20 unexpected things about South Africa

I was very fortunate to visit this staggeringly beautiful country and it’s been the most incredible, thrilling, awe-inspiring experience of my life. I feel so blessed to have seen magical places and animals, and meet such inspirational people along the way. It really has been a dream come true, but here are some of the MOST unexpected things I came across during my travels:

#1 Everyone has a braai

Virtually every Friday people have a braai- typically the same as a barbecue with PLENTY of unusual meats. On the menu is a wide variety, including kudu, ostrich, crocodile and the famous Biltong. Accompanied by much drinking, smoking, dancing, star gazing and laughs. And I thought people in Spain liked a fiesta…

#2 Everyone can speak at least 11 languages

You literally walk off the stuffy 10 hour flight from London Heathrow to Joho and hear a myriad of clicking sounds, trills, calls, hi’s, shouts of seemingly unconnected languages. People here are remarkably talented when it comes to speaking different languages, and makes me feel incredibly derisible to only speak a mere two. There are eleven official languages of South Africa: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. Pheww! Dutch and English were the first official languages of South Africa from 1910 to 1925. Afrikaans was added as a part of Dutch in 1925, although in practice, Afrikaans effectively replaced Dutch, which was then no longer spoken. Thanks Wikipedia.

 

#3 How salty the sea is

This is an odd one- but having swallowed a bucket load during cage diving, sea kayaking, whale watching and surfing… the water is unusually salty compared to the Uk’s Atlantic. This is because the Agulhas Current which passes along the coast is, like the Gulf Stream, one of the strongest currents in the world ocean. It carries warm and salty water from the tropical Indian Ocean along South Africa’s east coast. South-west of Cape Town it makes an abrupt turn back into the Indian Ocean. In this process huge rings of water with diameters of hundreds of kilometre are cut off at intervals of 3 to 4 months. These so-called “Agulhas Rings” carry extra heat and salt into the South Atlantic, making this a key region for the whole Atlantic Ocean. Just take a look at the Etosha salt pans in Namibia, covering an area of approximately 1,900 square miles (4,800 square km). So get your surfers salt sea spray hair-do in South Africa!

Yeah baby, you can work it like this too!

Etosha Salt pans, Namibia

#4 Monkeys will raid your kitchen

Okay so we all know animals like to pinch your food. In the UK its usually seagulls at the coast and foxes raiding your bins at night. But when you see a 50kg Baboon legging it out of your kitchen bearing its HUGE canine teeth…then its rather grotesque bottom to you, you KNOW you’re in Africa. Vervet monkeys, although a lot smaller will also try their hand at pick pocketing. Having said that, within Europe it is possible to see a precocious primate pinch your picnic…Gibraltar in Spain is home to Europe’s only ape (other than ourselves), the Barbary ape. They’re notoriously known for stealing tourists’ food, so even at home you’re not safe!

#5 People smoke like there’s no tomorrow

I thought Spain was bad…but in South Africa, the cheap price of cigarettes (roughly £1.50, or €2 for the best quality makes) means people smoke as if they need it to breathe! The air is consistently filled with smoke, it’s seemingly unreal. SO if you’re a non-smoker like me, a strong Oust spray or perfume is required when you travel, otherwise you end up smelling like a chimney! In addition, the amount of cooking fires people have just about anywhere means you literally walk around smelling like a smoked salmon…yummy if you’re a brown bear. Thank goodness you’re in South Africa then.

#6 How bright the stars are…the wrong way round

When you look up at African skies- you’re instantly taken aback by the shear clarity and detail of our most beautiful galaxy. Billions of stars scattered across the vast expanse of the universe, like eternal diamonds, glinting and constant…but wait a minute, isn’t the Big Dipper supposed to be over there? So this this is to do with the rotation of the Sky. Because the earth is rotating the sky appears to rotate. Viewed from above the north pole, the earth is rotating counter-clockwise. For an observer on the earth, objects move from east to west (this is true for both northern and southern hemispheres). More accurately put, when looking north, objects in the sky move counter-clockwise. Though all objects rotate in the sky, the observed path stars make in the sky depend on the observer’s latitude. Some are always in the observer’s sky, some of the time, and others are never observable. SO don’t get your stars in a twist! Astrophotography is especially remarkable here, so remember to bring a tripod, I was lucky enough to witness a Blue moon too, as well as the crossing of Jupiter and Venus!

