Sunday, February 28, 2016

Drakensberg, South Africa: Hiking the Dragon Mountains and I Teach A 6th Grade Class

From the coast of Coffee Bay, our road trip continued inland to a region of South Africa called Drakensberg.  

What It's All About:
Drakensberg is a region in the eastern plateau of South Africa (means "dragon mountains" in Afrikaans) - it's a series of ridiculous amazing mountains, with some of the most breathtaking landscapes I've ever seen in my entire life.  The region is divided into North and South Drakensberg - Drakensberg is huge, so you can spend weeks exploring this area and not even see a fraction of all it has to offer.  The area's best known for hiking and camping, but you can also do so many other cool things - ride horses, venture into Lesotho (a small country surrounded by South Africa that borders Drakensberg!), or simply enjoy the amazing serenity and peacefulness the area has.

This view courtesy of 10 minutes into our first hike. Photos don't do the scenery justice. 

We spent 4 days in Southern Drakensberg, just near a charming little town called Underberg. Seriously, we kept meaning to leave, but kept extending because we had time and were so in love with the area.  I am wildly obsessed with Drakensberg; it is definitely one of the most naturally beautiful (and peaceful) places I've ever been in my entire life.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Arrived in Drakensberg and our charming little hostel, called Sani Pass Backpackers. Jess and I spent the evening poring over our hostel's huge wall of suggested hikes, and randomly chose a full-day one that sounded amazing.  
  • The next morning, armed with a random highlighted map, a sheet of instructions, and copious amounts of water, Jesse and I set out for what was promised to be a 6-7 hour hike. 

We seriously walked for 15 minutes past the lodge and it felt like we were in the middle of pure, unspoiled wilderness

Oh, just a stunning crystal-blue lake on the other side

I can't get over these mountain ranges

Oh god, we've already gone to photo overload 20 minutes into our 6 hour hike

  • So the path itself was kind of tenuous - there were places where huge grasses hid it partly, and parts where it disappeared completely or branched off in different faint directions. It was really kind of hard to follow. Not to mention our sheet of instructions literally had sentences like "Walk 15 minutes through the grass past the big rock. Turn off on the trail that branches to the left of the trees, but make sure to cross back over the rocks to find the trail as it slopes up. Do not take the path that is sloping up too much; take the other one."  WHAT ARE THESE INSTRUCTIONS.  
  • Soooo I'm only making these excuses because we may have missed the turnoff for the trail we intended (to the top of the mountain), and by the time we realized our mistake, we were too far past. So we continued on the trail we were on, which was a fun water-filled hike down into the canyon with tons of waterfalls and rivers and pools.  No regrets because it was AMAZING.

Walking into the horizon. 

Some of the ridiculously gorgeous valleys. These mountains go out as far as the eye can see.

The most stunning part was how alone we were. We seriously saw one couple early in the morning, and for the rest of the 8.5 hours, did not see a single soul.
I hope you've already realized that this post will be photo overload

And then we found a mini splashy waterfall 

Hiking down into the canyon

And then we found our own private wading pool to swim in!  

Jess and our personal tiny waterfall

First we had the lunch our hostel had packed for us. Noms.

Then swimming time!

Jess super-jumping in. The water was super cold but ridiculously clear and pristine. The mountain spring water here is all drinkable, and is rumored to be better than bottled water (I say "rumored" because I'm a weenie American who was too skeeved out to drink any because we've been taught to be terrified of dirt and waterborne diseases). (This may just be a "me" thing).  Jesse, however, slurped it all up and said it was delicious - ice-cold and dirt-free. 

My body went numb

  • We continued hiking afterwards - the trail got super crazy and we had to zig and zag across the river a couple times.  This trail was so remote that it was basically impossible to follow. It seemed like no one had hiked it in 5 years - there were parts where it would disappear entirely and we would just make up where we thought we were supposed to go (aka where the branches and trees looked like they were maybe open enough to let a person through).  I may or may not have had visions of that show "I Shouldn't Be Alive" on this trek.

We encountered all these giant rocks on the way. Exhibit A is tiny Jesse next to giant rock.

And then we came to the edge of a canyon with a giant waterfall!  I know it looks like a tiny baby waterfall.....but trust me, it's giant.  We then took a detour and hiked down into this canyon to try and access the pool at the base of the waterfall.

After hiking down a crazy slope for over half an hour, NAILED IT.

Another totally isolated private swimming hole with waterfall.  We swam in this one as well.

And then continued on our way

Our completely not-helpful list of hiking instructions said we had to cross the river 3 times for this hike.....and we crossed it 5. Which means we somehow accidentally added in 2 unnecessary river crossings. Oops.  MAYBE THEY SHOULDN'T HAVE MADE THE TRAIL SO IMPOSSIBLE TO FIND ALL THE TIME.

We finally made it to the highway. This part was a win. Because our instructions told us we were supposed to hit the highway and then walk 2.5km along it back to the hostel.  Jesse is celebrating by planking.

Halfway home along the (totally deserted) highway, there was a fancy lodge that advertised scones. So we obviously stopped there and had tea, scones and ice cream. Just a normal mid-afternoon snack.

