of local flora and fauna and you don’t need to pay to see a lighthouse and a sign saying that “You are in the Cape of Good Hope”. In any case, the Cape has a long history since 1488 when Portuguese Bartolomeu Dias was the first to set foot and originally named it "The Cape of Storms" while King John II of Portugal gave the current name because of the "hope" that in the next turn you may see India. Moreover, there is a misconception that the Cape of Good Hope is the southernmost tip of the African continent and it is there where Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean.

Heading east, we found a decent Backpackers in Gordon’s Bay where we camped for two nights due to the rain. On Saturday (22/09), we woke up early as the route included a historic moment in our journey. After about 5 months, we were stepping our foot in the original southernmost tip of Africa at Cape Agulhas thus putting a critical pin in our world travelling map. Before arriving to Cape Agulhas, we stopped in Hermanus which is famous for its excellent natural whale viewpoints which visit the bay from May to November for mating and giving birth before setting south to Antarctica.

Zikos in L'Agulhas
Early in the afternoon, we arrived in Agulhas and its historic Cape. The Cape was named by Portuguese navigators, who called it "Cabo d’ Agulhas" which in English is translated as "Cape of Needles" and so gives the direction of magnetic north that coincides with that of the actual north. The great energy of the place coupled with the strong winds from west to east, the cold water currents from Antarctica and warm regional currents contributed to countless wrecks and made this cape as one of the most dangerous passes for the navigators of the old times.

We quickly parked the car and walked 150 meters to the milestone where the two oceans formally meet according to the International Hydrographic Organization. While taking our historic photos, someone was opening our car (for the third time in our trip) very professionally and stealing all our valuable belongings. Along with our wallets (cash, credit cards, ID, driving license etc) cell phone, laptop, hard disks, ipod and so on, he took our passports that were in our purses. We guess that taking our passports was not in his plans as a Greek passport in Africa is totally useless (we need visa for every single country and only a few know where to spot our country in the map). However, it does not mean that for us it was not the most valuable stuff for the rest of our travel dream.

Look closer to see him carrying
our stuff!
Note: The same time we were getting photos of us in the landmark, we also took some photos with car and the second oldest lighthouse in South Africa that still works. In the last three snapshots, you can see the back of the guy to move away from the car carrying our staff.

We immediately went to the local police station of Struisbaai in order to report the theft and the officers were shocked of how things happened. The whole region is crime free and the local community (Afrikaners, Khosa and coloured Southafricans) live altogether without any issues. Moreover, in our attempt to get some help from our Cape Town Consulate, Mr. Kostas Soulios, he let us know that the only thing he can do is to issue a temporary passport (which is literally a piece of A4 paper that only lets you fly back to your country in case of lost or stolen passport when you are traveling abroad) without any guarantee that we can go further and apply for visas as we usually do before visiting a country. Another shock came to devastate us when our Consulate informed us that, according to a stupid law, when you lose your passport (or it is stolen) you have to wait for three months in order to be able to re-apply (if it is your second time, the penalty period is a year).

At the same time we had started planning how to ship the car back to Europe and book one way tickets to Greece, some people decided that the show must go on! First Cornel that we met at the Backpackers (Cape Agulhas BP) of Struisbaai and his parents, Mr. Somarious & Mrs. Isabelle who “adopted” us for the first three days, made us feeling better. Then Erin (Cornel’s sister) and her husband Malan organized our accommodation at the Cape Agulhas Backpackers for as long as we stay in Struisbaai. And because the best way to wait for something is to be busy, Erin managed to find us jobs and so make our living for the next months without spending a cent from our savings. Finally, Riaan and Katrina (the Irish of the story!) agreed to employ us in their businesses without having any idea about us, our background or even our face! They just answered Erin’s phone call and came to meet us!

In the meanwhile, our Consulate Mr. Kostas Soulios and Officer de Bruin from the local police station borrowed us some money (2500 ZAR in total) for the first few days. Moreover, our friends and members of the Greek VitaraClub that follow our expedition, gathered 620 euros by organizing a fund raising initiative in order to get a new laptop and so bridge the communication gap.

