Archive for October, 2010

A Different Side of Cape Town

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

24 July – 25 July 2010, South Africa

Of all the places on our around the world itinerary, Africa was the biggest question mark. Taking into account our budget and the relatively short amount of time we chose to dedicate to such a massive continent, we struggled to determine a realistic travel route. Looking at the long list of places we wanted to visit, we realized that an overland tour was our best option. Overland tours typically consist of up to 24 people traveling together on a self-sufficient truck, led by a tour leader and a driver. Camping is the norm and participants are expected to assist with tasks such as cooking meals, washing dishes, setting up camp and cleaning the truck. We initially hesitated at the prospect of traveling with a large group of people for several weeks but also recognized it would allow us to make the most of our limited time.

After deciding to move forward with a tour, we began the lengthy process of researching companies, choosing a route and selecting a time frame that coincided with the end of our time in Tibet. Travel blogs and forums are typically invaluable resources when making travel decisions but they proved to be fairly useless when it came to finding objective information about overland tour operators. Fortunately, we received plenty of tips and helpful advice from one of my friends who previously traveled through Africa on an overland tour. Thank you, Tiffany! Based on our research and Tiffany’s suggestions, we signed up for a 19 day tour starting in Cape Town, traveling through Namibia and Botswana and finishing in Zambia. Highlights of this route include some of southern Africa’s most pristine places: Fish River Canyon, sand dunes in the Namib Desert, Etosha and Chobe National Parks, the Kalahari Desert, the Okavango Delta and Victoria Falls.

Our overland journey began on July 24. Boarding the truck that would be our home for the next 19 days, we found plenty of personal storage space and comfortable seats with enough space to accommodate Jason’s long legs. As promised, there were outlets to charge camera and laptop batteries and a place to hook up iPods so we could listen to music while in transit. Underneath the truck, every inch of available space was filled with items needed to survive our extended camping trip: tables, tents, chairs, cooking equipment, mattresses, food, cooking fuel and water. Our traveling companions were a group of 21 people from all over the globe. While the majority were English, there were also travelers from Australia, Germany, Spain, Austria, Brazil, France and Canada. The group’s average age was mid to late 20s and included a mix of couples and solo travelers. Our tour leader and driver were both Kenyan and had worked as a team for several years.

Although our tour began in South Africa, we only spent one day there doing a township tour before crossing the border into Namibia. Townships are urban areas that were set aside by South Africa’s former Apartheid regime for non-whites. Most are located on the periphery of towns and cities and in Cape Town they are still home to a large percentage of the population. At first I felt apprehensive about going on a township tour as I wasn’t sure how residents felt about camera-toting tourists coming into their community to see their homes and observe how people live. I felt better about our visit when I learned that township tours are viewed as a way to raise awareness of living conditions and foster good will and communication between cultures. Additionally, reputable tour operators funnel a percentage of their profits back into the community in the form of support for schools and community projects.

During our tour, we visited a few different homes and were surprised to see a wide variation in the quality of housing. The township homes we had seen from the highway looked like shacks made of sheet metal and little more. While we saw these homes during our tour, we also visited other more permanent structures made of concrete. Some of these apartments were small but cozy and had enough room for the one family occupying the space. Others were cramped with up to 16 families sharing one common area. Branching off from the common area were bedrooms where four families slept together in each room with each family occupying one twin size bed. On the other end of the spectrum entirely were areas with modest but attractive homes where many middle class professionals live. Although the people living in these homes can afford to move out of the townships they choose not to because it is where they have always lived and they feel a strong connection to their community. According to our guide, these homes serve as a reminder to the township’s poorer residents of what can be achieved if they work hard and receive a good education.

Although we were welcomed into people’s homes during our township tour, we hardly spoke with the residents. Our tour guides did all of the talking while the residents went about their business. Probably the most authentic interactions took place when a small army of children bombarded us, anxious for playmates. This was just the first of many times on our overland tour when we took turns lifting and twirling young children as they competed for attention.

I had mixed emotions as the tour ended. Visiting the township was certainly an eye-opening, educational experience but being shepherded through a tiny apartment with more than twenty other people certainly didn’t leave much opportunity to talk to the residents. Despite my reservations, I was glad I participated for the chance to learn about Cape Town’s different neighborhoods. Wandering through the city’s more affluent areas like the one where our apartment was located, it’s easy to forget that 57% of South Africa’s residents are living in poverty and 24% of the population is unemployed. Clearly there is much more to Cape Town than the typical tourist track or the modern downtown, and I’m glad I was able to experience a small part of it.