  •  Over 9 hours after we initially set out, we finally arrived back at the lodge.  Kind of close to the 6 hours it was supposed to take, except not at all.  I guess they don't factor in all the swimming/river crossing/ice cream detours, which is weird, because these are all completely necessary stops. We were exhausted, but it was, by far, my favorite hike I've ever been on in my entire life.
  • The next day, I became a 6th grade teacher at a local school.  See "Moment of the Day" below.

Moment of the Day:
The next morning, Jess and I got a little bit of a late start to our day and had to change our plans to go to Lesotho at the last minute.  I had seen a flyer in our hostel the day before that there was a local elementary school where you could volunteer for a day, so I thought we could do that. We tried to call the school but no one answered the phone - seeing as it was so last-minute, our lodge host recommended we drive to the school directly to ask them about volunteering.

We seriously pulled into the school at 11:25AM - Jess and I found three ladies sitting in one of the classrooms (the kids were on lunch break). We asked about the volunteering thing, and one of the ladies goes "Yes. You can help today. Class starts at 11:30."  She escorted us to a 6th-grade classroom, goes "You have 5 minutes - you teach", and then vanished.  THERE WAS NO TEACHER. WE HAD TO TEACH THE CLASS.  And we were totally, completely unprepared.

The 6th grade class all came in 5 minutes later, giggling and super excited that these two strangers were standing in their class. Holy. panic. Imagine 15 faces just staring at you expectantly. Thank God Jesse is an English teacher, because we kind of just made up the lesson for the day.  Really, half the time was just spent trying to figure out what the heck these kids were supposed to be learning and how good their English skills were.

Sample convo with the kids:
Jess and I: "What textbook are you guys using?"
Kids: "This one!" *all pull out different textbooks*
Me: "Wait - which one of these textbooks have you been using in class though?"
Kids: "Yes!"

Seriously, something we've learned is that a lot of the locals here like to please foreigners, so their answer is always "yes" because they want to be agreeable, whether or not they understand what you're saying.  Cue mass confusion.

Long story short, Jesse and I spent the time doing a quick introduction game, then trying to get through the various lesson plans (the kids' English ability all varied wildly - some were amazing, and some were a little more nonexistent), then did some reading, and then just ended with a game of Pictionary, which the kids loved.

I'm fairly certain this class doesn't really have a teacher - the lady we talked to mumbled about the teacher being somewhere else, but the fact that we randomly showed up and there happened to be no teacher was so sad!  We met another backpacker at the lodge later who told us he had gone to the school the week before and had the exact same experience - he showed up, was thrown into a class with no teacher, and was expected right then and there to teach.  I think resources are fairly limited in this stretch of the world, so the kids kind of just make do with what they have.  The kids were adorable, eager, and incredibly charming.  The kids naturally broke into little groups when we did the lesson plans and the ones who were stronger in English helped the weaker ones. It's clear they've kind of formed their own little groups and structure with the lack of a teacher.

My new 6th grade class.  These kids love foreigners. It's incredibly rural out in this section of the world, so they're charmed by everything.

The kids are enthralled with their books, obviously.  I am apparently appalled by something.

True to form, I loved it. I wanted to go back every day. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Sunshine Coast to the Wild Coast, South Africa: The Coolest Little Villages

What It's All About:
We continued our road trip past the Garden Route to the Sunshine Coast, which is the coast you pass after exiting the Garden Route - and after the Sunshine Coast comes the Wild Coast.  Here, the Southern Coast of South Africa starts to get less populated and developed, and most of the coastline has gorgeous beaches and more nature. Many of the small towns are known for their surfing due to the intensity of the waves, and as expected - even more amazing views.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Finished up our time in Tsitsikamma National Park with a quick hike to see some giant trees, and then some zip-lining (which is not nearly as exciting after you've spent the previous day jumping off a giant bridge bungee) (but still fun).

We hiked to "The Big Tree", which is this GIANT yellowwood tree (see a tiny me standing in front for scale) that is believed to be almost 1,000 years old.

There were crazy neon mushrooms on the path

More normal-colored, but still crazy amounts of mushrooms

Are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods

Jess crossing a fancy footbridge

And then we went zip-lining
It was cool zipping over canyons and trees and stuff

  • That evening, we drove from Storms River out to Jeffreys Bay (cooly referred to as "J-Bay") to meet up with Jesse's friend Kevin, who he (who he? whom he? I never can remember that rule) knows from English teaching in Korea. Kevin happened to be in South Africa for a wedding, and was also doing his own cross-country road trip with a friend - and our schedules aligned to meet up.

We went to, oddly enough, a Mexican joint for dinner. All I can say is cheese. The theme of the night was cheese. No complaints from me, but holy cheese.

Snapchat artist, present

  • J-Bay is known for its sweet surfing, but the wind was ridic the next day. So we went to the beach and built a sandcastle.  Oddly enough, the other thing J-Bay seems to be known for (despite the big foreigner surfing scene) is crime. We seriously got warnings from everyone in the city, who all had their own lurid tale of some crime or story they'd heard happening in town.  Charming. 
Kevin and I created the foundation for the castle

And then Jesse wanted in. Note the stunning castle gate, adornments on each tower, and shell bling. 

