For a detailed trip itinerary, click here or for more info on the company that runs it (African Trails) visit:

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Saturday, 9 October 2010

South Africa - Part 3 - Ashanti Guesthouse, British Embassy in Pretoria, passport issues, flying Business Class & a guy who looked like my dad.

(cont. From South Africa Part 2)...

The following day (Tuesday 17th August) was our planned last day in Cape Town so we used it to do last-minute shopping for bits and pieces we’d need going up the east coast (i.e. thermals and warm stuff for the anticipated cold nights in Syria, Turkey and Jordan). It was also a day for Lara and I to start panicking: still no sign of our new passports.

We’d been calling the British Embassy everyday for the last week (at a cost of about 5quid a pop – thanks home!) to essentially pester until we got our way (we were advised to do this by the British Consulate in Cape Town). 

Still nothing. 


This meant that the truck was leaving without us. For the record, the British Embassy in Pretoria are the worst Embassy in the world. FACT. They didn't respond to emails. They didn’t take direct enquiries – you got transferred to a call centre in the UK (hence the extortionate call costs). The call centre themselves (apparently) don’t have direct telephone contact with Pretoria, they can just check the status of our passports on a central system and let us know whether they’re waiting, processing, being quality checked, approved or completed. A pretty convoluted system that left us in limbo for the next 10 days.


On our (supposed) last night, Karen and Squirt (of ‘The Fam’ fame, Neal had flown back to The States for a meeting) joined Sonya, Lara and I for some good pizzas (Da Vinci’s at the top of Kloof Street – a must) and after a dessert of peanut butter milkshakes we said what should have been our final goodbyes to the mother and daughter combo. We sauntered back to Ashanti with the rest of the guys (Berbs was staying at Kyle’s, Sonya was in our dorm, and Yoichi was on the truck parked outside the hostel to save money!) on their last night and they got up early to leave with Ruby and the new passengers the next morning (Son was so considerate that she didn’t want to wake us so got ready by torchlight, leaving her iPod behind in the process...).

Now Lara and I were in CT on our own – I could think of worse places to be, but given how pissed off and stressed we were, it’s a town we could have done with leaving behind. Fortunately, Karen had offered up their place (remember how I’d said that these guys were staying in CT for a couple of months as Neal was on placement in CT Uni) whilst we awaited our passports. Initially we couldn’t get hold of them so we booked yet another night in Ashanti and mere minutes after settling into our dorm room that afternoon, we had a call from reception...Karen was coming to get us – wahoo!

Half an hour later we were with Karen and Squirt on the way out to their rented house in the suburbs (Constantia). We stayed there from 18th August through to 25th August – with Neal flying back from The States and rejoining us half-way through the stay. Maybe there’s something in the water in CT, or maybe we’ve just been lucky with the people we’ve met along the way, but like our night with Michelle and Matt (Kyle’s mum and her partner) the hospitality we received was top class. In spite of everything that was going on for us, Squirt and Karen made our stay an extremely relaxed one with reading in the sun by the pool and Yahtzee competitions the order of the day. Karen even ran us back up to Stellenbosch for a quick fix of what we had missed on the way down (we cheekily managed free wine and cheese samples at the Fairview vineyard as we arrived there just as the place was closing). 

Neal’s return only added to this experience as he cooked us the burritos he’d cooked once on the trip (in Matadi, DRC) which happened to be my favourite dish of the whole Trans. He’s a damn good cook – maybe one day we’ll go out and visit them in The States so we can try some of his famed Creole dish. Another night we had some real home comforts: staying in with fish (Snoek – a boney but tastey SA classic) and chips with a couple of films. I would say ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was disappointing, but I didn’t expect much from it anyway. We watched some other Brit film with Rupert Grint in it (podgey, ginge from Harry Potter) which was quite good. We’d originally wanted to watch 90’s classic ‘Waiting to Exhale’ but when we asked for it at the vidshop they told us not to hold our breath...

Still calling the Brit Embassy everyday, Lara was finally told that her passport was complete on Friday 20th Aug. YES! We can get moving...but... when I prompted her to ask about mine, she was told that it was still being of the first stages! It was Friday and we knew that meant nothing would be done over the weekend and we’d have to stay at least 3 or 4 more days in CT. Come Monday morning, I phoned again and this time the passport had moved on to the next stage and was due for completion the following day. That meant that we’d be able to pick them up at the post office on Wednesday – finally!

Wednesday finally came, but not before we had a chance to see Squirt don her ice skates and show us her skills at the rink down by Century City (massive complex with casino, plush hotel and super-sized shopping mall nearby...very Vegas!). Squirt was awesome on the ice: we enjoyed seeing her as what she’d describe as ‘normal Squirt’ (i.e. not in North Face fleece and hiking boots!) and I think she enjoyed performing for us too! Eventually, The Fam dropped us off and said goodbyes outside the post office on Kloof Street and we legged it in knowing that we’d have to pick them up and go straight to the airport and catch the first flight (at whatever cost) to Harare (Zim) where the truck now was (disappointingly, the passport fiasco meant we missed out on the Okavango Delta and in fact, Botswana in its entirety).

