Guide to Plan and Book a Self-Drive Safari in Kruger Park, South Africa

Going on safari is an incredible experience that you will remember for the rest of your life. It’s tough to describe seeing lions and elephants in their natural habitat, but it is a completely different experience from seeing them in a zoo.

Since I couldn’t find anything unbiased when I went on safari at Kruger Park in South Africa in December 2008, I’m summarizing my many hours of research into a handy how-to guide that will simplify the planning of your self-drive safari in Kruger.

22 elephants!!

Kruger is best-known for the incredible Battle at Kruger video that features a smackdown between lions, buffalo, crocodiles and (as of writing) been viewed 41 MILLION times on Youtube:

1. Accommodations through SANParks

If you’re doing a self-drive safari you’ll be staying at the camps run by the South African Parks Committee, SANParks. They are nice, clean, cheap, and have lots of services. You *might* be able to stay at a game lodge and self-drive, but lodges cater to the high-end (or as a South African friend of mine put it, “scared people with too much money”), so they’ll probably drive you around in their trucks. I’m just going to write about self-driving, as that’s what I know (you can find lots of info on game lodges by Googling around, but not a ton on self-driving).

With a rest camp you generally rent a private cabin. In late 2008, prices were about R300/person ($30 USD). You can also rent a campsite if you have a trailer or tent. They also have larger family-sized cabins if you are traveling with a family. Many cabins include private kitchen facilities, utensils, AC, private bathrooms, patios, and BBQs. They have restaurants and shops that sell non-perishables, fruit, veggies, alcohol, etc. They have awesome guided night drives, sunrise / sunset drives, and bush walks, and I’d highly recommend trying out all of the above.

2. Figure out Your Route

You want to see game, right? Kruger is not a zoo so there are no guarantees of what you’ll see, but if you put in the time, you’ll likely see everything you want. As an example, during my first two days (about 11h driving myself and 5h of guided drives) I saw four lions, and more rhino, wild dogs, giraffes, elephants, hyenas, hippos, impala, etc than I could count. The only thing I didn’t see were leopards.

These maps will be helpful in figuring out your route:

* MAP: Kruger park map with distances
* MAP: Getting to Kruger park

You could search the Lonely Planet forums for suggestions on camps to visit to see certain types of game. In my experience there were all types of game everywhere, so it’s more critical to plan your route based on the amount of time you have available and the airports you’re flying into.

Grab a pencil and paper and plan your ideal route. Write down the airports and entrance gates nearest your desired camps, and write down nearby camps in case your first choices aren’t available.

This table of driving distances between camps and gates will also be helpful:

* TABLE: Kruger park driving distance between camps

Give yourself plenty of time to drive between camps. The park’s roads are mostly paved but animals wander on the road which slow things down (and you’ll probably want to watch them!) The speed limit is only 50km/h on paved roads, and the average recommended speed limit is 30km/h.

3. Find Accommodations

This is a royal pain in the ass and is where you will probably spend a lot of your time, especially if you visit during high season (Dec-Jan).

It’s a pain because accommodation availability will affect your route. Finding the right lodges at the right prices for the right dates according to your route can be a challenge, so you may have to get creative and use your backup camps from section 2.

* ACCOMMODATION: Here’s the online booking page
* ACCOMMODATION: Here’s a SUPER useful page showing lodge availability by date

I stayed at Satara, Skukuza, and Berg-En-Dal. All were nice and had lots of game you want to see nearby (including lions and elephants walking along the perimeter of Satara). I also visited Lower Sabie, which has an amazing restaurant overlooking the Sabie River where I saw hippos playing in the water 30 feet away as I ate.

4. Getting to Kruger

To get to Kruger, you can fly into either Hoedspruit (HDS) or Nelspruit (MQP), or drive (Johannesburg is the nearest major city).

Driving

I flew, but there’s a list of driving times and directions from Joburg here.

Flying

Depending on your route, you will want to fly into either Hoedspruit (HDS) or Nelspruit (MQP).

Nelspruit is also known as KMIA (Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport). It took me a long time to figure out that Nelspruit = KMIA. It’s confusing to find flights in and out of MQP/KMIA as the big search engines don’t recognize KMIA as an airport code, and very few websites refer to it by its airport code, MQP. So when you’re searching for flights into or out of Nelspruit, search for MQP.

This map will come in handy for figuring out how to get to your rest camp from HDS or MQP.

Gates close to Hoedspruit (HDS)
preview002

Gates close to Nelspruit (MQP / KMIA)
* Phabeni (47 km)
* Paul Kruger (77 km)
* Malelane (90 km)
* Crocodile Bridge (143 km)

Here is a full list of distances between airports and gates (be aware it’s a bit confusing, and incorporates driving directions from Joburg).

You’ll want to make sure you can get to your rest camp in Kruger while the gates are open:
KrugerParkGateTimes

Airlines that fly to Kruger as of Dec 08

Airline Flies to Hoedspruit / HDS Flies to Nelspruit / MQP / KMIA
SAX (their site is bunk so I used Travelstart to book) 12-em-check 12-em-cross
Airlink 12-em-cross 12-em-check
South Africa Airways 12-em-cross 12-em-check

Travelstart is a good place to search for flights across multiple airlines in South Africa. And, here’s a list of all the airlines in South Africa.

