Friday, May 17, 2013

South Africa - Durban and Blyde River Canyon (2012)

We arrived in Durban, South Africa on November 15th.   Durban is a busy port and the third largest city in South Africa.  There is a population of 3.5 million in this diverse city.  While the majority of the people living in the region are Zulu, there is also a large British and Indian influence as well.  Walking around, you could hear several languages spoken, and in fact, there are actually eleven official languages in South Africa.  Fortunately for us, the British influence in Durban is still there, and English is the first language for the majority of the residents.   

For our one month stay, Saviah was moored in the Durban marina.  There are two yacht clubs at the marina, the Royal Natal Yacht Club and the Point Yacht Club.  Both are very welcoming to foreign cruisers and provide free monthly memberships.  We spent quite a bit of time in both yacht clubs, which each had showers, wi-fi and a restaurant.  We were surprised at how inexpensive the food and drinks were and ate most of our meals there since cooking for ourselves would have cost at least as much.

One meal we really enjoyed was curry.  Durban is home to the largest population of Indians outside of India.  They were brought over by the British as indentured servants during the region's time as a colony, to work in the sugar cane fields.  Many chose to stay after their term finished, and today the Indian influence is a big part of the Durban culture.  The curry was some of the best we’ve ever had.  In fact, we ate it nearly every day and didn’t get tired of it.   

While in Durban, we didn’t venture more than a few blocks from the marina and only did so during daylight hours.  Crime is quite bad around the city, and there seemed to be bars on all of the shop windows downtown, and most of them you had to be buzzed in before entering.  We were warned to keep everything of value inside the boat and lock it up even though the marina had 24 hour security.  We were given a tour of the city one afternoon by Bob Frasier, a member of the Point Yacht Club.  He drove us around downtown and through some of the neighborhoods in the area.  We drove through one of the affluent suburbs, and it was shocking to see not just bars on the windows, but walls around houses, some with barbed wire and electric fences and even armed guards outside. 

That was fine because there were plenty of things to keep us busy in the marina.  We had sailed almost 10,000 miles since leaving New Zealand six months earlier.  Saviah was really showing some wear and tear.  Andrew had several projects on his to-do list, including repairing the bowsprit which had some rot that needed to be removed and epoxied before putting on a couple more coats of paint.  He took advantage of the fresh water to clean the boat and polish the stainless steel which was really starting to rust.  It was also a good opportunity to catch up on engine maintenance as well as dozens of other small projects. 

It wasn’t all work though.  He had time to crew on one of the local boats during the weekly club races.  He sailed on a 40 ft Beneteau that with was set up for racing with all carbon fiber sails and the latest high tech gear.  We haven’t done any racing, so it was a good learning experience.  It is amazing to see how quickly sails can come up and down with 16 people on board. 

Meanwhile, Di spent time planning the next six months of our trip.  It was really nice to have wi-fi at the yacht clubs which she used to research weather and various potential destinations in the Caribbean and South America.  Our initial plan was to travel from Cape Town to northern Brazil, where we would spend a few months before sailing along the coast of South America toward the Panama Canal.  This route would require us to hug the South American coast, in order to avoid the Atlantic hurricane belt from June to November.  However, after some research, we found it would be quite expensive to visit Brazil since US citizens have extra costs for entering the country.  We also read about big problems with crime in the anchorages and coastal cities in Brazil.  Several cruising boats reported being boarded by thieves, and others were robbed on the streets just outside of marinas. 

So we decided to skip Brazil.  Instead our plans shifted toward the Caribbean to see the Windward Islands.  This would allow us to visit Barbados in April, before sailing to Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada by June to get out of the hurricane belt.  From there, we plan to head to the Dutch Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) in July and August.  Cartagena, Colombia is the next stop on our way to the San Blas Islands of Panama, where we hope to spend at least a month.  We would then transit the Panama Canal in October and start making our way up the Pacific coast of Central America as soon as the hurricane season is over in that part of the world. 

