Scratching the Surface: A Week in South Africa

After a few weeks apart, and for the second time in less than a year, Amy and I flew from opposite sides of the world to reunite in an unknown airport in Africa. This time, far from the chaos of Douala, Cameroon, we met in the decidedly modern and western airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. Amy had spent the better part of June and July gallivanting through the U.S., while I, alone and lonely, slaved away at work back in Singapore 🙂

We were meeting in Johannesburg to visit our friends from South Africa who currently teach alongside Amy in Singapore. They had graciously invited us to spend the week with them on a whirlwind tour through a few of the country’s highlights.

Safari

Our trip may have been short on time but it was certainly not short on things to do. After a jet lagged but enjoyable day with our friends and their family in the suburbs of Johannesburg, we flew off to Kruger National Park for two days of safari. Definitely one of the most memorable parts of the trip – or of any trip for that matter – animal spotting through the vast African wilderness was a real highlight.

Due to poor planning, I was ill equipped to capture the experience on film as I didn’t bring – nor do I own – a proper camera (there are some things an iPhone camera just wasn’t made for). So please bare with the often grainy quality of the pictures below -hopefully some pictures are better than none at all – although many of our best sightings were seen through binoculars, where no photographs were possible.

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We had no problem spotting these elephants, as they walked directly in front of our car
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Zebras munching on some grass
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Hippos soaking in water
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Giraffes

 

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A rare baby white rhino with its mom partly hidden in the brush
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Off in the distance, a full blown stampede of African buffalo
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An angry elephant in a standoff with a car
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Two white rhinos we saw on a night safari tour

In addition to the above, we spotted a whole range of other animals including lions, crocodiles, impalas and whatever this animal was. . .

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Hyena?

Food

For carnivores of the human variety, South Africa is second to none. There is no shortage of savory, well-seasoned meats for all occasions: tasty sausage and bacon for breakfast; biltong (dried cured meat, similar – but admittedly better than – American beef jerky) and droewors  (dried sausage) for snacking; not to mention chicken, beef and a whole lot more sausage for the (almost) daily braai (the all-occasions South African BBQ).

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Typical store in South Africa

Our short time in South Africa was punctuated by one delicious meal after the next – most prepared and cooked by our excellent hosts.

Cape Town

When the weather cooperates, Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. During our three days in the city, we were privy to the full spectrum of Cape Town winter weather: from beautiful blue skies to torrential downpours, and everything in between.

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Our first view of Table Mountain
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Not a cloud in the sky
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Tourists
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View of Cape Town from the boat to Robben Island
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Robben Island

Our tour of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, was partly conducted by a former black political prisoner. His poignant reflections of apartheid South Africa, and his first-person account of life behind bars, were both heartfelt and unsettling.

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Entrance to the former Robben Island prison

The surrounding environs of Cape Town are (justifiably) well known for their great wines. We spent a full day wine tasting about two hours from downtown Cape Town. The following morning, the start of my last full day in South Africa, we woke to rain and thunderstorms – the perfect weather for a beachside drive down the edge of the continent!

Here are some of the pictures from that drive:

A wild penguin hiding on the beach
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At the edge of the Earth
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Not a beach day
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Winding cliffside drive
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Selfie
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Far from everything
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The bottom of the world – Cape of Good Hope

 

 

Cameroon – Part 1 (Travel to Douala)

Amy’s sister Michelle is in her final year as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Eastern Province of Cameroon, Africa. This past July, Michelle traveled back to the United States for our wedding in Washington D.C.  It was during our time together in D.C. that the three of us, along with Amy’s dad, made our first tentative plans to visit Michelle in Africa. Six months later, after lots of planning and many vaccinations, we were finally ready for our trip.  This is our story.

This is part 1 of my experience: travel to Douala, Cameroon.

Getting there:

Amy went home to Boston for Christmas but I stayed behind in Singapore. Consequently, we were not able to travel to Cameroon together. Our plan was to rendezvous at the Douala airport on the 27th of December.

Getting to Cameroon from Singapore is neither cheap nor easy. I booked my round trip flight on KLM / Air France (the only airline that flies to both Cameroon and Singapore). My itinerary to Cameroon included a long daytime layover in Amsterdam and an overnight stop in Paris.

My fully flexible, but also very expensive economy ticket was the only option available when I booked my ticket in late October. However, the ticket came with certain advantages including the ability to upgrade to business class at steep discounts if availability existed at check-in. This came in handy later on my flight back to Singapore (a flight that was much longer than expected due to an emergency landing in Romania – story to follow).