5. Rent a car if you’re self-driving

You’ll need a car if you’re self driving (duh). Self driving gives you more flexibility that going with a guide – you decide when and wear to go, you often have better sightlines as positioning a large vehicle to see an obscured animal can be tougher.

The downside is that you also have to do your homework and try to figure out where to see good game. You can use the maps that each camp has that shows yesterday’s and today’s game.

game map

You can rent a car at both MQP and HDS airports. Use Expedia, Orbitz, etc to book a rental car through the usual suspects – Avis, Hertz, Thrifty, etc.

Rent a car with air conditioning. Summer days can get above 40 Celsius (more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit).

Rent a small car, a big one isn’t necessary to navigate Kruger. A 4×4 also isn’t necessary as the roads are either paved or manageable gravel. I rented a Hyundai Altos and it was fine (crossing a few of the marginally flooded rivers with it was all part of the adventure :)
HyundaiAltos
Hyundai Altos

Regardless of the car you rent, you need to be smart about positioning your car when you see game. Be early or be high up, otherwise the game will be tough to see because there will probably be tons of cars around. A larger car obviously helps here, but I had no problems with the Altos during four days of game driving.

6. Tips

* Buy food at a Pick and Pay grocery store before entering the park to save money
* Buy a map at the gate you enter. R40 for us.
* Mobile phones work in all camps and some areas in the park
* You can buy water and lots of other provisions at the camps
* I’d suggest getting up early and being out the gates as soon as they open. You will see better game, especially during the summer. Animals rest during the hot and rainy summer days, making them harder to spot. The winters are dry and so you may have better odds spotting animals during the daytime, especially near watering holes.
* Book the sunset and evening drives through the camp (call to book them well in advance – they fill up!) You’ll be in the park when nobody else is – everybody has to be in camp by 630p unless on one of these drives. Your odds of seeing predators unobstructed is higher in the early mornings and evenings as that’s when lions and leopards hunt.
* The SANParks cabins did *not* have mosquito nets, so bring DEET or wear long-sleeve clothes when you’re sleeping.
* Take Malaria pills, because there are malaria-carrying mosquitos in Kruger! Malarone is pricy (about $5/pill in North America) but it doesn’t give you the terrible nightmares that some get with Lariam. But seriously, once you have it, it doesn’t go away – why subject yourself to the risk?
* Internet is available at some of the parks. I didn’t use it as the internet cafe was closed at one lodge and down at the other. I talked to a guy using a 3G modem on the Vodacom network who said speeds were pretty good.
* Have FUN! :)

That’s it, hope it helps. Let me know if anything isn’t clear or if you have questions and I will update this if I know the answers!

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Interview: How to Be a Digital Nomad

Recently I was interviewed about living as a digital nomad by Andrew Warner of Mixergy.com.

Andrew’s teaser is below, and the full interview is here. I think it came out pretty well.

If you want to know more about the tip and tricks I use while living this life, head on over to Mixergy and listen to the interview! And if there’s anything I didn’t answer, please fire away in the comments!


Kareem Mayan, The Nomad from Andrew Warner.

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Gear List for a Digital Nomad

This has been a daunting post I’ve wanted to write for almost a year. Maneesh asked for it yesterday, so I figured I’d do it up!

I had a bigger pack and a lot more gear from Dec 07 – May 08. Here’s a list of gear that I’ve been traveling with since May 08. It currently weighs about 33lbs, if I’m sticking to my three-book limit.

Bags

MEI Voyageur

MEI Voyageur
I did a ton of research about a bag, and came to the conclusion that if you’re not going with a psycho-small bag like the Life Nomadic guys, but still want to carry on your bag, the MEI Voyageur is the way to go.

I can’t say enough good things about this bag. It’s the maximum dimensions allowed for a carry-on, and can be worn as a backpack or regular bag (the backpack straps zip into the bag when not being used). It’s super durable. I’ve carried it by its handle while it was stuffed to the gills and I was never concerned that it would rip because of the weight. It has one big compartment which is a lot better to pack and find stuff than a bag with lots of little compartments.

I’ve never had concerns carrying this on, even when stuffed. Though I did pack poorly once and had to check it because it wouldn’t fit into the overhead compartment on a small ATR-82 propeller plane in India.

This is the review that sold me, and there are other good MEI Voyageur reviews here.

I lock it with a Lewis and Clark travel lock (not all locks will fit this bag as the holes on the zippers are pretty thin). I also have a retractable cable lock and Pelilock which have come in handy to, for example, lock my bag in a closet in a sketchy hostel.

Kiva Keychain Backpack

KivaKeychainBackpack
I use this for day trips to the beach, grocery store, etc. It’s can fit a couple of towels, books, and bottles of water when it’s a backpack, and packs up to a tiny keychain-sized pack when not in use.

Plus, look at the smile you’ll be sporting when wearing it! I challenge you to spend 10 bucks in a better way.

Kelty Daypack

This is the daypack from my old, overly-complex pack. I brought it along because my computer fits into it like a glove and it can be folded up and easily stashed in my Voyageur if necessary. It’s also great for carrying on stuff I want to be accessible during long flights (laptop, book, water, rhinestone-studded eye mask, etc) so I don’t have to dig through the Voyageur.

