South Africa was by far the most action-packed port of my voyage. From the moment I got off the ship to the time I sailed away, I was in overdrive trying to pack as much as possible into a country with so many things to do and see.
My first day was spent with my History of Jazz class, visiting the home of renowned jazz saxophonist and composer Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi. He lived during the height of apartheid, and for many of his performances with primarily white bands in the 80s, he played behind a curtain, hidden from the audience’s sight. Though he passed away in 2014, the man who currently lives in Mankunku’s home gave us a brief history lesson on the musician and the effects of apartheid in his life.
Next, we went to another home in a township nearby where we had the pleasure of listening to local jazz musicians perform a small concert for my class of about 18 students. The townships were astounding, revealing how the remnants of apartheid are hardly remnants at all. Townships are the neighborhoods where black families were relocated during apartheid, forced to move from their homes so that white people could take over their properties. Although apartheid is technically over now, those people are still living in these communities, which are nothing short of slums that made up the better part of our drive along the freeway.
It was wonderful seeing such talented musicians perform live music, and even more wonderful when my professor, a professional saxophonist with multiple released albums under his belt, joined them for several songs. The old bassist strummed along as young students from elementary to high school played sax, piano, trumpet, and flute. The music was lovely, and we all thoroughly enjoyed watching the musicians in their element.
To wrap up the field class, we visited University of Cape Town’s music department to sit in on a jazz rehearsal. The campus was beautiful, built on an upward slope that led to the foot of a foggy Table Mountain.
The sounds of the rehearsal drifted through the halls before we even arrived at the room. The students were incredible, easily good enough to be a professional band (at least my ears thought so). We listened for about 30 minutes, then talked with the students about their experiences over delivery pizza. It was a lovely day, and the fact that my participation in these events constituted 25% of my final jazz class grade is just plain silly to me.
When we returned to the ship after dinner, I prepared for a night out on the town. It was the eve of my 21st birthday, so you can imagine my excitement for going out, especially after being on the ship for 11 days straight (save for the one day stop in Mauritius).
My friends and I met with our tour guide, Fareed, for the first time that evening, a friendly native South African who we would get to know very well over the next few days. He drove us from the ship to my Airbnb in the city center.
When I arrived at the Airbnb, my other friends (who had checked in hours before) surprised me with a fully decorated apartment, snacks on the table, bottles of Absolut, and music blaring. I felt so incredibly lucky to have made such wonderful friends who would go through the trouble to do this for me, and I will never forget their kindness.
After pre-gaming at the apartment, my girls and I hit the town. We found a bar filled with other Semester at Sea students and began the night there. At midnight, everyone in the building sang happy birthday to me, and I was too buzzed to be embarrassed.
I wish I could tell you more about the night, but my memory is less than reliable for reasons I’m sure you can understand. All I know is that I had a great time with great people, and at some point I sang R&B karaoke on a stage in front of a full bar.
I later found out that on the one of my classmates got mugged on the same street I was on that night. The people who beat him up broke his wrist, arm, and elbow, and he had to get surgery before returning to the ship. South Africa is infamous for its violence, deemed the rape capital of the world. Even though we were warned of the dangers before arriving on the ship, the reality of the danger did not strike until hearing about that student. Though he now has a severely bruised face and an arm sling, he is quickly recovering on the ship.
The next morning, I woke up on the window-sill bench of my Airbnb in the same clothes I had left in and my bangs sticking out in every direction. Sorry Mom and Dad, but this is my reality and I aspire to tell the truth about my life in full detail.
After a strong cappuccino at Truth Coffee down the street (which apparently is known for having the best coffee in the world (but it really wasn’t that impressive)), I felt slightly revived. I threw all my strewn about items into my backpack before leaving the apartment bright and early for the long drive with Fareed to Aquila Game Reserve three hours north of Cape Town.