#7 Number of cows and quantity of meat you eat

Agriculture is HUGE in South Africa. In terms of cattle, in the UK there’s now 1.84 million dairy cows in the UK dairy herd, whilst approximately 80 % of agricultural land in South Africa is mainly suitable for extensive livestock farming… that’s a LOT OF COWS. South Africa produces 85% of its meat requirements, with 15% imported from Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland, Australia, New Zealand and the EU. Local demand generally outstrips production, even though there are untapped reserves in the communal farming areas. SO THAT’S WHY they have a lot of Braai’s. Of course it doesn’t stop at cows, you can also chomp on Zebra, Springbok, Kudu, Crocodile and the famous Ostrich. If you head over to Oudtshoorn, not only can you ride ostrich and have a selfie..but have a leather bag and burger to go with that. Not my cup of tea but hey!

#8 How cheap things are

Clutching shopping bags, glugging wine, and lounging on pristine beaches: South Africa’s weak rand is drawing few complaints from foreign tourists getting more bang for their buck. According to a recent Post Office study, a Briton buying £500 in local currency can get 22.3% more for their money, or an additional £91.03, compared with one year ago. The current exchange rates from £ to rand are: £1=20.7 South African rand. I mean that’s remarkably weak…having said that, in the past if was far weaker, only now are South Africans able to benefit from tourism. You can get your regular shop for less than a fiver, go out on a safari for £13, get a taxi for £5, fine-dining for £5, accommodation for £10 or less. Hence why there is such a draw to places such as Cape Town and Plett, the strength of the pound in particular means it’s hugely attractive for students too, looking to enjoy their student finance money!

#9 How little locals actually travel

A sad fact that reflects the state of poverty amongst many white and black South Africans. The strength of others currency against the rand and low wages means locals rarely have the spare cash to experience the delights of SA themselves. The median hourly wage in Pounds in the UK (net) is £5.90 versus £1.05 in South Africa. This is something that should definitely be addressed in terms of local discounts, but it’s encouraging to see that in National Parks residents pay half the price. SO we can consider ourselves very lucky!

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#10 The squeaky sound of the sand

The stunning sands of Plettenberg bay, Mossel bay and Knysna actually squeak! When Marco Polo heard them in the Gobi Desert, he believed they were spirit voices. Ancient Chinese literature describes ritual celebrations of their divine power. After generations of mystical interpretations, researchers are finally closing in on a scientific explanation for the acoustics of sand. They now agree that the phenomenon of noisemaking sand is made possible by the action of displacement, which produces musical instrument-like vibrations in sand grains. The exact recipe for noisy sands is still only wholly known in Mother Nature’s kitchen, so next time you walk on a squeaky beach, know that there’s even an equation that science provides to explain why (there’s even a book on squeaky sand…I’m not kidding!

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#10 The light

Probably one of the most magical things about Africa in general is the ephemeral light during dawn and sunset. When I recently visited, the sun rose 7am, painting the myriad of trees and mountains in golden, pink, burnt umber and orange shades. It brings about such a powerful feeling of belonging and inspiration– along with the equally magical chorus of bird song. At night, when sadly we have to see the sun slip away into the darkness, the hues and intense saturation truly makes you feel alive… casting sharp, vivid colours and creating immense silhouettes; a painters and photographers dream. But then as soon as the sun began to set, it seemingly disappears, as if someone has switched a light switch off, to then reveal a vast sky with scattered diamond-like stars winking at you from the distance. Small Cape river frogs will sing you to sleep with their sweet chirpings, as well as the amorous male crickets… (Anyone for “can you feel the love tonight?”) If you’re lucky you can see Venus and Jupiter in the distance, as well as the Milky way, Southern Cross, Dipper, but of course all in reverse in the Southern hemisphere!

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#11 The variety of birds

South Africa is world renowned for being a birdwatchers paradise, from the stunning iridescent plumage of the Orange-breasted Sunbird, to the cryptically coloured knysna warbler- it is most certainly a top-class spot for any avid twitcher. Of the 850 or so species that have been recorded in South Africa, about 725, (85%) are resident or annual visitors, and about 50 of these are endemic or near- endemic to South Africa, and can only be seen in the country. You can literally be walking in your back garden and spot a beautiful Golden Oriole, or hear the rather raucous calls of the Egyptian Geese. But if you’re not feeling adventurous and want to find the birds for yourself, head over to Birds Of Eden in the Crags- the world’s largest free-flight bird aviary- it truly is a class above the ones in Europe. Having volunteered there myself, the sustainability of the project is exceptional and the species you see are truly stunning.

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#10 Lack  of desserts 

I’m no foodie, but even I will indulge in a fruit salad or yogurt after dinner to cleanse the pallet. It seems here your daily food routine is: Breakfast: Granola, rusks or toast, Lunch: jam sandwich, Dinner: Meat and MORE MEAT…veg if you’re lucky! Also people eat REALLY LATE here: between 8-9pm. In Spain I must say it’s quite similar but I think an earlier 7pm dinner suits many of us better so we don’t all feel like an obese lion and have to literally roll to bed with all that meat in your belly. And during winter when the sun goes down by 5pm, you often feel like a torpid bat by 8pm. Slurp it all down with some Rooibos tea if you can, it’s excellent for digesting food!