Clothes

Four Icebreaker T-Shirts

IcebreakerHopper190TShirt
Icebreaker shirts are a must-have for anybody living with a small wardrobe. They are pricey wool t-shirts, but they can be worn many times before smelling of something other than deodorant. I’ve done Crossfit workouts in them where the shirt has been soaked, and the next day it doesn’t smell like it’s even been worn (the lack of smell has been independently verified by multiple parties). Plus, because they’re wool, they are breathable and keep you cool in the summer and warmer than a cotton shirt in winter. And if they get wet, they’re much more comfortable than cotton.

I could probably ditch one shirt, maybe two. But I like having a little variety.

Can’t say enough about these shirts or the company. Two of them had random holes appear in them, and Icebreaker even offered to ship me two new ones to rural India! I’m an Icebreaker convert.

Long Sleeve Icebreaker U-Turn T-Shirt

Icebreaker's 190 weight UTurn Long Sleeve T-Shirt
In retrospect I probably would have gotten a different colour – this shirt looks like a pyjama top. But it’s a great layer to have.

Icebreaker Nomad Hoodie

Icebreaker's Nomad - a 320 weight wool hoodie
I really like hoodies, and wanted to bring something warm with me. A week before leaving, I was telling my friend Becky that I didn’t think a cotton hoodie was a good idea. Bring awesome, she suggested (of course) an Icebreaker hoodie.

So I picked up this 320 weight wool hoodie, fittingly named the Nomad. It has the added bonus of making me look like a speedskater when wearing the hood up. It’s super warm, packs way better than a cotton hoodie, and has all the associated Icebreakery goodness I wrote about earlier.

Jeans

GapJeans

They’re heavy and fairly impractical for travel, but I didn’t want to feel like a synthetic-pants wearing douchebag when living in a city for 3 months. Also, I’m not schlepping my bag around every day so I am less impacted by their weight.

Cloudveil Cool Convertible pants

CloudveilCoolConvertiblePants
Lightweight, breathable, zips into shorts, and waaay nicer to wear in hot climates than jeans.

Quiksilver Board Shorts

These shorts have got to be close to 7 years old, but I can play sports, do crossfit, and swim in ‘em. They’re still in great shape so no need to replace them.

Quiksilver Khaki Shorts

These might be overkill as the Cloudveils zip-off into shorts too. But these hang lower, feel more comfortable, and have more zippered pockets, so I brought them.

Three Pairs Ex-Officio Boxers

ExOfficioBoxers
The official boxer of the long-term traveler, 3 pairs suited me well (one to wear, one drying from being washed in the shower that morning, and one because mom advised me to always have a backup plan).

They dry quickly and breathe well. I don’t think about them, which is what I look for from my boxers.

Vasque Mantra XCR Shoes

VasqueMantraXCRWaterproofShoes
“Equally suited for trolling the farmers market or day hiking your favorite trail, the sleek new Vibram® Ananasi bottom package is built for the trail and all-day comfort. An attractive leather and airmesh upper assures you will look good no matter what you’re doing.”

Shazam! These shoes kick serious ass. They’re light, are GoreTEXed and thus waterproof (my feet were kept bone-dry in Buenos Aires downpours, which don’t mess around) and equally at home in the office, at the beach, or canoodling with supermodels at the hottest clubs in Buenos Aires and London. Love ‘em.

Mountain Hardware Typhoon

MountainHardwearTyphoonJacket

Love this jacket. It’s 15oz, can scrunch into a tiny ball, has GORE-TEX PACLITE and is waterproof, has pit zips to cool down when the weather gets unexpectedly hotter, and makes for a great outer layer. I rocked it over my hoodie in the worst London snowstorm in the past 18 years and I was dry and warm.

Rainbow Hemp Double-Stack Flip-Flops

RainbowHempDoubleStackSandals

Hipsters love these things. They’re hemp and don’t smell, but I’ve worn them for about 8 months and they’re practically destroyed. I’ll be going back to Gravis flip-flops for my next pair, which have been way more durable since I started wearing them earlier this millenium.


Icebreaker Long Underwear


IcebreakerLongUnderwear
Super warm long underwear for 10 days in Antarctica. I schlepped them for 3 months, then sent them home, even though they make my pecs look awesome.

Two pairs Smartwool Socks

SmartwoolAdrenalineMicroSocks
I’m pretty anti-sock and pro-flip-flops, but figured a couple pairs to do Crossfit in or travel in on cool days were a good idea. People rave about Smartwool – quick drying, not totally uncomfortable when wet, last forever, no blisters, etc. For me, they’re like boxers – I put em on and don’t have to think about em.

One pair Heavy Smartwool Socks

SmartwoolTrekkingHeavyCrewSock
The super warm version of the above.

One pair Heavy Icebreaker Socks

IcebreakerTrekkerSocks
Last picture of socks, promise. At the last minute, I decided to bring a second pair of socks and went with Icebreaker. Good thing, because at times in Antarctica I wore all four pairs of socks and my feet were only just warm enough.


MEC Yukon Gore-Tex Mittens


MECYukonGoreTEXMittens

I needed some badass waterproof and warm mittens for Antarctica. These fit the bill nicely and were sent home when I got back from the White Continent.

MEC Windpro 2 Gloves

MECWindPro2Gloves

Super light, decently warm, and resistant to all things wind, these stayed with me post-Antarctica and thank goodness – my hands would’ve been icy bricks if I didn’t have them in the London storm.