AQUILA GAME RESERVE
The drive to the safari lands was rough because I felt sick to my stomach the whole time, but the beautiful scenery made up for my poor health conditions. Tall mountains reminiscent of the Colorado Flatirons passed by, covered in alternating sheets of green grass and grey slate.
We checked into our two luxury bungalows on the outskirts of the grounds (all of the regular hotel rooms were apparently full so you can imagine how we over-paid for accommodations we didn’t need). The grounds were beautifully landscaped with green lawns and rock gardens. So much for the coping with the drought! (You can read more about that in my water crisis article in the Daily Wildcat 😊). About half a mile in the distance, we watched two elephants slowly navigating up a rocky hill. The place was beyond anything I could have dreamed.
After a much-needed nap, my friends and I took off on our first safari. In just an hour and a half, we passed by baby rhinos, submerged hippos, herds of zebras, loping giraffes, and graceful springboks under overcast skies. It was breathtaking.
There was a brief rest stop on the game drive where we were given platters of dried fruit, different types of dried meats, and champagne in silver chalices. It might sound like an odd combination, but everything was absolutely delicious, especially the ostrich jerky.
I ended my 21st birthday watching the African sunset fade into a sky full of bright stars by a bonfire with my favorite people. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d spend this milestone in such a fantastic way, and I don’t think it could have gotten much better than that. The only thing missing was my best friends and family from home. Even through the happy celebrations, my heart ached quietly for them.
The next morning was the sunrise safari, and I woke up feeling much livelier than the previous day. We took off as the sun peaked over the distant hills, casting fresh light on the sleepy wildlife.
This time, we went through the lion enclosure. Everyone on the bus had little hope for a sighting because we heard the lions tend to be shy, but only a minute after passing the massive gates, we spotted two lionesses on the horizon.
We continued down the road to a dead end. Confused as to why we took that route, everyone looked around at each other skeptically. But then we saw them, two enormous male lions lying beside the road. We got so close to them that I could have reached out and touched one.
Just when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any better than that, we left the lions and pulled up to the two elephants from the previous day at the watering hole, spraying themselves down and shoveling heaps of grass into their mouths with their trunks.
As we turned to leave the magnificent scene, one of the elephants started walking our way, and my driver took off at the pace of the giant. He followed our bus for about five minutes, and I was lucky enough to be sitting in the very back where I had a perfect view of the whole experience. The elephant lumbered along, and as the cameras rapid-fired around me, I was frozen in disbelief. I don’t think I will ever witness anything as cool as that for the rest of my life.
My friends and I left Aquila that morning, still in awe of all we had seen, and began the drive back to the city. Fareed surprised us by organizing a horseback ride on the beach, so instead of going straight back to town, we took a coastal road about an hour past Cape Town, a drive that rivaled the beauty of the Pacific Coast Highway in California.
When we arrived at the ranch, we were in awe of the location; several acres of pastures and arenas sat beside the bright blue ocean with big, lush mountains rising in the north. If the owner of the place had asked me to stay there and work for free, I would have gladly taken the offer.
We quickly learned that the horses we were riding were retired racehorses. I didn’t get to talk to the owner very much, but he told me that he only owned Thoroughbreds and he raced them all. How anyone gets to a point in their life where they get to raise racehorses on the coast of South Africa is beyond me, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t envy that man.
After all eight of us took a beautiful but slow walk along the beach, the guides asked if any of us were experienced riders. My friend Camila and I were the only ones who raised our hands, so one of the men told us we could go “canter” for a bit while the others waited back at the ranch. We happily accepted, tired of the slow pace we’d endured for the walk with the others.
When we exited the main corral, Camila, the guide and I made our way to a narrow trail beside the beach. When the man asked if I was ready to go, I said yes, thinking he meant we would ease into the speed. I was dead wrong.
All of a sudden, the man kicked his horse into a run, and my horse took off after him. I went from a brisk walk to a flat-out sprint within a split second. I have been riding horses since I was five years old, and I can honestly say that I have never come close to the speed I was moving then.