It is more than obvious that some locals supported us without even knowing us and without having any special expectations from us. Being in Morocco in a similar situation, our treatment from the locals was exactly the opposite as their main intentions were to take as much money as possible. Struisbaai people proved to be open, kind, generous and hospitable and made our stay in their place a great experience. For the next four months, we became permanent residents of Cape Agulhas Backpackers and Nikos worked as a barman in the local Irish Pub “The Michael Collins” while Georgia took over the day shifts in the doggy salon "Poochie Bubbles" and at the same time worked some night shifts in the vibrating bar of the Backpackers we stayed. Thus, we decided to stop making long term plans and seize the day in the sunny and windy southernmost tip of Africa next to our new family.

Nikos at the Michael Collins
The next four months of the "penalty" because of the loss (theft, actually) of our passports passed smoothly and quickly in Struisbaai and we experienced so many things next to the people that had helped us. The jobs that Erin found us worked perfect till the end and so we had the opportunity to meet all the local community of Afrikaners, to save some money and make some great friends. 

Even though the basic salary is 12-15 ZAR per hour (equals to 1,5 euro per day) (Nikos was getting 12 rand and Georgia 13 rand at the doggy salon and 15 rand per hour at the backpackers), we managed to enjoy everything and not neglect our basic needs (accommodation, food and drinks). What is more, the tip that comes with services like food and drinks boosted our earnings in the long term (plus the commission that Georgia was getting from the BP bar). In European terms, 8-10 euros per day are not enough for making your living but if you manage to balance your low income and split it wisely, then you make your life easier and you enjoy your staying everywhere.

Georgia at Poochie Boobles
After the brief financial analysis, it goes without saying that we spent the most stress free months in our life by being committed to a simple lifestyle and having fun with almost everything. “The more you earn, the more you spend and vice versa”. When your income does not drive your lifestyle and when you make a wise use of all the available resources, then you are very close to the ultimate path of Happiness. Besides that, if “everything happens for a reason”, then you have to keep your eyes open to seize any opportunity that can work for you. Thanks to the locals’ help and support, we realized how lucky we were and what a waste of time is to cry over the spoiled milk when shit happens. In any case, the meaning of life is a different story for everyone and we are just travelers in our personal space time while “Ithaca” is a very personal thing for everyone. In addition to that, “.. if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you. Wise as you have become, with so much experience, you have understood what Ithaca means." And that fits to everyone’s pursuit to happiness.

The big Greek family
Georgia & George
In the mid of November, our parents visited us from Greece. After 2 days trip in total, they landed in Struisbaai and experienced the locals’ hospitality and way of living. They stayed two weeks, met all the people that helped us and really enjoyed their visit. A day before their departure, at the same day of St. Catherine Day, we organized a big "Greek Party" with authentic Greek cuisine and music inviting all of them who stood by us from September on-wards. 25 Afrikaners -few of them had visited before Greece and knew a few things about our history and culture- paid visit and celebrated the name day of Georgia’s mother, Katerina, tried Greek recipes (mousakas, meatballs, tzatziki, spanakopita, Greek salad and dough balls with honey syrup for dessert) and said goodbye to our family. Through December, George (Nikos’s brother) also came to visit us for his Christmas holidays. Unfortunately, the period that he chose was not the best because both of us were extremely busy and we did not enjoyed him as much as we would like. In any case, he met a lot of people and experienced a few things from locals’ daily routine. At least, his motto “Smak Smak” became popular very quickly and that made him extremely happy!

Sam & Georgia
After our families visit, it was time for the summer-Christmas vacations in Struisbaai. South Africa has a similar climate to the Greek-Mediterranean but exactly the opposite periods (June to September is winter and December to April is the summer). The December time combines the Christmas holidays with the summer vacations and Struisbaai is the ideal place for people from the urban areas like Cape Town, Pretoria & Johannesburg. That means that a small fishing village of 3.000-4.000 permanent citizens turns to become a crazy place full of 30.000-40.000 tourists that visit the place to have fun, get drunk.. and get drunk! It was a great time for us to spend our Christmas holidays wearing shorts, t-shirts and swimming in the sea and finally celebrating the New Year’s Eve next to the Indian Ocean. Obviously, it was also a great chance to make some good money as the place was full for 3 weeks in a row. We experienced a different Struisbaai that had traffic jam, queues in the one and only super market, a packed campsite and the beach full of people. Those three weeks, both of us worked nonstop daily from 9am to 2 in the evening but at the end, it proved to be worthwhile moneywise.

