Connections: New Friends at the Amber Tree

Traveling is a wonderful way to meet people! Unfortunately, often those connections are strong but only fleeting. Connections is our tag to recognize and remember some of the wonderful people we meet.

We truly enjoyed the Amber Tree Lodge in Cape Town. It had great common areas and a good group of travelers. We met many wonderful people from all over the world. We especially enjoyed chatting with people late into the evening: a new friend from Argentina, practicing his English, another from Chicago, a fellow teacher (so great to get in some good teacher talk), and more from the UK, dentists in training. Wine was consumed and a great time was had by all!



Budget: South Africa


This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at South Africa. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In South Africa we used South African Rand. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 10 rand to one dollar.

Total Spent (16 days): $1380.23

This does not include the days spent on our self-drive safari.

We normally break down into the following categories:

Accommodation: $550.11

We stayed only at hostels in South Africa.

Activities: $344.75

This included the various tours as well as entrance fees to sights that we took in Joburg and Cape Town.

Alcohol: $34.29

Food: $299.49

We ate out only a little in South Africa. We mostly bought food from the supermarket and cooked our own meals at hostels.

Miscellaneous: $23.24

This included laundry, stamps, and souvenirs.

This divides out to $86.26/day which, thankfully, is under our $100/day budget. Yay!

Cape Town

After our self-drive safari, we traveled via train to Cape Town. We thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful city. We had a week there, but we wished that we could have spent more time!

Where We Stayed

Scalabrini Centre – The first four nights we stayed in the Scalabrini Centre which was right in the City Bowl of Cape Town. We chose it initially because it was quite close to the train station and we knew it was within walking distance to many of the sites. We enjoyed the hostel so much that we booked past our initial two nights. It was very clean and cute. The other great thing is that the Scalabrini Centre serves as a refugee service center in Cape Town and also has English classes. We felt good knowing that some of our money was going to support a good cause. We were trying to save money after our expensive self-drive safari, so we chose to stay in the dorm. This turned out to be a good choice. We shared the 6-bed dorm with 1 other person the first night and then had it to ourselves after that. The one downside was that not a lot of other people were there, so we weren’t able to make many connections

Amber Tree Lodge – For the rest of our week, we decided to move to a little bit more touristy area, closer to Long Street and to Table Mountain. We loved the Amber Tree. We stayed in the dorm and were slightly disappointed just because there was ALWAYS someone sleeping in the dorm which made every day living slightly difficult. However, there was a fabulous common area and we really enjoyed meeting and making friends with many of the other travelers. 

What We Did

District 6 Museum

District 6 was a neighborhood in Cape Town that was made up of mostly colored (an official designation of race during apartheid) people. During apartheid, the government decided that this area, because it was quite close to the city center should instead be designated a white area. Tens of thousands of people were forcibly removed from District 6 and much of the area was razed. There is now a museum to commemorate the neighborhood. We found it interesting – almost a scrapbook dedicated to what was- lots of local stories and remembrances.



Castle of Good Hope

The Castle of Good Hope was the first permanent European settlement in South Africa. It was built by the Dutch East India Company in the 1660s. It is quite beautiful, yellow walls and a star shape. Entrance includes a free tour which we quite enjoyed. We also were fortunate to see the “Key Ceremony” at noon.

Robben Island

We took a trip out to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela (and many others) were incarcerated.

Traveling down the Cape Peninsula

We choose to take a tour with the Baz Bus one day to get us all the way down the Cape Peninsula. While a bit expensive, we thoroughly enjoyed the tour and it hit many places we were interested in seeing. The first stop was Hout Bay which was quite beautiful. We then continued over Chapman’s Peak Drive which was a marvel of engineering and gorgeous. We stopped at Simon’s Town to visit the African Penguins at Boulders Beach. We rode bikes in the Cape Point section of Table Mountain National Park. The unique flora and fauna here have helped to label it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then we visited both Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope (the most southwestern point in Africa). We had a fantastic tour guide who made sure we were never bored and we learned a lot.


Bo-Kaap is neighborhood in Cape Town that was essentially a township know as the Cape Malay Quarter. It was populated by slaves initially. Today it is a beautiful neighborhood where you can find Cape Malay food and amazing colorful buildings. It is also the heart of Islam in Cape Town. We enjoyed lunch here and then visited the Bo-Kaap Museum. It was a small museum but we quite enjoyed meeting and chatting with the man who worked there about Cape Town, as well as American history.