#13 How empty houses are

Okay, so no, I didn’t break in like my monkey friends so often do to pinch a bag of apples. But the ghost-time quality of the more luxurious houses and overgrown weeds hinted the lack of human inhabitation. Also locals have told us how many Europeans and westerners will buy such homes as holiday get-always and visit during the summer to escape the increasingly wetter winters at home. So Plett is indeed a playground for the rich!

#14 Berg winds

A week after arriving I experienced an intense hot-blow drier wind which was truly glorious, despite it being winter. It’s one of Plettenberg Bay’s unusual weather phenomenon’s, where squally anticyclonic wind blowing off the interior plateau at 90 degrees to the coast will produce a hot dry outflow of air across the coast. It’s a welcoming change from the sharp cold air that dominates during the mornings and evenings, where the berg winds are especially frequent off the west coast and can raise temperatures to 25-35 °C. Humidity can also drop from 100% to 30% or less- a perfect night to go out and enjoy the stars with the clear dry air, or if you fancy a dance, heading into town with no need for straighteners to control that frizz girls… Berg-brilliant!

#15 The frequency with which you have to tip

I have NO problem at all with tipping- it feels good and people deserve it if they are giving you a service. However, so many people are willing to do things for you, as a student you soon run out of money! Literally everywhere: petrol stations, restaurants, EVERYWHERE YOU PARK YOUR CAR, attractions, even toilets! SO carry some spare change with you where you go!

#16 Surfing when sharks are about

Surfers are crazy- I will say this outright. But then again so are most extreme sports people; cavers who risk their lights busting mid ascent, climbers who play with the forces of gravity, and surfers who like to skim on shark infested waters..! But I really admire them; the way they glide over the water, moving their body in rhythm to the waves, tilted their body…waiting for the right moment to execute a move. And also the fact that they’re not in the slightest way deterred if a shark has been spotted. I recently photographed a surfer in Plettenberg Bay who insisted that a small shark close to the shore would pose no threat if he surfed correctly… Needless to say I gave up the offer of a lesson in return for taking photos! Maybe in Australia…

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#17 How many surfers actually inhabit Jeffery’s Bay

Okay so yes it’s the Surfing capital. But still, it feels like a student town but with surfers. It’s an amazing place to be, with such a cool al-fresco feel about it. We visited when it was raining, but they all seem to be very proud of this most ancient of sports, with a buzz in the air even after the International surfing competitions. We just arrived after the infamous Mick Fanning shark attack which was on everyone’s lips. No surfing today then!

#18 The number of activities you can do

It’s incredible the shear range of activities you can get up to here. In the 6 weeks I visited, I literally only had a single day where I didn’t do much, just because of the shear range of places to visit and get up all sorts of adventurous fun! Plettenberg Bay’s position in the Western Cape means it is perfectly situated to enable tourists to lounge and walk along their stunning white beaches, dine like a king (or queen) in many of its finest restaurants for less than £5, launch yourself of the world’s largest bungee, go on horseback ride safari’s, swim with seals, paraglide, skydive, rock climb, surf, see monkeys, big cats, falconry, craft markets, whale watching……The list is endless! The hikes are especially rewarding and offer the most spectacular scenery. Keep checking here for updates on how to do it on a student budget!

#19 How cold their winters actually are

JUST because its Africa doesn’t mean it doesn’t get cold! I initially thought this; perhaps it just me being foolish or hopeful, but I really did expect it to be warmer! My poncho was a lifesaver which I fashioned into a hiking rain jacket, beach towel, pillow and fashion throw… Do take one on your trip as well as waterproof hiking boots, socks, umbrella, rain jacket, warm jumpers and jackets to peel off. It will get warm all of a sudden when the sun comes out, but in the shade it can get to a chilly 10 or 2 at night!

#20 The Kindness of strangers

This isn’t unexpected I must point out, but its more of a beautiful fact… All my life I’ve been told how dangerous South Africa is; that everyone looking at you is simply there to steal, mug or kidnap you. And don’t get me wrong…I’ve had some pretty close shaves since being there which were unpleasant! As well as being stolen from. But the kindness of strangers is something that stands out the most for me: from locals helping 3 distressed girls on a busy motorway with a bust car (yep that happened to us!), to people offering their smiles, inspiration, laughter and reassurance… and now I can proudly say that many of them are now my friends!

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Western Washington University students and I at Addo National Park- my final leg of the journey!

GO TO SOUTH AFRICA- ITS AMAZING!

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