Squirt ice-skating...

She was awesome.
Saying 'Goodbye' to the fam: Neal, Squirt & Karen by the pool at their rented place in Constantia. Thanks guys!

I tore open the courier package and, a little concerned about how light the envelopes inside were, opened them cautiously. First passport I pulled out was my old one (complete with bald-headed mugshot) and the next one was my new one (looking like a ginger Wolverine). The third”hold on, this doesn’t look like Lara?!?!” Yep – you guessed it, we’d been given a wrong passport instead of Lara’s...a few phonecalls later we found out that hers (old and new) were still on the desk at reception in the Embassy in Pretoria. The Embassy blamed the courier, the courier blamed the Embassy. As they say in online poker circles after a bad beat...F.F.S.! (I’ll let you figure that one out.)

The staff at Post.Net (post office we were using) were extremely helpful but we couldn’t help but feel let down given that they knew  how desperate we were. We didn’t know who to blame so with the promise that passports would be with us by express courier early the next morning, we strolled once again back to the nearby Ashanti...we were familiar faces there by now and they were happy to give us a dorm room all to ourselves at dorm prices. One cool thing abouot staying yet another night in CT was that we were there at the same time as Gabi (Lara’s wee sis) and she came to catch up with us for a drink at Arnold’s on Kloof Street. Being young and part of the jetset (!), we didn’t see her for long but she came back to see us later that night in Ashanti and brought some supplies for Lara (wine and clothes) and even gave me a cool hooded top. Thanks Gabs.

As I know Ashanti is a hotspot for overlanders and backpackers, I should give you some insight: the staff there are legendary – extremely helpful. The main building is a big, maybe ex-colonial (?) place with large clean dorms and facilities. The two highlights for me were the front-facing balcony on the first floor where you could chill out, people watch and shoot the breeze with other travellers. It was there that I was relaxing a week previously when Gab (new passenger on Ruby) pointed out an interesting wee plant growing in the soil of one of the pot plants next to the bench. It looks like somebody had been smoking magic cigarettes up there and dropped an unwanted seed over the side of the bench which had then gone on to grow inconspicuously. The other highlight was the backdrop on the opposite side of the building: you could get a perfect view of Table Mountain whilst doing your business on the throne on the first floor; there were even binoculaurs chained to the wall next to the loo roll!

The front-facing view from the first-floor balcony at Ashanti.

An inconspicuous looking pot plant on the balcony at Ashanti...

...but on closer inspection... looks like Mary-Jane is trying to gate-crash the party!

The 'throne' at the back of the first floor in Ashanti...

...binoculaurs were and added bonus... help you make the most of the spectacular view of Table Mountain as you went about your daily business.

The one downside to Ashanti is that if you are wanting some rest, the place can get pretty noisy, particularly on the first floor where one of the dorms is right next to the bar and people seemed to come and go noisily along the big, wooden-floored corridors all night.

Corridor on the first floor at Ashanti. Dorm rooms were on either side.
It was now Wednesday 25th August and our final night at Ashanti went by quietly, but in the knowledge that if we didn’t get our passports and out of CT the next day, the truck would move on from Harare (to Vic Falls) and we’d still have to fly into Harare, get our Ethiopian Visas there and catch another flight to meet the truck at the next available opportunity.

Morning came, and Lara and I got up early and walked (with all of our stuff and a view to getting a taxi straight to the airport) to Post.Net to get Lara’s passport and get T.F. outta there! The previous night, we took the risk of booking our CT – Harare (via Joburg) flight in case the day came and we couldn’t get on.

9.30am - Nothing.

10am – Nothing.

11.30am – Nothing.

Desperate times, our flight was leaving at 2pm.

1pm – nothing, so we postponed the CT-Joburg leg of the flight to the next one (which would still get us to Joburg in time for the connecting flight to Harare). 

2pm  - still nothing and all the Post.Net staff are pulling their hair out trying to figure out what’s going on. 

Shouting and arguing over the phone ensues and it eventually transpires that somebody had cocked up and Lara’s passport was STILL in Pretoria. Gutted. We explained our travel plans to the staff there and they suggested we take the risk of flying to Joburg (not too far from Pretoria) without Lara’s passports and that a Post.Net rep would meet us in the arrivals hall with them. We didn’t like the sound of this, but were running out of options so did it anyway.

At CT airport we were told that the postponed flight we’d booked ourselves on would have to be paid change fee, no free change...but paid for. Again. In full....AND the only seats available were Business Class. I guess that was about the only silver lining in all of this: we’d never been on Business Class before and now had no option but to pay for it. 