My horse was reliving his racing days, and I let him go, praying that I wouldn’t lose my balance in that glorious moment. I have not even felt that exhilarated on the back of my friends’ motorcycles back home. I was absolutely flying, and when my guide called for me to slow down and turn back home, I got rope burn all over my fingers and palms.
Camila and I returned to the rest of our group, breathing hard with heavily blistered hands and stupid-looking smiles from ear to ear. We agreed that we had never felt that elation in our entire lives, and I am still dumbfounded by the fact that we got to race actual racehorses on a gorgeous beach along the cape coast. Sometimes I don’t think I deserve what this life has allowed me.
That evening, we got delicious fish and chips at a restaurant beside the sea and stopped at a beautiful overlook of the cliff sides before returning to the ship. The scenic drive was unreal.
CAPE TOWN (again)
My group had VIP tickets to an electronic music festival at Shimmy Beach Club, a nightclub only steps away from where the ship was docked. We arrived earlier than expected and enjoyed a night of live music and tequila at a beautiful venue beside the ocean. I don’t usually enjoy electronic music, but the DJs were surprisingly talented, singing along with the beat of remixed 90s classics. I had a great time and still managed to get to sleep on the ship just before midnight.
The next morning, Fareed picked us up from the ship to take us on a wine tour in the vineyard lands north of Cape Town. After yet another picturesque drive, we began the tour on a hop-on-hop-off tram that navigated the most beautiful wine valley I had ever seen.
We sampled wines and cheese at five different vineyards throughout the day. I was not a wine person before this tour, but now I feel much more appreciative of wine after learning about all the cautious work that goes into every bottle. My friends and I left the valley extremely satisfied and a little drunk.
Back in Cape Town, we checked into a new Airbnb not far from our first one a couple nights before. This was easily the fanciest place I have ever stayed, and between the six of us staying there, it was dirt cheap. While the kitchen and living room overlooked the city and the harbor, the bedrooms had perfect views of Table Mountain as the evening fog cascaded over its sides like waterfalls. We spent the night in, listening to music and enjoying more cheese and wine for dinner.
The next day was the most laid back of the entire trip. While my girlfriends went on a city tour with Fareed, my friend Brendan and I opted out to go surfing. I woke up to him blasting ‘Surfing USA’ by the Beach Boys in my room, which was oddly irrelevant considering our location, then we called an Uber for Muizenberg Beach.
Muizenberg was reviewed as one of the best surf spots in the Cape Town area, and since it was on the Indian Ocean side of the cape, we weren’t hopelessly freezing in the water. After a quick breakfast, we rented our wetsuits and boards and hit the water.
The waves were rough that day, and since neither of us was very experienced in surfing, we struggled to stand up for more than a couple seconds at a time. After repeatedly wiping out for a couple hours, we decided to take a quick break and then try again.
What was supposed to be a 30-minute rest turned into about two hours of hanging out a bar beside the surf shop. Brendan, against my scolding, ordered three bottles of wine at 11 a.m., and I had no choice but to join him in finishing them.
We ran into our friend, Simon, a hilarious student from South Africa who had actually recommended Muizenberg Beach to us on the ship. He was also struggling to surf, so he sat down and gladly took over the wine for me. We all talked and laughed about nonsense until I decided I should probably surf instead of get wine drunk while I still had the chance.
Brendan and I returned to the water, but now I was even more unbalanced than before (I wonder why?), so I accepted the fact that I suck at surfing and made fun of my failure. After a long day, Fareed and the rest of the group picked us up to take us to see the South African penguins at a beach nearby.
We pulled up to the beach where hundreds of penguins dove in and out of the water under pink skies as the sun set. They were adorable little creatures, and indifferent to our presence among them.
