On Thursday Nov 13, Hunter, Jannis, Rita, and I left the Happy 2B Backpackers in Joburg for Polokwane. The bus ride took about 4 hours, and we arrived in Polokwane in the early afternoon. Not entirely sure how to get from the Polokwane train station to the airport (where we had rented a car from Hertz), we spent a few minutes trying to figure out how to get there before a random guy who appeared to be a taxi driver offered us to take us there. The man – Siyanda – turned out to be a very kind guy, although we were all skeptical whether or not he was actually a licensed taxi driver. His car had a “For Sale” sign in the back and seemed to be falling apart.
As the Hertz office in the airport, we came across the most incompetent employees I have ever seen, and spent an absurd amount of time trying to get our rental car at the price we had booked it at online. An hour or so later though, we were off on our way to Sabie – a small town close to the Blyde River Canyon (and also Kruger National Park). The drive, as every drive is in South Africa, was a beautiful one…and we enjoyed driving a large chunk of Limpopo and Mpumalanga. Driving through very small rural towns, we were surprised to find a massive mall halfway along the route at a town called Burgersfort. We stopped to eat there, and found the mall to be crowded and identical to any mall you would find in the states. It was quite a weird scene, although a few conversations and google searches later -we realized that platinum mining had made this previously tiny village into a well developed town of much wealth. It was a strange town to drive through in the midst of rural South Africa, but one that really captured the importance and influence of mining in the country.
As usual, the drive took much longer than we had anticipated, and we arrived in Sabie in the dark. After checking into our hostel, Sabie Backpackers, we searched for some food in town and soon realized that it was a very dead place to be. Almost everything was closed or empty, and none of had much of an appetite in this eery town. The next day we drove to Graskop, a town about 30 minutes away, checked into our next backpackers – Valley View Backpackers – and set out to see the beautiful Blyde River Canyon. The canyon is known to be the largest “green” canyon in the world – as no other canyon of its size has green vegetation within it. Unfortunately, when we got to the most famous viewpoint above the canyon – God’s Window – we were in the clouds and visibility was close to nothing. We saw none of the canyon…just never-ending whiteness. We spent the rest of the day driving around the area – seeing a few waterfalls, swimming in a natural pool, and walking around the small town. Hunter and I also went on a giant swing in the canyon, in which we jumped off backward from a platform and had a 3 second free fall before the swing caught us and swayed us back and forth. This was by far the highlight of the day, and the fact that the canyon was full of clouds made the fall into an abyss of whiteness extremely cool.
That night I became quite sick and vomited a few times…but thankfully I was fine in the morning! This turned out to be the only time the entire time I was in South Africa that I was “sick.” Quite an impressive feat!
The next morning, after a great breakfast in Graskop, we drove along the length of the canyon and finally got a view of parts of the canyon. It was beautiful, and through the canyon one could see Kruger National Park, and behind that Mozambique. From the canyon we drove back to Polokwane, stopping at the Echo caves for a tour of expansive caves that were inhabited thousands of years ago.
After dropping off the car at the airport in Polokwane, we struggled to find a taxi and ended up calling our friend Siyanda for a ride to the bus stop. We were in for quite the night as we had booked an overnight bus to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The last leg of traveling was about to begin!
Continuing on, on Saturday the 15th we took an overnight bus to Zimbabwe. The bus we took from Polokwane to Bulawayo – Eagle Liner – was full of Zimbabweans returning home…and was far from luxurious. At around 12:30am we arrived at the South African side of the border, where we all had to disembark the bus and get an exit stamp on our visa. The line was long, and we spent about half an hour there. Once on the Zimbabwean side, our bus waited in a long line of trucks and other buses until we were asked again to disembark. As foreigners – we had to wait in line to buy a Zimbabweans visa for 300 rand/$30, and then get our customs forms approved by a separate station. Thankfully, the bus operator helped us fill out the forms and get our visas. We thought we were all set to go, but then we were asked to take all our luggage off the bus for “inspection.” Three hours after arriving at the border, we were finally in Zimbabwe and on our way. The border crossing was quite an experience, and later in the early hours of the morning we came across a few roadblocks by what seemed like police officers. Every roadblock we passed seemed to be literally in the middle of no where – and our bus driver appeared to be bribing the officers at each roadblock to get through. It was quite strange…and I felt quite thankful we were in a bus and not driving our own car.
When we finally arrived in Bulawayo, it was Sunday morning and the city was completely dead. We took a taxi to the train station, where we planned on taking a train that night to Victoria Falls. The station was closed until the afternoon, so we decided to walk around the city. In the middle of the city is a massive power plant with cooling towers that dominate the skyline, and it made the city feel very eery as we walked around the relatively empty streets. Realizing there was little to do there the entire day, we decided to take a local bus all the way through to Victoria Falls. The bus ride was about 7 hours long and gave us a great opportunity to see much of the country. I was surprised by how undeveloped and empty it seemed, as there was very little to see besides small villages and huts here and there.
We finally arrived at Victoria Falls in the evening, checked into Victoria Falls Backpackers, and had a nice dinner at a completely empty Asian restaurant. It truly seemed like off-peak season. On Monday, we spent most of the day at the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls. We came at the driest time of the year, so although it was beautiful, they were underwhelming compared to what they are earlier in the year. The day itself was quite uneventful, and the next morning we took a taxi to the border crossing and walked over the bridge into Zambia. After checking into our backpackers in the nearby city of Livingstone, we booked a trip to the famous Devil’s Pool, where one can swim in a natural pool on the edge of the fall. The experience was absolutely surreal, and one of the highlights of my entire time in South Africa. A guide took us through a very marshy area to Livingstone Island, right on the edge of the waterful. Normally, one has to take a boat to the island, but because it was the dry season we could walk. From the island, we had to swim across the river, with the falls roaring down several meters to the left of us, to the natural pool. At the pool, there was little time to think and we were all swimming on the edge within a few seconds. The view was magnificent and to watch the water we were swimming in crash down beneath us was incredible.
That night we had a fantastic meal at a local restaurant called Cafe Zambezi, and celebrated the end of our trip. Late the next morning, Hunter and I had to say goodbye to Jannis and Rita (who were continuing on through Zambia and to Malawi), and left for the airport to return back to Stellenbosch. It was another sad goodbye, and I was quite jealous that they were to continue traveling. Nonetheless though, Victoria Falls was a perfect place to end my travels. I could not have imagined swimming in Devil’s Pool months earlier when I arrived in southern Africa, but what an experience it was! Already looking forward to coming back for another round.