Oakley A-Wires


OakleyAWires

9 years old and still kicking, I thought these would be fine… until I went trekking in Patagonia and had burning eyes at the end of the day. Seems the scratched lenses couldn’t keep out the UV light. Not wanting to deal with crispy eyeballs thanks to the reflective snow in Antarctica, I sent these home and bought a pair of Rusty sunglasses. At least I think they’re Rusty, though I can’t find *any* Rusty sunglasses on the web to link to. Oh well, at least my eyeballs don’t hurt anymore.

Two Toques

Or beanies, for American readers. One cotton toque and one alpaca toque that was a gift from a friend. Two were a good idea to bring to Antarctica as wearing a wet toque during the afternoon landing wouldn’t be pleasant. I sent the alpaca one home after Antarctica.

Electronics

Macbook

AppleMacbook

I thought about buying a Macbook Air to cut 40% off my computer weight but figured I’d be less paranoid about losing or breaking a three-year old computer than a brand-new one.

I’ve upgraded this with 2GB of RAM and a fast (7200 RPM) 200GB hard drive and it performs like a champ.

Brenthaven Eclipse I Macbook Sleeve

BrenthavenEclipseIMacbookSleeve

I wanted something durable but small to protect my Macbook when it was packed away in the Voyageur or Kelty bag, and this fit the bill perfectly. It’s snug but my Macbook is very well padded without having to use a considerably larger sleeve.

200GB Hitachi Travelstar HD + Case

HitachiTravelstar200GBHardDrive

This drive is fast, quiet, and had lots of space. I have one in my Macbook and one in an external case that is a mirror image of my Macbook drive. In case the Macbook HD gets damaged, I can pop this one into the computer and lose at most 24 hours of data. It was $160 when I bought two in May to replace the Seagate that broke when my laptop fell off a table in Ireland. It’s now 75 bucks at Amazon, which is nothing to pay for peace of mind.

Aegis Mini

AegisMini120GBhardDrive

The Aegis Mini USB 120GB hard drive is tiny and beautiful. I only use it as a backup for movies, music, and photos but it’s so small that it’d be silly not to bring it along.

Canon SD800

Plus extra battery, case, charger, and 12GB SD memory

CanonSD800

I’ve had this badboy for coming up on four years now and it has the battle scars to prove it. It fits my two criteria for a camera: it’s small and takes great photos and video. I brought lots of extra SD memory because the video file sizes are huge.

Eye-Fi SD Card

EyeFiExploreSDCard

This is one of the coolest things I’ve bought recently. When you take a picture with it in your camera, it uses Skyhook’s wifi network to determine your latitude and longitude and adds it to the photo’s EXIF data (Skyhook is the same network the first iPhone uses to determine where you are). That means when you upload your photos to, say, Flickr, the photo appears on a world map in the city that you took it. Freaking awesome.

The one downside is that Skyhook’s coverage map isn’t that large outside of North America, so at times this is just a massively overpriced SD card.

Audio Technica ANC3 Noise Cancelling Ear Buds

AudioTechnicaATHANC3EarBuds

I’m a headphone nerd. I was going to travel with the Audio Technica full-sized noise canceling headphones, which I love. Then I realized that would be stupid because they’re huge. So I bought these based on the Audio Technica name without researching them at all (which I *never* do).

I was not disappointed. These are amazing. They’re tiny, block out a ton of noise with the noise canceling enabled, and even work in regular mode when the battery dies and the noise canceling doesn’t work (a lot of competitors’ earbuds stop working at all when the battery dies). They also work well when Skyping (using the microphone on my Macbook).

The only downside is that the eartips can be replaced with different sizes and thus pop off the headphones. Which means they sometimes pop off accidentally, and you can lose them, thus effectively turning these into a paperweight. Which I did on a flight from Buenos Aires to Cape Town. I only lost one, which sucked. But to Audio Technica’s credit, they offered to send me a complimentary replacement pair of eartips to India.

Either way, these are awesome. Just be sure to bring a spare pair of eartips with you when you go.

Monster Outlets To Go Power Strip

MonsterOutletsToGoPowerStrip

Super useful when you need to plug in multiple devices, this is less than 8 inches long and well-designed.

Blackberry Pearl

UnlockedBlackberryPearl

My Pearl is unlocked and I pick up a local SIM wherever I go. They range from cheap ($2 in Argentina) to rip-off ($35 in Canada). But it gives me a local number to call and text from, and to forward Skype calls to (more on that soon).


8GB 2G iPod Nano


iPodNano2B

This is 3 years old and did the job admirably. I recently replaced it with…

1st Generation iPod Touch

iPodTouch

I bought this to have wifi access without having to whip out my laptop. In Buenos Aires this is especially useful – there are multiple open wifi points on every corner.

Conair Power Adapter

ConairTravelPowerAdapter
This is compact and contains the most common plug configurations. This worked everywhere except for parts of India and South Africa, where I had to buy a separate adapter. It’s not a transformer, so make sure the device you’re plugging in can support the voltage of the country you’re in, otherwise you’ll fry it. A simple way to check this: look at the sticker on the device and if it supports 110/220 volts (most laptops, video cameras, battery chargers, etc do), you’ll be fine.

Ziplinq Cables

ZipLinqCable
These are great because you never have tangled wires to sort through to use a cable, and they’re smaller than a regular cable. I brought an ethernet cable, mini-USB cable for charging my Blackberry and for transferring photos from my camera, and an iPod cable.