There were other, cheaper options to get to Cameroon from Singapore, but they generally included even more stops (in not so nice cities) or otherwise long flights on small, uncomfortable planes. One option that I considered but ultimately dismissed was to fly from Singapore to Istanbul and then from Istanbul non-stop to Cameroon. However the second leg of this journey included a 9+ hour flight on a single aisle 737. I decided to pass on the Istanbul route.

Finally, I had never been to Amsterdam and the KLM / Air France route would give me almost a full day in the Northern European city.

My flight to Amsterdam was uneventful. The half empty plane left just after midnight on December 26th. After takeoff I moved to an empty row, stretched out along three seats, popped a prescription sleeping pill and slept for almost nine hours (a personal record). The sleep was neither restful nor relaxing but it made the 14 hour flight far better than I’ve come to expect from similar long-haul trips.

After waking up I was served breakfast (I was starving after sleeping through the earlier food service), watched several episodes of How I Met Your Mother and before I knew it we were landing in Amsterdam.

We arrived in Amsterdam early in the morning and EU customs only took a few minutes. I had done a poor job of planning for my layover and had little idea of how to get to downtown Amsterdam or what I should do once there. I had, however, read about the luggage storage area at the Amsterdam airport and found the large lockers in the airport’s basement extremely convenient. After storing my bag I headed out of the main airport. Luckily the airport is connected directly to the train terminal and I quickly bought a ticket and was on my way into the city.

Amsterdam was cold, overcast and largely empty when I arrived.  I tried to make the most of my time in the city though: I visited the Anne Frank house, took a canal boat tour and wandered through the red light district (although it was still early and the streets were largely deserted).

 

Not many people out the morning after Christmas in Amsterdam.
My flight to Paris did not leave until after 8:00 pm but around midday my jet lag began to catch up with me and I decided to head back to the Amsterdam airport. At the airport my exhaustion and fatigue were overwhelming and I did my best not to fall asleep and risk missing my flight.

Thankfully, I had booked a room at the Charles de Gaulle Hilton in Paris. My flight from Amsterdam was unremarkable and after arriving in Paris I stumbled to my hotel, took a long shower and fell asleep.

The flight to Douala, Cameroon was scheduled to leave Paris at 11:00 am.  My father-in-law was flying from Boston via Paris.  After suffering through the long customs lines at Charles De Gaulle I found him already seated at the gate.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat and it was soon time to board.

I had, somewhat naively I suppose, assumed that Douala would not be a popular destination and I expected a somewhat empty plane.  I was wrong. Every seat on both the flight to Douala and the flight back was filled. The Air France entertainment selection was good and the six plus hours passed in a blur of movies and TV shows. In no time the pilot came on the intercom to announce that we were beginning our descent into the city. My seat was in the middle section of the two aisle 777, but I did my best to strain to get a view of the city through the window as we approached the airport. The first thing I noticed was the smog and smoke. It looked, from the air at least, like there were fires throughout the city. A not so auspicious first impression.  Later, I learned these fires were from people burning their own garbage, something that happens not just in Douala but throughout the country.

As the plane was continuing on to another destination, the flight attendants announced that passengers would have to show their tickets when exiting the plane to confirm they were at the correct destination.

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Our Air France plane at the Douala airport
We disembarked through a dark jetway and emerged into a very basic airport gate. The walls were corrugated and opened up to hot outside air.

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First view of the Douala airport
I had no real expectations for the Douala airport but I had read and heard from Michelle that it serves as an intimidating and not so pleasant welcome to the country. We quickly passed through a health inspection station where a woman took only a cursory glance at our WHO vaccination books to confirm we had the requisite yellow fever immunization. There was no real line for this, so it would have been easy to circumvent this check.

The customs “line” was next. This resembled more of a crowded concert, with people pushing to the front, than any sort of organized line. While waiting to pass through customs, the flight from Brussels arrived and guess who we ran into. . .

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Amy waiting for her luggage at the Douala airport
The baggage claim at the airport was chaos.

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Luggage was piled up all over the place
After more than an hour of waiting, Amy and her Dad finally retrieved their bags (I had not checked mine) and we headed outside.  It was a relief to escape the airport.

Just outside the Douala airport, first night in Africa
See part II of our trip to Cameroon here.