My flight from Tanzania to South Africa was due to land in Joburg at around midnight. Happy to be en route to visiting good friends, a browse through the inflight magazine threw me into a sudden panic.
When booking the trip a few weeks previously, I’d established that, as a British citizen, I didn’t require a visa to enter the country. The magazine article, however, said otherwise, detailing that all nationalities were now required to have a visa prior to arrival, along with evidence of a pre-booked return flight out of the country and a cash fee to enter the country.
As well as having no visa, I had neither an exit flight booked (was keeping my plans loose) nor immediate access to cash as my card was in my checked in bag.
Resigned to the prospect of a second African arrest in as many weeks (refer to previous post, ‘Safari not so goody’) and a night in the cells, I reluctantly approached the immigration desk and fessed up.
‘Ok look, I have no visa, no return flight and my bank card is in my luggage which I’ve yet to collect.’
I offered my outstretched arms and linked my wrists in the handcuffs position.
‘You have a British passport. You’re fine, go through,’ said the bemused officer, who was obviously more used to people denying wrong doing rather than highlighting it.
It was a very rocky introduction to South Africa and I hoped it wasn’t setting the scene for things to come.
Turned out I had a great few weeks in Jozi before it was time to head off on the 27 hour train ride to Cape Town, where I would meet a friend holidaying from Kenya.
A large portion of the train goes through the Karoo, a vast region of semi-desert populated by gazelles, ostriches and baboons. During the night as we swept through the barren landscape, flora and fauna were silhouetted against a spectacular display of fork lightning, deafening thunder and biblical rains – the likes of which I’d never seen.
And nor did I on this occasion either as I slept right through, but I understood from my fellow passengers it was amazeballs.
Joy and I met up the next day and South Africa suddenly got hugely exciting, as we planned a week of not-to-be-missed activities including a trip to the Cape of Good Hope, Table Mountain, a cage shark dive, a sky dive and a visit to Robben Island. A friend of Joy’s offered to take us around the stunning wine region passing through the pretty, but extremely twee, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.
Luckily, we got into only minimal trouble with our mispronunciations of a couple of things, such as the name of the district where I was staying (De Waterkant, sounding not unlike ‘what a c**t’) and the local speciality, ‘vetkoek’ (which is just wrong even if you say it correctly).
The shark dive lived up to expectations. We headed out of Gansbaai, a small fishing village, and set off for the stretch of water known as Shark Alley. No sooner had we anchored and been issued our wet suits than the beasts arrived in their droves. The cage that descended into the brain-numbingly cold water accommodated four of us a time. Ages seemed to have passed before I heard a shout for the first group to have gone in to return for their second dive.
I was still struggling to put on my wet suit and hadn’t yet dipped my toe.
I waddled precariously down from the top deck. ‘Hang on! I haven’t had my first dive!’
One look at me told the guides everything they needed to know. It took them a further 10 minutes to pull the wet suit off me, telling me I had it on inside out, which explained why I hadn’t been able to complete the job. The peeling, pulling, groaning and moaning felt very much like I was giving birth, but it did at least go on.
I did finally get my dives in and it was well worth it to be within a hair’s breadth of a 4.5m great white.
Diving of a different kind the very next day was a first for both of us. Not sure Joy would necessarily have jumped out of a plane if she’d known at that point that she was four months pregnant – but happy to say no harm came of it.
Sad to be staring down the barrel of our final day in Cape Town, we were glad to have another offer of a local’s insight around the only remaining area we hadn’t explored; the Cape Peninsula. This came in the shape of a friend of Joy’s sister, a guy called Merdad, who told us that he and his (also pregnant) wife would drive us out to the Cape of Good Hope, visiting the east and west coasts and all its lovely places of interest en route.
It was a public holiday so they had the day free and all Joy and I had to do was cover the cost of petrol.
Wow, South Africa was fast becoming the best place ever.
I was instructed to make my own way to a pick up point. As it was a holiday, however, there was extremely limited public transport. It ended up taking me two hours to get there, compared with the 10 extra minutes it would have taken Merdad to go out of his way and swing by De Waterkant to collect me.
Joy and I slipped into the back of the car and took off with a distinct atmosphere of ‘us’ and ‘them’. I hadn’t managed to pick up breakfast anywhere so asked him to stop at the first café we came to so I could at least grab a coffee and croissant.
He reluctantly did so and accelerated sharply the minute I was back in the car.
The entire cup of scorching coffee went all over me.
The coffee may have been bitter, but not half as much as I was by this point.
It was a car that made for unpleasant travel for back seat passengers. Already quite claustrophobic due to its two door, low slung, blacked out windows features, it was made worse by the fact that we were forbidden from opening any windows. Worse still, they preferred the heating on full blast despite the stifling heat.
Worse again, Merdad’s music of choice was The Lighthouse Family’s Greatest Hits, which played on a loop for the entire day.
He insisted we all took a boat trip out of Hout Bay to see the seals. It was not something Joy or I wanted to do, and for good reason.
It was dull.
From there we told him we wanted to travel down the east coast as far as the Cape and back up the west coast in order to get the best view of the sunset.
Ignoring our map reading prowess, he took us the other way round instead, sticking mostly to cross-country inland roads instead of the coastal route.
We wanted to drop in on the penguin colony at Simon’s Town. He told us this wasn’t possible as we had ‘wasted too much time’ having lunch (in a deep fried place of his insistence).
When we got to the Cape, he refused to go up to the view point and sulked when we said we would be going regardless.
On the return journey I told him I wasn’t being dumped at the same drop off point as, since I had in fact paid for the petrol, a further two hour public transport trip that would take him only ten minutes would not cut it for me.
After complaining that we hadn’t offered to pay for a full service check on his car, he screeched to a halt, told Joy and I to get out and screeched off again.
Thankfully only my first and last days in South Africa were wrong’uns. The rest were blinding.