Princeton Tec Fuel Headlamp

PrincetonTecfFuelHeadlamp
Immensely dorky, yet so useful to have your hands free when looking for stuff with a flashlight. Plus, it’s the best way to eat yogurt before 4a game drives!

4a pre-game drive breakfast

Other Gear Worth Mentioning

Eagle Creek Packing Cubes

EagleCreekPackingCubes

Color code them to sort your gear and make it easier to find. Green is toiletries, blue is small electronic gear and cables, red is medicine / first aid / etc. Don’t use them to pack your clothes though. Instead, use…

Eagle Creek Compressor Sacs

EagleCreekCompressorSacs

Probably the biggest reason I’m able to use a carry-on, these vacuum bags compress the hell out of your clothes by removing all the air from between your clothes. They’re amazing for conserving space – highly recommended!

Mitsubishi Alpha Gel Pen

MitsubishiAlphaGelPen

Otherwise known as the best pen in the world. It won’t explode, feels amazing, and writes super smoothly. I got one at the Gel Conference in a gift bag in 2005, and I immediately bought 2 more from Jet Pens. I love this pen!

Sink Stopper + Clothesline

TravelSinkStopper
FlexolineClothesLine

I wasn’t sure whether to bring these, but I’m glad I did! I used them waaay more than I expected, mostly because I didn’t want to trust that I would be able to convey “hang dry please” for my Icebreaker shirts with my crappy Spanish or Hindi. They were super useful to have around and I used them at least three times a month.

Shaving Oil

ShavingOil

This stuff lasts forever (I’m less than halfway through a bottle I bought five months ago), can be carried on to a plane, provides for a smoother shave, and the bottle is tiny… unlike shaving cream. Why settle for anything less?

MSR Pack Towel

MSRPackTowel

Never really used this, though a quick-drying towel was nice to have. Plus, Douglas Adams was a well-traveled guy and why not learn from the lessons he taught? Ryan didn’t and look at the towel he had to buy in Argentina:

ryan bought a new towel

EarLove Earplugs

EarloveEarplugs

These are made by Etymotic Research (who also make good earbuds) and cancel about 20 decibels of noise. They’re great for sleeping on planes or in shared dorms at hostels. As a bonus they come with a nifty carrying case that I’ll now use to put my Audio Technica earbud tips in!

Books

I now have a three book limit because these mofos are heavy. Typically it’s a guide to the country I’m in, and two other books. Though it’s possible the new Amazon Kindle will change how many books I carry with me.

Point It

Book Cover

This is a tiny book that has pictures of all kinds of stuff. Scissors, parts of a cow, toilet paper, toothbrush, etc etc. Super useful for when you’re traveling in a place where you don’t speak or read the language.


PacSafe 55


Pacsafe55

I felt like a douche struggling to put this steel mesh on my bag in Patagonia, partially because I felt like it might be overkill, but also because I had at least three people laugh at me while doing so. Is being socially ostracized worth the risk of getting your bag slashed and losing all your stuff? Probably!

But seriously, my bag was rarely out of my sight when it wasn’t in my apartment, so this was a 1lb+ paperweight. I sent it home.


Inspiration for the stuff I brought goes to these kind people who posted their gear lists:

Life Nomadic
Andy Volk
Sarah Lane
Tim Ferriss
Art and Science of Packing Light
Travel Independent
Malena
Megan
Kelly and Quang
Nate Kurtz
Zeuscat
Lives of Wander
Boots N All
Ian OTR

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Christmas in Khayelitsha Township, South Africa

Khayelitsha is one of the shanty towns that was established by the South African government under apartheid, and blacks were moved there from Cape Town in the 1950s. It’s inhabited by 1 to 1.5 million people. The infrastructure is poor; many people share public port-a-potties, many shacks don’t have running water, and most roads are unpaved. The current South African government is building proper housing at a furious pace (the right to housing is enshrined in the 1994 constitution) and things are improving, but conditions are still poor. Despite this, most people that I met there returned my smiles with even bigger smiles, said hello, asked my name, and most seemed to be enjoying life. The sense of community was super strong. It was a good reminder about how far a smile and a little interest in another person can go – something I often lose sight of when I get too focused on my own problems.


Khayelitsha Township

I’d been once before to visit a wonderful couple there, but wanted to see and learn more, so I took a tour of the township. On the tour, we visited Vicky’s B&B. Vicky Ntozini started her B&B in 1999 because she wanted to show a different side of Cape Town to the tourists on the buses that came through the township but didn’t stop. She has grown from a one-bedroom to a three bedroom B&B, which is a stop on many of the township tours. Since she started her B&B more than 10 others have sprung up and she’s been on the BBC, CNN, and a bunch of other major media outlets.

When she first started it, her neighbours wondered why there were lots of white people around, and asked her if she was in trouble. At a community meeting she explained what she was up to, and explained that what was good for her was also good for her community. I asked her if she was worried about anything happening to one of her guests, and she said absolutely not – she knew the people in her community. And indeed, nothing bad has happened to any of her guests.

When we were there as part of a township tour on Dec 23, she told us that she was holding a Christmas party for the neighbourhood kids. After she was done telling us the story of the B&B, I asked her if she needed help with the Christmas party. She said sure, and told me to call her the next day.