As Camila tried to crouch down to get a photo of the penguins, she slipped on a rock and into the sweeping water below. The whole group stood frozen for a moment as she struggled to paddle back to shore with her camera equipment lifted high above the water, but as a big wave came upon her, she and her camera went under.
At this point, we all started to scramble to help her, half of us laughing and half of us genuinely concerned (I was not surprisingly one of the ones laughing). My friend, Agathe, took it upon herself to be a hero and jump in after Camila, and then there were two people stuck in the swirling tide.
Agathe’s boyfriend, Zach, started a human chain down the rocks, and we eventually got both girls out of the water. Soaking wet, the two were fine, but the camera suffered a worse fate. We attempted the bag-of-rice technique to dry it out later that night, but it simply was too far gone. Although we laugh about it now, I still feel for Camila. I would have been devastated if I had destroyed my camera, so she is a trooper for finding the humor in the disaster.
CAPE TOWN (last time)
Since it was our last night in Cape Town, my friends and I wanted to go out with a bang and hit the bars again, but I had felt like I was coming down with a cold since that morning, so I was on the fence about it. However, my friends peer-pressured me into bucking up and going out.
We started the night at a gay bar (our driver recommended it), but I felt so sick at that point that I could only bring myself to dance for about 15 minutes before calling it a night. The bartenders, who were shirtless and had the most gorgeous bodies I have ever seen, kept bringing me glasses of water and asking if I was alright before I finally left. I’ll never get over how sweet they were.
The next day, I woke up feeling about as useful as a pile of garbage, and I dreaded the downward spiral of my health. I was supposed to go skydiving that afternoon with Camila and our friend, Willy, but to my sad disappointment, the man who booked our reservation signed us up for a 3 p.m. time slot. Since we had to be back on the ship by 6 p.m. and the drive to the dive site was over two hours away, we knew we wouldn’t be able to make it.
To our dismay, we had to change plans, so we chose the second-best option and went paragliding. I would have been stoked about this, too, but I was getting sicker by the minute, so I just wanted to get it over with.
When we got to the top of Signal Hill, a tall peak near the base of Table Mountain, the sight of the paragliders floating down to the beach instantly perked me up. Within about half an hour, I was strapped to my pilot, and we were off.
The ride began with us running as fast as we could down the side of the hill, and in the blink of an eye, my legs were kicking at air, the ground slowly falling away from me. We hung a right, twisting over the Earth while I howled with excitement.
As we zigzagged down the hill, my sick feelings vanished for the short time I spent in the sky. We were so high up that birds were flying below us. I watched in awe as we sailed over cliffsides, then the freeway, then neighborhoods, then the ocean. We floated a little longer over the sea, my pilot doing thrilling tricks over the water, then landed effortlessly on the beach.
Even though I didn’t get to go skydiving, I wouldn’t trade my paragliding experience if I could. I can jump out of a plane virtually anywhere, but I can’t jump off a hill and fly over the South African coast anywhere. It was an incredible experience, and I’m so happy I did it.
My time in South Africa had drawn to a close. Fareed dropped us off at Victoria Wharf right near the ship, and we said our sad goodbyes. He was one of the sweetest, most caring guys I have ever met, and I can’t imagine anyone better for the job of taking eight obnoxious college students across the country. He’ll be the first person I call the next time I go to Cape Town.
While my friends enjoyed one last meal beside the water, I returned to the ship early because I could barely hold myself upright. Losing my strength fast, I trudged through immigration and went straight to my room (I was in quarantine for two days and had to have my meals delivered to my room because I didn’t have the strength to get out of bed, but that’s a dramatic story for another time).
South Africa was an incredible country, and I know I will be back someday. There is simply no way to do and see everything in a place like that in only six days, but I think my friends and I did a pretty good job of making the most of our short time. Even though I got so sick by the end of the trip, this was still one of my favorite ports. From turning 21 to driving beside an elephant to flying off the side of a hill, I will never forget my adventures in Cape Town.