Cape Town City Sightseeing Tour

This is one of those bright red double decker bus tours that we also did in Joburg. We really enjoyed our tour there so we decided to try it in Cape Town as well. Cape Town has many more options and different lines to choose from. We chose the Blue Line which we knew would take us into wine country south of Cape Town.

Our first top was the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. This garden was huge and amazingly beautiful. Della really enjoyed the section where they asked to you to touch and smell different plants. We also liked the garden which highlighted endangered and extinct plants, the protea garden, and the new tree canopy walkway. The curse of the city sightseeing tours is that you have to stick to a schedule if you want to visit more than one place in  day. We could have spent MUCH more time in the gardens than we did. It is definitely worth a whole day.

The second stop for us was the Groot Constantia Wine Estate. This is the oldest wine estate in South Africa. It was started in the late 1600s by members of the Dutch East India Company. It took awhile but it then began to compete with all the fine wines in Europe and has continued to make excellent wine since then. We took the cellar tour and participated in a delicious wine tasting. We then wandered the vineyard and explored the historical buildings.

Climb Table Mountain 

No trip to Cape Town is complete without a trip to the top of Table Mountain. There are two ways to get up- the cable car or hiking. We knew we wanted to take on the challenge and hike it! There are several routes up, but we decided on the most popular called Platteklip Gorge. We were very disappointed when we woke up on our last full day in Cape Town… The weather forecast had been for beautiful sunny weather, but instead a layer of mist was everywhere. This was the view of Table Mountain at first.

Table Mountain should be there.

Table Mountain should be there.

We were angry with ourselves with leaving it for the last day, but we decided to do it anyway. We were thrilled when we arrived at the base of the Gorge (via taxi) to see that we had risen above the mist. The hike was long and difficult- many stairs which felt like we were going straight up (though this is the least strenuous way route up the mountain). There were times where we felt like the clouds were following us. But we made it up and then decided to take a side hike on the top to Maclear’s Beacon which is the tallest point on the mountain. We took a slightly different route back and were amazed by how close the path came to the edge of the cliff. There had been signs warning that this route could be dangerous in wet or windy weather and we could definitely see why. With our beautiful day though, it was a good choice. We then made our way to the other side end of the mountain to the cable car station. We decided to take the cable car down and enjoyed the descent back into the clouds.

Where We Ate

We ate in many different places, but we narrowed it down to only two to recommend.

Biesmiellah – This restaurant is located in Bo-Kaap and has been serving Cape Malay food for many years. It is an institution of Bo-Kaap, even mentioned in the museum. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal of Bobotie and Tomato Breedie.


Eastern Food Bazaar – There were many restaurants similar to this in Cape Town. But we really thought it was fun. It is a long string of counters with different kinds of food, similar to a food court. You would pick what you want and go to a central counter to pay and then go back to the counter with your food. We had huge portions of delicious food for very reasonable prices.


All this for only $8!

Robben Island

One thing we knew we wanted to do with our time in Cape Town was to visit Robben Island. It is an island off the coast of the city which served as a prison during the Apartheid era, and was where Nelson Mandela was held for the majority of his time behind bars.

If you would like to visit the island, you need to book your trip in advance as it is a very popular tourist attraction. We were lucky in this regard as we were able to only book one day in advance. We heard this was rare. The reason for our luck in booking was due to our unlucky weather. We knew the day would be rainy and cold, and it was possible that tours can be cancelled if the weather is too bad.

The day was, indeed, miserable weather-wise. But we were fortunate that our tour was not cancelled. You travel to the V & A Waterfront and find the Nelson Mandela museum to start the trip. It was very busy and quite crowded as they herded us into the basement, through a metal detector, and then back outside for a walk to the other side of the water where we boarded one of two boats.



The ride out to the island was approximately 35 min. Because of our poor weather, the sea swells were quite high. It was a bit unfortunate as there were a few people who ended up getting sea sick – not us thankfully!