Dec 24 was rainy in the township, so she postponed the party to Christmas day. So around noon on Dec 25, Mike, Daniela and I drove to Khayelitsha with 4kg of cookies and 84 pieces of KFC in tow.

When we arrived, Vicky was hard at work setting things up with her two friends. Daniela was put to work in the kitchen with Vicky, while Mike and I sorted out six large boxes of gifts that B&B visitors had sent in from all over the world. The gifts ranged from pens to toothpaste to Batman toys to lined paper and coloring books, and everything in between. What struck me was how most of us wouldn’t think twice about throwing away 99.9% of the stuff that was in those boxes.


We be sortin’

After we finished, we served up the food. The 50 or so kids lined up in order from youngest (less than 2 years old) to oldest (15). While they waited, they sang in Xhosha:

Afterwards we juiced them up with cupcakes, cake, juice, and candy.

The tunes were bumpin, a dance party broke out, and old and young busted moves for 10 seconds in the dance circle:

After the cupcakes, Vicky handed out toys. This could have been a feeding frenzy – the kids were eager to get anything from the stuff that Mike and I sorted. But when the kids would crowd around too closely, Vicky would bellow in Xhosha and the kids would snap into a line in about 3 seconds. It reminded me of when I sprayed DEET on a bunch of tse-tse flies that were getting too close – they scattered as soon as I let loose.

christmas in khayelitsha
Mugging for the camera

At one point Vicky held a quiz to give away some of the more awesome gifts. When she asked who the current president of South Africa was, only one answer was offered – a young girl tentatively raised her hand and asked, “Barack Obama”? But when Vicky asked who the president of the African National Congress was, you could hear the woosh as every kid’s hand shot up high.

As Vicky gave out the gifts, the kids were beside themselves with glee about receiving a new pair of underwear or a toothbrush. Seriously – I can’t remember when I’d last seen that look of happiness on a kid’s face. Kids were comparing underwear, playing with their toys, and loving it all. And it was all stuff that we in Canada or the US would barely think of as valuable.

christmas in khayelitsha
A girl and her Christmas present

The kids were super friendly, interested, and almost joyful. Many insisted that we take their pictures and when one would pose, others would crowd around, hamming it up and laughing with glee when I showed them the pictures. There were few adults around. A couple of Vicky’s female neighbours sat around and watched, and a few men passed by every so often, but it was essentially Vicky and her two friends who ran the show.


The Christmas party crew

We left Khayelitsha after 6 hours, utterly exhausted and full of a delicious and huge turkey dinner that Vicky cooked for us. We zipped home on the N2. The windows were down, the sun was shining, and Radiohead’s In Rainbows was blasting on the stereo as we reflected on the day.

The biggest lesson for me was how frigging lucky I am to have won the lottery by being born in Canada to middle-class parents. That realization makes it much easier to be thankful for my lot and to give back. The day reminded me of something Nipun Mehta says in this *amazing* talk at Stanford. He says that those who give are thankful – they say things like “thank you for providing me with the opportunity to give”. I definitely felt that.

The second is that it’s easy to complain about being dealt a bad hand, but ultimately you get to choose how you react to a situation and thus you can improve it. For example, Vicky decided to open a B&B and has brought a lot of good to her community. She also decided to throw a Christmas party for the kids in her neighbourhood, and through sheer force of will she made it happen. Too often I complain about a situation without making the choice to improve it. I’m working on it, but helping Vicky and her friends out was a great reminder that it’s more satisfying to be a part of the solution.

Finally, Christine over at Almost Fearless recently wrote a good post called “The moral dilemma of street kids”. I’m not sure what the solution is to poverty, but I do know that supporting people like Vicky, who are motivated to make their communities better, is an excellent way to tackle the problem of making the world a better place.

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5 Lessons I Learned After a Year as a Digital Nomad

It has been 14 months since I sold all my stuff, left Los Angeles, and started living out of a backpack on the road. I’ve learned a ton, but here are five lessons that I thought were particularly important.

1. Run Towards Your Fears

Last year, I was scared of eating alone in a restaurant. In May while in Belfast, I decided to face that fear and dine alone at a nice Indian restaurant around the corner from where I was staying. I brought a book as a backup plan, but figured I could enjoy people watching while I ate. Strangely enough, there were 8 tables at the restaurant, and 7 of them were occupied by single diners. I got the sweats (I sweat when facing social fears), and wouldn’t say I enjoyed the experience, but I made it through.

Fast forward 9 months. I land in Vancouver from London, and am battling an 8 hour timezone difference so I’m up at 5a. I’m striding down the street en route to a solo breakfast. The air is crisp, I’ve got a good book in hand, and it feels great to be alive. My thoughts wander to how I felt about eating by myself back in Ireland, and I laugh! It’s no longer a fear, but a pleasure to dine alone. And it clears up energy to spend on conquering even bigger fears (like diving with sharks!)

2. Pack Less

Everybody says it, and it’s true. After bringing a huge pack to Argentina in December 07, in May I decided to travel with only a carry-on. I set out with a beautiful and functional MEI Voyageur, which I’ve carried on to the 20+ flights I’ve taken since. I’ve visited 6 continents (some twice) with a carry-on, and it feels amazing to pop off a Mumbai to London flight, hit customs, and go!

