I was lucky enough to spend the first 2 weeks of October with my good friend Nora road tripping through South Africa. We started in Cape Town and worked our way along the coast to Durban, then headed north through the Drakensburg mountains, ending in Johannesburg. It was an absolutely gorgeous drive--I don't think I've ever been on a trip so consistently and diversely scenic--mountains, beach, rolling hills, you name it. We're both "bang for your buck" travelers so we did far too much to write about, so I'll just cover a couple highlights that I thought were particularly fabulous.
"All dressed up but nowhere to go". One of our first outings was to visit the Simon's Point penguins! We took the local train out to Simon's Point and spent the day in the relaxed beach town eating fish and chips and playing with penguins on the shore. You can walk right up to them! They're small and really into hiding in the bushes and making this honking noise. Also, they have the incredible ability to tilt their heads all the way backwards, which they do when the honking gets really serious. We spent a couple hours just being entranced by the penguin waddle. It never gets old.
The ostrich. Quite possibly my favorite stop on the trip was Oudtshoorn, town with the world's highest ostrich population. Such interesting creatures. Running, they can reach speeds up to 40mph, the top land speed of any bird. They are notoriously dangerous for their powerful kicks (pretty much their only defense) with their funny looking two-toed feet. They also have the largest eggs of any bird, which are so strong that you can stand on them. At the show farms you can ride the birds--quite an experience. I feel like this would not be legal in America. They pull the bird up, put a bag over its head, and have you climb onto its back. You hold onto its wings with your arms extended and leaning back. A very unnatural position. Then they take the bag off its head and let the bird loose. It runs around frantically for a while, the ostrich jockeys following the whole time to catch you if you lose your grip, and eventually they'll tell you to let go and you just trust fall back into their arms. I couldn't stop hysterically laughing pretty much the whole visit.
Sights from the drive. The Garden Route is an absolutely gorgeous ride. Even when we veered off the route to go to the Wild Coast and up north, it never stopped being scenic. The highways were impressively well maintained, although this involved passing through significant roadwork and toll booths. It was a nice contrast to the crazy potholes even on the main roads of Benin, however. Also we had to drive on the left side of the road which was quite a trip--it always seemed like the cars going the other direction were heading straight for us. Our little rental car could barely make it up a lot of the big hills, and since most of the drive was one lane highway we had to adjust to constantly passing by going into the wrong lane. It definitely made me realize how much I miss driving though.
South Africa was beautiful. However, talking with locals and friends of Nora's who are Peace Corps volunteers in a smaller village, it's also a country with really complex social problems. Apartheid had so many strict rules separating and giving specific rights to each racial and cultural group, and the social tensions are still very present. For example, we locked our keys in the car while visiting the smaller village of Nora's friends and, even though he had been first approached by the rental car company and we agreed to pay an exorbitant fee, the locksmith refused to drive out to where we were. Many white South Africans that we talked with were quite openly bitter against the strong 'affirmative action'-esque hiring policies in practice, and society in general seemed to still be pretty self-segregated.
Overall, we had an amazing trip and I would definitely recommend the country for anyone's vacation-- particularly for adventure tourists or those, like us, who like making spur of the moment decisions--we had made hardly any plans ahead of time and it was no problem. And although apparently it's pretty bankrupt, South African Airlines had great food, movies, and unlimited mini-bottles of South African wine :o)