Thursday, November 13, 2008

Into Africa (Nov. 11 & 12, 2008 - London, England to Cape Town, South Africa)

Finally, a sunny day in London! The weather picked a good day to cooperate since we hoped to visit the last of the nearby sights this morning. We packed our bags before breakfast and headed out to meet a bright but blustery day. I guess for it to be clear here, it has to be windy. No mountains to slow down the gusts off the ocean... It wasn't until our bus ride back last night that we realized how close we were staying to Buckingham Palace - about a 5 minute walk. A few keeners had already gathered for the Changing of the Guards in an hour, but we weren't that desperate to get a good seat. The palace was just as I had remembered it - big and majestic. The Queen was home today somewhere within its walls according to the flag on top. The sunshine made for some nice photos of the palace, the statue of Queen Victoria out front, and the golden gates surrounding the palace. We walked against the steady flow of traffic heading to the show along the path bordering the lake in St. James Park. which was busy with all sorts of birds (ducks, geese, white and black swans, gulls, pigeons, and even a few pelicans) and extra pretty with all the fall colours in the trees. We spotted no less than a dozen separate people excited by seeing a squirrel.

At the far end of St. James Park is the Horse Guards, where the dudes with the gold mops on their heads sit around with stern faces on unnaturally clean black horses. Two rows of seven were lined up ready for the parade, so we spent a few minutes drooling over their immaculately groomed coats, perfectly polished hooves, and ridiculously clean white girth sheaths. I've never seen such clean horses, and they've probably never rolled in the dirt their whole life! Yet as perfect as they looked, they still shook their heads and stuck out their tounges like normal horses do. Too cute.

The marching band was just approaching Buckingham Palace when we got back, but pretty much all we could see was a sea of synchronized black fur hats. The Changing of the Guard occurs every other day and is based on the idea of switching out the guards who man the stations surrounding the palace.

With a couple hours left to spare, we walked down to Parliament Square to see Big Ben in nicer conditions than from the back of the bus in the rain yesterday. Bocce got in on the action too, climbing a pole to get a better view.

Westminster Abbey was surrounded by a large selection of flowers, wreaths, and thousands of tiny wooden crosses personalized by friends and relatives with the names of people who have died for their country in wars past. As today is Rembrance Day (and it was almost exactly 11am when we were there), the area was busy with people walking around solemnly. Some held their hands over their heart, some wiped away tears, and some simply knelt in front of the fields of crosses in silence. It was an odd but moving scene.

With a schedule for the day, though, we walked back to our pub for a sandwich before leaving for the airport. Just when we thought we had the tube system all figured out, we took two wrong turns and got on one wrong train before eventually getting on one bound for Heathrow. Thankfully, it wasn't busy, so it was stress free and fast. We ended up arriving at the airport before we could even check in.

Terminal 5, dedicated wholly to British Airways, just opened in the last year or so and is designed quite well. The entire arched span is open such that you can see the ceiling area over the gates and security from the moment you walk in the door. All the massive beams and cables are exposed and everything sparkles in stark white. We spent the last of our pounds on snacks and magazines, killing some time in an appropriately African themed restaurant called Giraffe, where we shared a blueberry smoothy and a decadent pile of ice cream, chocolate, and roasted bananas over a belgian waffle. Whoever invented that seriously deserves a Nobel Prize!

The 747 to Cape Town was pretty much packed, and we ended up with the two crappy seats in the middle of the centre block of four seats. It made for an uncomfortable eleven hour flight, as the guy beside me was about seven feet tall and pretty much needed the shared arm rest and much of the legroom. The great thing about British Airways is that each seat gets an entertainment system with tons of movies and tv shows, so that kept us entertained until dinner was done and the desperation for sleep set in. Between London and Cape Town, I managed to watch The Love Guru, Get Smart, and an episode each of 30 Rock, Friends, Two and a Half Men, a travel guide to Australia, and some random show about three British girls trying to become tree fallers at a logging camp in BC. Somewhere in there we also managed a few hours of sleep. It was a long flight.

For some reason, I expected Cape Town to be warm-ish (20 degrees or so?) but apparently some unseasonably cold weather and high winds had moved in and it was about 14 degrees and pouring rain. Better than London, but barely.

The cab ride was about half an hour into Cape Town, and once I could make out the rough edges of the cloud-shrouded Table Mountain, I had my bearings. Construction projects seemed to be frequent on both sides of the highway, clustered in patches producing new five or six-storey concrete apartment complexes that looked simple but sturdy. Our driver explained that the government and other agencies have successfully started relocating people from the pitiful tin-walled shantytowns to real housing. The amazing part is that the system is working. Build an apartment, move the people in, demolish their shantytown, and build another apartment in its place. People are getting a better shot at life. I hope that while we're here, we can learn more about this.

The lower slopes of Table Mountain, we're told, are protected by a wildlife reserve that includes many species of grazing animals, including zebras and wildebeest. My eyes started to scan the hillside at the sound of my favourite "Z" word. (I love zebras, always have, and can't wait to see them in the wild!)

Our cabbie talked about all kinds of stuff... the population of Cape Town is about 4 million, 500,000 of which are foreigners... the 2010 World Cup soccer games are coming to the city... and the names of various landmarks that became visible as we drove into down.

Our hostel is called Zebra Crossing (unintentional, I swear!), and it seemed to be located right at the base of Lions Head (a landmark hill in Cape Town) and within walking distance of town. After dumping our bags, we decided to walk down to the waterfront to check out the town and get something to eat. It took about half an hour to reach the ocean end of town and a large and newly developed waterfront area comprising of lots of stores, restaurants, marinas, tour kiosks, and an aquarium. Unfortunately, the wind and crazy wind gusts (we guessed up to about 80 km/hr) coming from all directions was keeping people away. We dragged out our lunch as long as we could before making a bee line for the visitors' info centre. We had a vague idea of what we wanted to see and do over the next couple days, so we spent some time mulling over various brochures before deciding to go it alone and rent a car. Our plan is to drive out to the wine region of Stellenbosch tomorrow and then drive down to the Cape of Good Hope the following day. That will leave a day to hike up Table Mountain and whatever else the following day before meeting up with our GAP group on Sunday evening.

So we wandered back to the hostel via the local supermarket to get some fruit and yogurt for breakfast tomorrow, showered, and called it a night.

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