If you’re diligent about washing the stuff that should be kept clean (underwear, socks, etc) and are smart about buying other clothes (like brilliant Icebreaker t-shirts that don’t smell) you can go a long way with not a lot of clothes. For example, I’ve got 3 pairs of boxers, 2 pairs of socks, and 4 t-shirts, and I still think I overpacked.

3. Know the Difference between Traveling and Living

There’s a big difference between traveling somewhere and living somewhere. I was in South Africa and India in December and January, and I intended to work a bit and travel a bit while there.

Big mistake.

First, the wifi was crappy – my place in Cape Town was supposed to have it, but didn’t. And India just generally had way slower and less ubiquitous broadband than I expected.

Second, Cape Town and India both had a lot of things to see, and since I had limited time in both places, I moved around a lot, which made it tough to establish a regular routine.

In short, I was trying to both work and travel, which meant I didn’t enjoy either or accomplish as much as I could have.

This experience made me realize that I now have two different sets of places to visit. The first list has places I will travel in but won’t bother working because there’s too much I want to see, and the infrastructure is not developed as much as I want it to be (India, Vietnam, Laos, etc.).

The second list has places I will live because I know the infrastructure is good enough to support a digital nomad lifestyle and I really want to get a feel for what it’s like to live in the place (Reykjavik, Brazil, Copenhagen, etc).

There is a third list of places that I’m not sure about that will merit further research (or an exploratory visit while nearby) in order to figure out whether they’re livable as a digital nomad (Budapest, Tuscany, Colombia, etc).

4. At the Same Time, Don’t Apologize for Living

I’ll never forget, I got an email from a friend of mine who is traveling the world that detailed her previous week’s adventures. She’d gone hiking at Lake Baikal, gotten arrested in Moscow and bailed out by her Couchsurfing host, and was up late partying and meeting all kinds of great people. She asked me what I had been up to. I was disappointed that my answer sounded so lame – I had left my apartment in Buenos Aires once a day in the previous week because I had my head down cranking on a project – until I realized that I was trying to build a sustainable lifestyle, not just take a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

People think you’re footloose and fancy free when they hear you’re living in an exotic place. Though you’re almost certainly having more adventures than they are, there’s a difference between traveling and living. Travel is great because you rarely have responsibilities and can throw yourself into exploring wherever you are. But living is different – you have priorities like paying bills, conference calls, deadlines, etc – you just happen to be in Shanghai or Mumbai.

If living nomadically is what you want, don’t be apologetic about it – remind yourself that you’re living, not traveling, and if you’re successful you’ll be able to do this for years while others who are enjoying no responsibilities right now will have to go back to the grind eventually.

5. Take Advantage of the Time Alone

Living in an unfamiliar place with a small or non-existent community can be challenging. You can use those challenges as opportunities to question assumptions you make, strip off social conditioning, and get to know yourself better. Reflect, write, meditate – do what you can to clear your mind and listen to your inner voice. It will help you pursue a life you truly want to live (this is also known as the art of inner travel).

Do you want to read more? Learn a new language? Meet new people? Get rid of bad habits, or try and develop new good ones? Ultimately, you can prioritize how to spend your time without demands or expectations from others, and this is an amazing gift.

Because I didn’t have a ton of social obligations in Buenos Aires, I was able to spend a week holed up in my apartment building a prototype of an web application that I may turn into a cash muse. Even better, for a week I got to focus on redeveloping my atrophied programming skills. That will help me down the road, regardless of whether the prototype turns into something real or not. If I was living in a place where I had tons of friends, that probably would’ve taken 3-4 weeks.

Any other things you’re curious about knowing as a digital nomad? Drop me a comment and I’ll do my best to answer!

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Year in Cities, 2008

I originally posted this on Reemer.com, but it’s relevant here too!

My favorite post of the year. Here’s a list of cities I stayed in, in roughly chronological order. An asterisk means I stayed there more than once on non-consecutive days. Also see the 2005, 2006, and 2007 editions.

Tigre, Argentina*
Buenos Aires, Argentina*
Mendoza, Argentina
Iguazu, Argentina
Punta Del Este, Uruguay
New York, NY*
Sherman Oaks, CA*
Santa Monica, CA*
Los Angeles, CA
Venice, CA
Vancouver, BC*
Whistler, BC
Toronto, ON*
Dublin, Ireland
Ventry, Ireland
Cork, Ireland
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Tofino, BC
Cortes Island, BC
El Calafate, Argentina
Ushuaia, Argentina
Antarctica (not a city, but deserves inclusion)
Cape Town, South Africa*
Hermanus, South Africa
Franschhoek, South Africa
Kruger Park, South Africa

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Scoping Out Cape Town

My landlord welcomed me to Cape Town by saying “welcome to the most beautiful city in the world”. I thought to myself, like a wanna-be smug Vancouverite, “I dunno, it seems nice, but it’s gonna be hard to beat Vancouver”.

