I have degreased my fingers and the pan of cupcakes has been relocated to my family's care. They will delightedly consume all the cupcakes and likely even was the pan for me. What nice people.
Anyway, shortly after school let out for the winter break in the beginning of June, I packed my bag and got the hell out of Dodge, by which I mean I crawled out of bed at 6 am and stood by the side of the road in darkness and waited for a ride out of Loopeng to Vryburg. It light out, but still freezing, when I reached Vryburg. Vryburg is the nearest white town to the east of me and a locus of inter-city transportation. Usually from there I attempt to head straight to Pretoria, but this time I was going to start my vacation at another volunteer's site. This meant a shorter trip, but many more taxis. Go figure.
Usually taxis take ages to fill up. Literally. Ages. I swear I've seen my hair grow. But thanks to the school holiday, World Cup, and who knows what else, taxis to my destination, Rustenburg, were filling up like, well, like the denizens of the North-West actually had somewhere to go and wanted to get there before Kingdom Come. That is to say I was on the road again in no time.
The scenery of this region is gorgeous, but I've seen it enough that it no longer thrills me. It was a long, cramped, boring ride to Rusty. Once in Rusty, however, things perked up. This was my first trip to the Rustenburg taxi rank, and, boy, was I shell-shocked. Rustenburg is home to some of the largest platinum mines in the world, and thus imports tons of laborers from all over. The rank was an impressive reflection of that. It's huge, sprawling, noisy, almost like a carnival but with hawkers selling socks and produce while the only rides available are taxis. Tons of taxis. I bought a Coke and begged the seller for guidance. She obliged and led me directly to my next taxi. I climbed aboard and gazed around. I never do too much sight-seeing while wandering around a taxi rank. I'm usually too busy guarding my possessions and fending off shady characters. Once safely ensconced in a taxi, however, I usually take a breather and soak it all in. In any case, the Rustenburg rank was carefully labelled with the destinations of its taxis, places like Brits (a nearby town), Pretoria (a nearby city) and Botswana (a nearby country). Yes, one can travel internationally BY TAXI. Good to know.
Sooner or later, my taxi leaves. I meet up with friends at the next stop and we all proceed to G's site where we watch movies, eat chocolate and generally act like the ridiculous, poorly socialized fools that months of alone-time in impoverished villages will turn anyone into.
The next day we're up and off to Pretoria! Again I discovered evidence of an inverse correlation between distance and number of taxis needed to traverse said distance. It only took a couple of hours, but we used 4 taxis! Once in Pretoria we boarded a local bound for the favorite of Peace Corps haunts: Hatfield. There's a movie theater and a McDonald's. What more can I say? This particular taxi got a flat tire halfway there. It could have been disasterous, but it was fixed fairly quickly and we were on our way again, speeding towards chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers. Also waiting for us at the McDonald's was a friend of mine from college, come to join us on our World Cup roadtrip.
We finally all met up, in cold, windy Hatfield and began awaiting the rest of our little party who were off procuring our rental car. They showed up, but if you think that means we hit the road, you are sorely mistaken.
I was sick, once again, and insisted that we all swing by the Peace Corps office so that I could pick up as many anti-biotics, parasitics, and what-not as I could get my grubby little paws on. Naturally, this took infintely longer than anyone intended. It was early evening by the time the five of us were all uncomfortably wedged into the Toyota Corolla and weaving through commuter traffic outside South Africa's largest cities.
Now at this point in the narrative it is important to share a few small details. One, we did not have a map. Good highway maps are difficult, if not impossible, to find here. Two, we had a GPS... that its owner had never used, but still it was something.
Our destination for the evening was Clarens, a town high in the mountains bordering Lesotho. Judging by the above paragraph, one can imagine the difficulty we had in getting there and also the late hour at which we arrived. Now, being volunteers who work for next to nothing, you can also imagine the sort of accomodation we sprung for. Put this all together: backpackers+winter+mountains+night= a very long night spent in the freezing cold. Clarens, I will fondly remember as the coldest place on Earth. On the bright side, there was plenty of hot water and if there's anything a PCV truly enjoys, it's a hot shower.
The next we spent exploring Clarens. It's beautiful, has great food, fun shops and looks like it would be perfectly lovely at any other time of year. Supposedly it also has the best trout fishing in SA. Anyway, we endured another night in freezing cold, helped along by a nice evening fire in which we made s'mores and around which we practiced our vacation anthem "Don't Stop Believing". The next morning, coffees and hot chocolates in hand, we left, never to return.
After a quick pit stop for a map, not particularly helpful but comforting nonetheless, we started a mind-numbingly lengthy drive south to Nieu Betheseda. Nieu Betheseda does not exist, according to Justin's GPS, but New Betheseda certainly does and they even happen to be in the same place, a fact which we did not figure out until much later. No matter, we flew across the Karoo, climbed into snowy (yes, snowy) mountains and descended back to the plains just as darkness was falling. The entire region looked pretty desolate. No wonder the actual Valley of Desolation was nearby. We knew our destination was nearby, but we were all getting a little worried. There were absolutely no signs of civilization. Finally, there was a sign, a sign that told us to turn down an old, dirt road and keep on until the end. If we were worried before, we were really worried now. It was completely dark. We began to hypothesize what might be at the end of the road. A tin shack? An ax murderer? The end of the world as we know it?
The road went on and on, up and down, curving left and right. If we broke down, or careened off a cliff, no one would ever find us. Ever. Just as we were starting to up hope, there it was. A light, no, two, four, a dozen, glittering beneath us. We rolled into town ecstatic. Searching for the backpackers we found a pub, a shop, a restaurant! The kind lady at the restaurant directed us to the backpackers and gave us a map with which she pointed out important features of the town. A microbrewery! A sculpture studio! It was a lot to take in, in our hungry, exhausted and cramped states. We dropped our bags off at the backpackers (no heat, no hot water, but so cute, so inviting) and made bee-line straight for the pub. Over burgers and local ale (the fact that even I drank it is a testament to how good it was), we congratulated ourselves on a job well-done. We had found a place to rest our heads for the night, and what a place it was.
Over breakfast scones and real coffee the next morning, we discovered much to our chagrin that we had no time to spare in New Betheseda. We had a game to catch that afternoon in Port Elizabth, Germany versus Serbia. So once again, we hopped in our car and sped off. The scenery that we had missed the night before was so breath-taking that we had to stop several times just to take it in (and to enjoy an odd snowball fight).
This post has gone on long enough for now. I'm going to give my thumbs a wee break for now. Check back in later for: PE, game drives, and more!