Saturday, November 27, 2010

Johannesburg, South Africa

Our flights back to Seattle had us traveling back to Johannesburg with Air Madagascar where we had a layover of 7 hours before continuing on to Seattle via Paris with Air France. While waiting in line at the Tana airport we had been chatting with some South Africans who had been in Madagascar on their honeymoon, and their recommendation was to take the new high speed train into the city and enjoy a delicious steak at Nelson Mandela Square during our brief stay in Jo'burg.

This seemed like a reasonable thing to do, so upon arriving at the Jo'burg airport and retrieving our luggage we dropped it off in storage (it was too early to check into our next flight) and went to check out the train which had been built in advance of the World Cup. The train cost $30 per person for a round trip and and out of the city, which seemed a bit steep for a 15 minute train ride. We went back and inquired at the information desk as to what a taxi would cost, but this was even more so we inquired as to what we would be seeing by taking the train. The young girl at the desk informed us that the train would take us to a mall, and that in her view this was a reasonable way to "kill time". Killing time wasn't the best descriptor for how we had hoped to spend our (however brief) time in Jo'burg, so we inquired further as to whether there might be other, more engaging options other than shopping malls. To this line of inquiry, the girl curtly replied "Tours.". Upon further prodding it became clear that she was referring to organized tours of museums, and she was under the impression that it was not possible to visit these instituations independently, it could only be done as a member of an organized tour.

At this point we decided to cut our losses by aborting our converstation with this shining young example of South Africa's future, and headed to the train station having decided that even if Nelson Mandela Square was a mall, at least it was named after a notable figure and it sounded like it had a sculpture in it so it wouldn't be a total write-off from a cultural perspective. After paying the exorbitant fee for the train we boarded and 15 minutes later we were at our destination. However overpriced it was a nice train, traveling at speeds of up to 160 km/hour it was way faster than the new Seattle airport link though it must be said that the destination of the Seattle train has much more in the way of worthwhile attractions than the Jo'burg train.

We disembarked at Sandton (the terminus of the train) and made our way to Nelson Mandela Square, which on the plus side did have a square with a statue of the man himself:

However, on the minus side it was centered around a giant shopping mall which was a bit of a letdown. The only saving grace was that I needed to get a book to read on the flight home, so I browsed in the book store to find something interesting while Roanne had her daily fix of "Gone with the Wind". One funny thing we noticed as we entered the book store was that it housed a cafe called "Seattle Coffee Co":

By this point in the trip I was starting to miss some things about Seattle (coffee, for one, much of the coffee we had been served was pretty lackluster, and I was also worried that it had been snowing without us there and I was missing out on skiing) so it was fun to see this reminder of our city in such a farway place. We then exited the mall and walked around a bit just to confirm that the mall was really the only pedestrian-accessible thing of note in Sandton. Having done this, we walked back to the outdoor square and sat down in one of the outdoor cafes to have a drink and sandwich and watch the locals strolling by before walking back to the train station to catch the 6:00pm departure back to the airport. Back at the airport, we checked into our overnight flight that would take us to Paris, followed by a flight the next day back to Seattle.

I must say that I had been a little skeptical of Roanne's plan to go to Africa, but it ended up being an amazing trip. Here are my top three most memorable things from the trip, and things that I would highly recommend:

1. Taking the trip to "Coral Camp" on Nosy Hara with New Sea Roc and staying for a few days in this little island paradise for climbing, snorkeling, relaxing, and meeting great people. Holy smokes was this ever awesome! If we had to do it again I would have stayed for 6 days instead of 3. By the end of 6 days you would be running out of routes to do, but I was definitely wishing that we had been able to stay longer than 3 days. New Sea Roc has some other camps that are probably highly worthwhile if they are anything like this one.

2. Seeing Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope on the southern end of the Cape Peninsula in South Africa. This was an incredible sight to see, partly because it is visually stunning and partly because of all the history that you feel you are soaking in just by being there and seeing it.

3. Seeing the lemurs in the National Parks of Madagascar. All of these species that have evolved to be so unique in isolation from the rest of the world are pretty indisputable evidence for evolution, it is amazing to see them in the flesh. The highlight was probably seeing and hearing the Indri, since their wailing cry is so loud and haunting and their resistance to staying alive in captivity means that they can only be seen in three remaining locations of their natural habitat in Madagascar.

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