Riaan & Nikos
Georgia & Katrina
At this point, we have to underline the fact that our treatment from all our “employers” (Erin, Riaan & Katrina) was more than professional. First of all, by agreeing to employ us, they took a risk. None of them knew us and of course they were not obliged to help us for a long time if we did not make them see that we can contribute in their businesses. Compared to all of our Greek employers, the guys from Struisbaai just proved how it is to respect your employee and appreciate his knowledge, his background and his experience. The relationship between employer-employee was a giving and receiving relationship in which both parties respect each other (terms like respect are unknown in the Greek employer’s terminology). What is more, by being busy and getting trained the whole time before December holidays, made us well prepared for the hard time of having to serve hundreds of people for three weeks in a row. A fact that all of them could foresee when they agreed to employ us and not a single Greek employer is able to do (because they are not capable to foresee and plan for the future). At the end, when the same guys come with a public “Thank You” and “Bravo”, then you feel satisfied both for the recognition of your contribution and for the mutual confidence that was built.

The four months of our passports penalty passed and the last Saturday before our departure (21/06), we organised a big Greek Party at the Michael Collins Irish Pub with traditional chickpea and beans soups. Everyone was there to party with us, express his gratitude and pleasure for meeting two “lazy” Greeks that do not break plates any more, give us some souvenirs and wish good luck for the rest of our trip.

Cristina, Georgia & Peter
At the Cape Agulhas Backpackers, we met a lot of people. But it was only a few of them that we will not forget. Peter and Cristina, a coule from Germany that were also traveling around Africa and Mr. Graham Derek Barker or Geezer, a British legend of motorbikes and excellent gentlemen will be in our hearts forever.

Georgia & Erin
Cornel & Stef
Freakie, Officer de Bruin, Cornel & Manet, Erin & Malan, Riaan & Katrina, Somarius & Isabelle, Sam, Jannie & Alta, Francois & Sanet, Stefne & Elsa, Maureen & Heindrich, Heindri & Yolanda, Maidey, Phioneer, Webster, Fraser & Marlin, Riaan, Monique, Estelle, Swapo, Tyren & Simone, Wimpie & Chariska, Francois, Bailey & Karian, Chantelle, Karin, Shaun, Inger, Denell, Nelmarie , Riri, Pretty, Patricia.

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all the support, the love and the things that you shared with us.  We are grateful to you.

Georgia tries as mush as wine she can!
On Tuesday (29/01), after 9 months, we hit the road again. With a two-day stop in Stellenbosch and a great wine festival, we arrived in Cape Town so as to get our brand new passports from our Consulate. Stellenbosch is the official University City of the country and a great party place for all the South African students. Moreover, the region is well known for its vineyards and its wines. We were lucky to try some of them in the annual wine festival that took place during our visit. Nikos collapsed after 10 farms while Georgia managed to try at least 20 etiquettes and proving that she did not forget her original job and passion (testing the wine quality..hahaha).

Arriving in Cape Town, we got our passports but we had to sort out also the three months extension permit of stay that was previously organized by an external immigration's agency. Unfortunately, our application was on time (back on September) but the South African bureaucracy reminded us the Greek mentality and way of working (crapped, late and lazy). Eventually, the only official document we got back that proved our legal stay in the country was the initial application stamped and signed as “Pending Application”. Technically, nobody could prove when we entered in the country (without the stolen passports) as well as accuse us of being illegally in the country. However, because of the brand new passports that didn't have a single entry stamp, the Namibian officials denied to give us a tourist visa no matter what documents we showed them from the SA police, the application from the Home Affairs and so on. At that stage, we decided to change our plan and head north to Botswana where Greeks do not need visa and so apply for a Namibian visa in Gaborone.