With our plans more firm, the next step was to buy all necessary charts, flags, and guidebooks.  Luckily, a fellow cruiser named Tony Herrick has a store in Durban called Cruising Connections, where he sells all of these things.  Tony was a valuable resource, as he has extensive cruising experience and has written cruising guides covering South Africa to the Caribbean.  He also gave us lots of tips on where to go in South Africa, as well as helping track down other items he didn’t have on hand.  He was even willing to trade some of our South Pacific charts and guidebooks for some covering the Atlantic.

After spending over a week in the marina, it was time to see some of South Africa.  So we rented a car and headed out for two weeks.  We planned on spending a few days in the Blyde River Canyon area, which is 550 miles north of Durban.  In order to break up the drive, we stopped for the evening in the town of Hluhluwe, a couple hundred miles from Durban.  After we checked in at our lodge, we drove to nearby Lake St. Lucia and walked around looking for wildlife.   

This was our first taste of the wild animals in South Africa and really got us excited about going on safari the following week.  Within a few hours, we saw flamingos, monkeys, warthogs and some antelope.   Later that night, we took a guided hike through the area around the lodge.  It was pitch black, except for our very dim flashlight.  It was a little frightening at times, as you can hear noises from various animals all around, and your imagination is left to guess what is there.  Our guide cautioned us to be calm if we came upon a leopard, as one had been sighted in the area recently.  We didn’t see many animals, other than a few dozen antelope, but it was an interesting experience walking through the bush at night.

pink flamingos and a male nyala at Lake St. Lucia

The next morning we drove seven hours to the town of Graskop, our base for exploring the Blyde River Canyon area.  The first stop was the Bourke’s Luck Potholes, located at the confluence of the Treur and Blyde Rivers.  Cylindrical potholes have formed from the erosion caused by the swirling waters of the two rivers.  We walked all around the area, over the pedestrian bridges that span the rivers, taking pictures.  Once the clouds cleared up, the colors were stunning.

Bourke's Luck Potholes
There is a lot of rainfall in the area, which kept us indoors for more of our stay than we liked.  However, the rain throughout the canyons causes a large concentration of waterfalls.  We spent one afternoon driving around and visiting some of these waterfalls, some of them dropping nearly 300 ft.   There were some nice hikes around as well. 

Bridal Veil, Graskop, Berlin, Lisbon, Mac Mac, Sabie
We also drove what they call the Panorama Route, which was very close to our lodge.  This is a loop that stretches along the edge of the escarpment.  There are several spots with viewpoints where you can park along the way.  One was the Three Rondavels, three hills shaped like cylindrical huts.  Another was the Pinnacle, a column of rock that rises up from the dense trees below.  Another is called God’s Window, where the cliffs plunge 2,300 ft to the valley below.  The valley is filled with dense clouds most of the time, and it took several visits before we could actually see the valley.  There were several hiking trails along these viewpoints as well.  We were warned that there were baboons in the area, and they could be aggressive at times.  Fortunately, we only heard some loud warning growls, but didn’t actually encounter any while we were out of the car.

Three Rondavels, God's Window, and the Pinnacle
On our last day in Blyde River Canyon, we signed up for a cultural tour at one of the Zulu villages.  The Zulu people have been living in the region for hundreds of years and are still the largest ethnic group in South Africa, with over ten million people.  We were in the heart of Zululand, and we thought a cultural tour would help us learn something about the local people.

Our guide showed us around a small traditional village and explained the function of the different huts and about their old way of life.  After looking around the village, there was dancing and singing.  They explained the different outfits that the women were wearing based on whether they were single, engaged or married.  It was quite a production, especially since there were only four of us in the audience.  We were a little surprised at the end when they pulled us up and asked us to dance with them, which was a lot of fun.  After the tour, we made the short drive to Kruger National Park, where we would spend a week on safari.

Zulu cultural tour