I'm sure some child destroyed this immediately afterwards

  • That afternoon, Kevin hitched a ride with us on a couple hour drive to the city of Grahamstown.  It's a super charming/quaint little university town - Kev was meeting a friend there, and Jess and I stayed in the city for a night as well. Unbeknownst to us, it was actually the very first week of university - and we'd hit up one of the most happening college bars in town (in our defense, I think there's only one or two bars).  So we were right in the middle of tons and tons of college kids. Add to the fact that the legal drinking age is 18 here, and I was in the bar staring at some of the kids because they looked so young; in fact, way too young to be wearing what they were wearing and drinking what they were drinking. Grandma Wang here.
This is the only picture I managed to snag of Grahamstown - hotels were super unavailable (given the first week of university thing; I think all the parents were staying in the hotels to drop off their precious bar-loving children) so Jess and I ended up staying at this mountain-top studio, and it was gorgeous and amazing and I stayed up all night watching movies on the TV (given it's the first time I've had a TV in my room in......forever). This was the view of the sunset from atop our mountain.

  • The next day, we bid adieu to Kev (he was leaving SA to go back to work), and continued on our way up the Wild Coast. We chose to stay the night in a town called Cintsa. We stayed in a backpackers looking right over the beach - they also had a fun communal all-you-can-eat BBQ (brai!) that evening. 

Walking on down to the beach in Cintsa
Yes, I am drinking a light cider and reading a trashy book

Watching the sunset on Cintsa beach - local boys playing soccer to the left, a vicious cow who tried to eat me as we passed to the right.

  • From Cinsta (we are moving at breakneck pace here; keep up), we drove out to this tiny, very remote area called Coffee Bay. This area lies on the coast - but getting there involves driving over an hour down a super winding road through tons of zig-zags and hills, not to mention the zillions of cows that are lazily walking across the road with no concern whatsoever about oncoming cars. Add tons of sheep to the mix (which I'm gonna be honest, they don't seem so smart). Not the most efficient drive.

Driving to Coffee Bay!  This area is super remote and village-y, so the locals still live in these traditional round-type houses called rondavels.

The scenery driving down was breathtaking.

  • We got to our backpackers called Coffee Shack, which we'd heard a lot about.  I can see why. I kind of loved the place. You get to Coffee Bay, and it's super undeveloped. But backpackers come here because it's on the coast (so water sports!), it's gorgeous, and there's tons of hiking and cool things you can do that are pretty off-the-beaten-trail.

Our first night, we signed up for a local village dinner.  We sat in this village lady's rondavel (which had no electricity)

People in this village are from the Xhosa tribe, and their language consists of cool clicking noises and words. A bunch of the women did traditional dances and songs for us. And then fed us traditional food.

A chicken runs through

A gaggle of foreigners crammed into this lady's hut

  • The next day happened to be Coffee Shack (the hostel)'s 15th anniversary, so they were having a huge party. Seriously, other employees from other hostels around SA and such came all the way to Coffee Bay for this party (we recognized an employee from our hostel in J-Bay, which at this point is like a 7-hour drive away).  During the day, the hostel offered a discounted anniversary hike and cliff-jumping excursion, which a huge group of us joined for.

The hike itself was surreal. Coffee Bay is gorgeous.

It was cloudy and there were tornado-force winds

And we scaled cliffs and rocks

Some of the descents were like death traps

Arriving onto the rocks

Inside this cave was a bunch of incredibly stinky bats. The locals come to collect the guano for fertilizer

And then we got to the top of a 7-meter cliff for cliff-jumping. Maybe it was 10. I can't remember.  It felt like a million meters, however, because the wind was so strong that the waves were crashing super scarily and I was pretty freaked out to jump in and drown. But most of us made it. 

This is one of the guides, Daniel, doing an even higher cliff jump. Which you do by climbing up that rock face. Um no thanks.

Jesse and I both survived the jump. And then we hiked out of the canyon - magical

On the way home, this little local girl came out to greet us. She was the cutest - she was shouting "good-bye!" and waving at all of us - and then Jesse pulled his camera out to take a picture, and she started posing in a zillion different poses like a supermodel.

Naturally, I copied her.

The skies cleared up on our walk back and it was so, so stunning.
More rondavels and cows.

  • The 15th anniversary party at Coffee Shack that evening consisted of free oysters/mussels from the ocean (NOM NOM I think I downed an entire plate single-handedly), free gin/tonics for a couple hours, and thumping beats (they erected an entire party tent), which I'm told lasted well into the wee hours of morning. Which Jesse and I didn't witness firsthand. Because we are fuddy-duddys who went to bed early - but it was because we signed up for 7:30AM surfing lessons the next morning!  The waves are better in the morning. Also, a 2-hour lesson was 50 rand - which is like, $3. And it was one of the best lessons ever - our guide Daniel was the shiz, and I had the best time ever, and now I want to continue to surf forever.
  • Coffee Bay marked the end of our Sunshine Coast/Wild Coast road-trip adventures - next, we drive more inland to the majestic beauty of Drakensberg National Park!