Typical landscape in Northern Cape
Within 2 days, we covered a distance of 1060 km towards the Botswana border and so crossed the vast and rugged Northern Cape. We stayed overnight in two small villages on our way (Calvinia and Kuruman). Needless to say that we were quite anxious about the passports and “pending application” for extension of stay permit  and how the officials at the borders would see the whole thing. On the other hand, we had so much paperwork that we could explain every single enquiry or stupid question like the ones that stupid border officials are used to make.

On Sunday morning (03/02), after 120 km off road, we arrived at the border post of Mcarthy's Rest. It was a quiet border post, the people from both sides were really kind and helpful and especially from the SA side, they fully understood the whole thing with the stolen passports, the new ones and the extended permit of stay that never being granted. Despite the fact that there was no customs authorities (and so nobody could stamp our Carnet), the head of the BP did some phone calls and, all of a sudden, realized that he had such power to also stamp SARS (the SA customs and tax authority) documents. It was not funny when he first said that if we want this document (meaning the Carnet) to be stamped, we have to go in that BP (600 km far from Mcarthy’s Rest) but at the end, we all laughed with the “extra power” that someone gave him that Sunday morning..

Special note: The South Africa’s population is about 52 million (60 including the immigrants) with the Afrikaners (the white Dutch settlers that first stepped foot at Cape Point) and the rest of whites (originally from the UK, Holland, Germany etc) to count for approximately 3-4 million. The race, color and ethnic differences in SA are chaotic and if someone says that he knows everything about South Africa and its people, he most probably lies.

Regarding the Afrikaners, the impressions and feelings are very positive. Afrikaners love three things. Brandy with cola, braai (or bbq) and rugby & cricket. They can drink a lot and they enjoy drinking more than anything else. We thought that Greeks drink quite a lot but now we can assure anybody that Afrikaners can drink more than anybody else in the world. And they enjoy it!

What is more, they are hospitable, very open and generous people. They work very hard and achieve results in an efficient way. Moreover, they are very proud for their ancestors, their culture and their past. Most of them run huge farms (it is the white South Africans that are called Boers) with cattles or fruits and vegetables while every single small, medium or big business (from tourism to industry) has a white “brain”. In any case, it is these people that used to have and still have the opportunity and also it is part of their culture to get proper education and follow a proper career according to the western standards.

However, the last years the government of Jacob Zuma (the current President of SA) has dramatically reversed  the roles and has put a veto in the process of recruitment primarily in the public sector and also in the private for promotion and prioritization of  the blacks, coloured and then the whites no matter how educated, cultured and experienced is someone. Unfortunately, the racial racism is still the biggest challenge while the gap between the classes (and not the colors) seems to get bridged as the time goes by and more and more generations get proper education.

We liked: The overall experience of these 4 months in Struisbaai made us to reevaluate many things about the trip itself but also for life in general. Moreover, it was the first time that we received financial help from some people that really enjoy what we are doing (VitaraClub) and also received mental and physical support from people that we first met (all the local community).

We did not like: The anticipation of Zikos for a long time and the decision to ship the car instead of driving all the way down gave us a good lesson .

We saw: Like a rainbow (a term used by Archbishop D. Tutu), South Africa is composed of a palette of "colors", social classes, races and ethnic groups with a gap in-between that you cannot ignore.

We heard: Bad comments about the Greek financial situation.

Average price for diesel: 1,03 euro

Local currency: RAND – Exchange rate: 1 euro ≈ 11,5 RAND

Driving in South Africa: For the first time in our trip, we drove on the left side of the road and as we commented, everything is a matter of practice. We also drove local right-hand cars and we realized that the most difficult thing is to use your left hand to change the gears. We also experienced the practice of flashing the indication lights as a thank you from the car that overtakes you when you make some space for it. Finally, bakkie is the South African term for 4X4,pick-up and SUVs and the ratio in the country is 7 out of 10.

The loose gear
Car: The day before the scheduled departure from Struisbaai, the gear of the starter that was temporarily fixed in Mauritania, broke. Cornel recommended to us an electrician in Bredasdorp and in two days he ordered the part and repaired properly the starter. We also changed the engine oil from 5W30 to 15W40 and we want to monitor the performance and fuel consumption of the car as it is the first time we change the selection of the oil viscosity which is supposed to be preferable for hot climates like in Botswana and Namibia. 

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