I stayed in Camps Bay for two weeks. It’s a super ritzy beach town on one side of Table Mountain, a 1km-high mountain that sits in the middle of Cape Town. Camps Bay certainly didn’t feel like the third-world Africa I was in in Tanzania in 2005, but more like an upscale European beach town. I spent a bunch of time in Cape Town proper, as well as exploring the ridiculously beautiful coastline to the south.

looking down on cape town
View from Table Mountain

The Prices

I was told that because of the weak Rand, Cape Town was cheaper than Buenos Aires. I didn’t believe it, but holy crap, I do now. I had a five course meal at Five Flies, one of the best restaurants in Cape Town (and one I’d highly recommend – the ambience, service, and food were excellent). Including a great bottle of wine ($16) and coffee and tea, the total bill for two was $90 USD. That was by far the most expensive meal I ate – the average meal was about $25 for two, usually including a glass of wine. And wine tasting cost $6 US to taste 14 wines… insane.

divide by 10 for USD prices
Divide by 10 for USD

Weather

The weather in Cape Town is worth paying attention to. Eight meter swells forced us to reschedule our shark diving trip, high winds prevented us from taking the cable car to the top of table mountain, and rough water cancelled our trip to Robben Island, where many “political prisoners” were held during apartheid (including Nelson Mandela). I would recommend booking your weather-dependent activities early in your trip so there’s time to reschedule if they’re cancelled.

Cape Town was getting worked over by howling winds while I was there, which is common in the summer. The South-Easter rips through town and is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It also turns hot days at the beach into mini-sandstorms.

Natural Beauty

Cape Town is stunningly beautiful and would make any Vancouverite reconsider whether theirs is indeed the most beautiful city in the world. Table Mountain makes for a beautiful backdrop. The elevation differences make for great views, especially of the gorgeous white sand beaches and blue water. And the drive south along the coast is one of the most beautiful I’ve done.

table mountain

Lots of Things To Do

Cape Town is low-key, maybe even sleepy, and I wouldn’t call it super urban, but there are tons of things to do. You can go shark diving, paragliding off of Lions Head mountain, abseiling off of Table Mountain, surfing, canyoning, sand surfing, go on safari, enjoy brilliant beaches, and go wine tasting… amongst other things.

It’s also got fascinating colonial history – Cape Town was originally a Dutch trading outpost where ships could refuel en route to India, and was taken over by the British in the 1700s. Add in the fascinating history of apartheid and you’ll be hard-pressed to run out of things to do and learn. It’s a vibrant, manageable city with friendly, cosmopolitan people of all colors, and a good food and wine scene.

sunset at camps bay

Apartheid

No description of Cape Town would be compete with addressing race. I was there for a little under two weeks, so I can hardly be expected to understand the rich and nuanced history. Instead, I will just add a few things that I learned.

During apartheid, people were classified as white, black, or colored. Colored meant one was of mixed (non-white) descent, and it a term still used today without, I’m told, the stigma that it has in the US. Colored people generally had it better than blacks during apartheid, though they were most certainly second-class citizens. People were sometimes classified based on the width of their nose, or using the “pencil test”: stick a pencil in your hair and if it sticks, you’re black.

ID card

Mixed marriages between whites and non-whites were allowed, as long as the white person was ok with being classified as black or colored.

The Japanese were honorary whites because they were valuable trading partners with South Africa.

One of the harshest examples of apartheid occurred in District 6. It was a dense area in downtown Cape Town that was inhabited by 55k largely blacks and colored people. The apartheid government decided to move the inhabitants to shanty towns 20km outside Cape Town, which ripped apart tightly-knit communities and families, and made living life a hell of a lot more difficult for those who were moved. Those shanty towns had crappy or non-existent infrastructure: no power, running water, or indoor plumbing were the order of the day (indeed, some parts of the townships still don’t have indoor plumbing – people use community port-a-potties). The District 6 buildings were razed to the ground, and a few test homes were built for whites… but nobody bought them (because, our tour guide said, “people had a conscience”). This is one reason that when South Africa held democratic elections and established a constitution in 1994, the right to basic housing (including indoor plumbing and electricity) was established as a right in the constitution.

i.e. whites only
“European” was a euphamism for “white”

Crime

“They” say that crime is bad in Cape Town. It certainly is in parts – Cape Town had a jaw-dropping 2000 murders last year, and most occurred in sketchier parts of the townships, which are outside central Cape Town. My spidey sense never went crazy, but I was definitely more aware of my environment than in, say, Vancouver.

The traveler’s maxim holds true here – be aware, don’t be stupid, and know that people are generally good and are just trying to live happy lives.

Living Here

If I was picking a city to live in for the rest of my life, this would be high on the list. Especially right now with the strong dollar and low prices, you could get a nice apartment in the city for about $100k, or a sick house two minutes from the beach in ritzy Camps Bay for 300-400k. Thrown in a nice summer home in wine country in Franschhoek (about an hour away) for $200-300k and you’d have a nice setup. The downside is that there’s still uncertainty about the country’s stability. Rumor has it the educated middle class are leaving because, as one friend put it, “the social contract is slowly unraveling.” I didn’t stay around long enough to get a good understanding of whether this was true or not, but South Africa is still one of the most stable countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the short term, I would recommend living in Cape Town in a heartbeat. It’s very livable, very chill, reasonably priced, with lots to do, good people, and great diversity. I’m considering coming back during for a few months in 2010 for the World Cup, and to see Great White sharks breach, which they only do in the winter. I was sad to be leaving Buenos Aires to come here. But as awesome as BsAs is, Cape Town rapidly made me feel good about the decision. It’s an excellent place to hang out for a while, and I intend to be back for longer.

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the taj mahal is breathtaking in person


the taj mahal is breathtaking in person

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amber fort in jaipur


amber fort in jaipur

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giraffe and buffalo (via Kruger park safari)


giraffe and buffalo (via Kruger park safari)

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