After fully-reclining my chair/bed as often as I could and making use of the masses of leg space our 2 hours of Business Class was finally over. What can I say? It was nice to know all you fat guys in suits and "new-rich" in garish jewellery whilst it lasted!!!

Business Class Baby! We needed proof of this.

It was bittersweet - yes, we were in Business Class, but we had to pay through the nose for the seats as they were the only ones we could get.

I fully-reclinined my Business Class chair/bed as often as I could in the 2hrs we had on-board.

Leg-room?!? What the hell is this all about? (Spot the PLATINUM bottle of Castle.)

We got our luggage (one small backpack, the rest was still on the truck) off the carousel – it was wrapped up in plastic as Saffer airport thieves have got the better of Lara and I too many times before. Anxiously we made our way out to the arrivals hall where we scoured the place for some guy or somebody in a PostNet uniform. 


An hour went by and still nada so we made a call to the woman at Post.Net back in CT. It was after hours but she was kind enough to give us her mob number and encouraged us to phone her  at whatever time just so she knew we had everything sorted. We couldn’t get through the first time. Or the second. Then Lara left a voicemail as I went on a hunt for anybody looking remotely like a courier. Still nothing and we had about 40mins to go before our flight departed...then...our mobile (kindly lent to us by Sonya) rang. It was the woman from Post.Net...

“Are you guys sorted?” (She evidently hadn’t heard our voicemail.) 

“ we’re not and getting pretty desperate now and have been trying to get hold of you!” 

“Oh! Well Phil’s been waiting for you guys for a while already. He’s a white guy with two kids with him. Let me know where you are and I’ll tell him to come find you.”

We had no idea who ‘Phil’ was but we told the woman to tell Phil to find us by check-in 39. Laraldo waited there like a lost child as I guarded our luggage. Within less than 5 mins I saw what had to be Big Phil strolling along with two wee kids, one of which was holding a brown envelope. I raced over with our trolley to where they met Lara at the check-in desk just in time to see her open the envelope, check the contents, smile a massive, uncontrollable smile and give Big Phil (who we can only assume was a relative of our lady-friend in CT acting as Good Samaritan) a bear hug. As Phil and the kids turned out of view, Lara burst into tears. It had been an emotional and stressful near miss.

As we boarded the plane to Harare, Lara had a bottle of wine confiscated at customs (we forgot about it being in our hand luggage during the debacle) so although we didn’t have our celebratory plonk with us (given to us by Lara’s sister Gabi) we couldn’t help but smile as we settled into our Economy Class seats.

Oh yeah, here’s an anecdote for my old man’s “benefit” (read, expense): in the check-in queue a guy a couple of places in front of us had an awesome face; 5 o’clock shadow that put Captain Scarlet to shame; scars mapped out zig-zagged routes across his dial; and his nose, which he wore on the side of his face, would have provided a perfect slalom course  for the sweat beads on his brow. I remember thinking the guy must have been a veteran rugby player, boxer, or UFC fighter. 30 minutes later I was doing up my safety belt on the plane when Lara said “Jesus! That guy over there looks just like your dad.” I looked up and, face-on, I had to do a double-check to make sure it wasn’t my dad. Unbeknownst to Lara, it was however, the same guy I’d seen earlier in the queue. Us Kennedys aren’t half handsome devils! (A quick Google search will tell you that ‘Kennedy’ – the family name – is in fact Gaelic for “ugly/deformed head”!)

I spent the relatively short flight thinking about the previous two weeks and of how, despite the shitty circumstances, we’d had an amazing time in Cape Town. We’d been looked after by relative strangers and eaten like royalty in their company. Lara and I liked the place so much, we’ve talked about how feasible it would be to live there...who this space. My biggest regret was not visiting Robben Island (I'd read Mandela's autobiography 'A long Walk To Freedom' a few years ago) but hopefully I'll be visiting Cape Town again soon.

Before I close this epic chapter (I know I waffle on) I should pass on one piece of vital information: 25 clean pages in your passport is nowhere near enough to get you all the way around Africa on an overland trans; we used almost 25 just coming down the west coast. I suggest 40 should do it. I wouldn’t want any future travellers going through the stress we’ve been through – we missed Stellenbosch, the Okavanga Delta (and Botswana altogether) and we’ve  spent money on:  flights, couriers, new passports, international phone calls, taxis, accommodation. All of which could have been spent on other highlights further on in the trip (as it happens we might have to miss out now).

As all of this went through my mind, I rested my eyes safe in the knowledge that good times were ahead of us in the politically stable country of Zimbabwe. I look forward to your company Mr Mugabe. I’ve heard a lot of good things about you...oh, news just in...looks like we’ll need to put the champagne on ice.

Take it away Laraldo...

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