Once you arrive on the island, you enter a bus and are given an approximately 45 min driving tour. It was interesting to learn about the history of the island which served as a prison for both the Dutch and the English in the very early years. They would just drop off the prisoners there and leave them. It also served as a leper colony and animal quarantine. It also played a role in the defence of Cape Town during WWII and had a large military presence during that time. It also, famously, served as a holding place for mainly political prisoners during the Apartheid era here in SA.


We were fascinated that there is still a fairly thriving settlement on Robben Island today. Many people live there full time. These people are mainly employees of the Robben Island Museum. It was interesting to hear that both ex-prisoners and ex-guards still work there today… and end up living as neighbors.

After the driving tour, you reach probably the most interesting part of the day. You get off the bus and enter the prison building itself. You are also met by another tour guide – this one will be a former political prisoner of the island. Our guide had been working for the military wing of the ANC (African National Congress) during the early eighties, trying to help smuggle weapons into South Africa from Botswana. He was captured by police, tortured, and thrown in prison in 1983. He served his 7 year sentence and was released in 1990, shortly before the prison was closed. It was very interesting to hear his story and his memories of his time in prison. Near the end of the tour, we were taken to the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years.

Overall, despite the horrible weather, which prevented us from seeing what would have been excellent views of Cape Town and Table Mountain,  we really enjoyed the day. We found it a pretty moving experience.


This picture is not actually from Robben Island. It is from the waterfront when we returned from the island to Cape Town, but it definitely gives you a feel for the weather of the day.

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Zumba Round the World: Cape Town

We finally managed to do our first edition of Zumba Round the World. We had a bit of a Zumba Fail last week when we tried the first time. Using the Zumba website, we tried to find a class near our location in Cape Town. We found one about 20 min away walking. We walked all the way there only to find the address barred. It looked as if it was up a stair into an apartment. We checked and double checked the address and couldn’t figure it out. We even stood around for quite awhile to see if anyone else entered, but it looked as if the website had lied to us. Boo.

We tried again later in our week in Cape Town. We found a fitness center that offered Zumba. We were scared off at first because we had heard that it was going to cost us R170 (about $17) each to go to the class… Definitely not what we wanted to do. But after called the fitness center, Virgin Active, on Sunday- we found out that it was a open weekend- all classes free! Score!

We enjoyed our first class. It was lively and fun with a great instructor, Cindy! We recognized several songs, even one that I used to teach in my classes. But there were a lot of new ones too. Mostly hip hop, reggaeton, and cumbia. It was fantastic to be back in a class after close to 2 months without Zumba!

Can’t wait to find our next Zumba class!


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Shosholoza Meyl Train

After returning our safari truck to Johannesburg, our next stop was Cape Town. To get to Cape Town, we had a few different options. We could have flown or taken a bus, but after reading some glowing reviews of the Shosholoza Meyl train on the Seat 61 train blog, we decided to take to overnight train.

We booked a 2-berth sleeper compartment for the train leaving on a Sunday at 12:30, with expected arrival in Cape Town the next day at 3:30 PM. So we knew it would be a long trip, but we were hoping to see some nice scenery along the way.

Our little compartment was nice and cozy. We had one bench seat that turned into a bed, and one top bunk. We had to pay a little bit extra for bedding, but it wasn’t too bad, especially since they made the beds for us. The compartment also had a small sink that could be covered by a table.

To pass the time, we mostly read books, although we did take a break and play a few hands of cards.

The train did have a dining car, but we didn’t eat any meals there because we couldn’t figure out how to lock our compartment (and we had our big bags in there with us). Luckily though, there was a waitress who came by and took our dinner order and then later brought it. We had a nice beef curry for a very reasonable price.


The scenery for the first day wasn’t that interesting, but on the second day as we got closer to Cape Town we enjoyed glimpses of the green mountains and some vineyards.

Unfortunately, due to mechanical or other delays, the train didn’t end up getting to Cape Town until 7:30 PM, so it turned out to be more like a 30-hour trip! By the end we were a little ready to experience something besides the confines of our berth!

Overall though, we enjoyed the uniqueness of the train journey across the country!

Fast Forward Friday: Cape Town

Cape Town is one of the most well-known cities in South Africa. Obviously, we’re looking forward to climbing Table Mountain and seeing all of the amazing views of the city from there. But there are lots of other things to be excited for in this area: Penguin spotting at the Cape of Good Hope, wine tasting, Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned), and great neighborhood site-seeing.