Cape Town: Where Water Is Gold

IMG_4857We’ve been hearing that “water is the new oil” for at least a decade, but the people of Cape Town, South Africa — where we are wrapping up our five months partout — are living the reality, and we are living it with them.

Primarily as a result of a three-year drought, this city of nearly 4 million is in danger of running out of water. “Day Zero” is what they call the date when the taps will be turned off to all but hospitals, schools and a few other vital users, and residents will start getting their water one bucketful at a time from 200 distribution points around the city.

When we decided to make Cape Town our EU visa reprieve, Day Zero was set for April. Because of effective water conservation by residents, water diversion by inland farmers and (some say) immediate intervention by the nation’s new president, the suspension of piped water currently is projected for July.

In the meantime, residents are under orders to use no more than 13.2 gallons per person per day (about six toilet flushes or less) or face fines. It is unclear to us how people monitor their usage or how the limit is enforced.
50-liters1.jpgOur first AirBnB host told us that, when the magnitude of the shortage became apparent, AirBnB operators proposed en masse to stop taking reservations. “No, no!” was the official response. “Let them come.” Whether this was for PR or economic reasons is also unclear, but come the visitors still do.

In Cape Town International Airport, drought and conservation messages are now just about the first messages passengers see after landing. Hand sanitizer dispensers have mostly replaced running water in the airport restrooms, as if to underscore the point.

What does an epic water conservation campaign look like in a modern, international city?

  • Massive public relations everywhere – flyers, signs, billboards, digital message boards. Overhead, on sign posts, on the backs of bathroom doors. Some clever, some plain.
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  • Reduced water pressure everywhere
  • Universal on-off showering and a push to get people to give up showering at all one day a week
    No shower
  • No water at all or on-off spray from some public bathrooms
    Jordan winery
  • Biodegradable paper products replacing dishes in restaurants
    Pizza resto
  • Buckets in every shower stall (including luxury hotels) to catch shower run-off and instructions on how to flush the toilet with what you catch
  • Unflushed public toilets per instructions that cut across the grain of what we’ve always been taught
    Don't flush clip
  • Private water tanks parked where cars once stood so people can collect and store more grey water than a bucket will hold by doing things like draining used water from their washing machines
  • Dead grass, empty fountains, closed swimming pools, unwashed cars
    Airport - car rentsls
  • Warnings that hotel bookings may be canceled without warning.
    Booking noticeAnd on and on. A $50 million pop-up desalinization plant is on its way from Dubai. Some beauty salons are beginning to require customers to bring their own water for shampoos. Necessity breeds an infinite number of inventions.

    Doris is a native Californian so this is not her first water crisis. As a beginning news reporter, the biggest story she reported was California’s water shortage of 1976-77.

    Covering the city of Fullerton in Orange County, she remembers writing stories about where residents could pick up free building bricks to reduce the water volume in their toilet tanks and extolling the merits of flow restrictors for kitchen water faucets. She distinctly remembers city leaders publicly urging, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.”

    Measures like these worked. Southern California cut its water use by 15% almost overnight. More significantly, water-use products and practices changed forever. By 1980, toilets that used the usual 5-8 gallons per flush were gone from the market, replaced by ever more-efficient “low-flow” models. Public water system price tiering making water more expensive the more you used became commonplace. Grey-water reclamation projects sprouted like weeds in public lawns, golf-courses and other thirsty patches of earth. Water conservation became at least a consideration.

    However, Cape Town illustrates that even systemic changes like these may not be enough for a growing world population with limited water supplies. Cape Town’s reservoirs were full just three years ago. Water consumption has remained flat despite population growth. Drought came, Day Zero now looms.

    Do Doris and Louis feel guilty for being among Cape Town’s water consumers, even temporarily? Louis says Doris always feels guilty about everything, but neither of us is losing sleep over this one. If we were not occupying the AirBnBs we do, someone else would be, and they might not be as water-conscious as we are.

    Far more critically, if visitors stay away from Cape Town, the possibility of Day Zero will be immediately outstripped by the certainty that tens of thousands of working poor in the Cape’s service industries will lose their jobs and be unable to support themselves and their families. The chasm between the haves and the have-nots would gape even wider.

    Given the impossible math of growing world populations, shrinking water supplies and a warming earth, this won’t be the last Day Zero on the calendar. The new water habits we are picking up in Cape Town may be the most lasting souvenirs of our visit. We can hope they help forestall a Day Zero wherever else we go.

In the rear-view mirror:

  • Vineyards (“wine farms” in these parts) with jaw-dropping backdrops
  • Beach towns with jaw-dropping backdrops
  • Tidal pools created by shags of ancient rock
    Tide pools
  • Penguins! Cute couples mated for life

Coming Soon: Regime Change Tourism
Louis photo


Meanwhile, Back at the Visa Mess…

ZimbabweAt 9:45 am on Monday morning, February 12, we were supposed to be organizing ourselves for a red-eye flight from Nairobi to Sicily, visions of Mount Etna, pasta and big red wines dancing in our heads.

Instead, we were skidding to a stop on the tarmac at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, thanks to the one-sided visa policies of the European Union.

Yes, despite our friend Glen’s most earnest US Embassy-sourced entreaties to the Dutch in Nairobi, son Greg’s impassioned pleadings with immigration officials in the Netherlands and our own hail-Mary pleas in person to officials at the Italian embassy in Kenya, there was no way around the EU visa restrictions. We could spend a maximum of six days before April 15 in any of the 26 EU countries or risk deportation, even long-term restrictions on entering the EU. Six days instead of 33.

With these, we could not fly our tickets to Sicily. Or spend two more weeks with the kids in Groningen, as planned. Our options were to go back to DC via the Netherlands immediately or to knock around … somewhere outside the EU until we had only six days left before our scheduled departure home in mid-March.

Fly back to DC in February?!?

Hahaha. Make that one option: Knock around for 27 days outside the EU. And, yes, there are far worse fates. But where to knock?

Doris posted inquiries like this on the Lonely Planet’s Thorntree forums.
We sent a half-dozen well-traveled friends urgent emails asking for suggestions and grilled all the guests at a wine tasting Glen conveniently (and deliciously) was hosting when when we walked into his house in Nairobi after our six-flight day from Tanzania. Everywhere we went – on the road, in restaurants, on flights – we debriefed travelers and ex-pats about the possibilities. Doris traded sleep for Googling itineraries, replacement flights, lodgings. Sri Lanka, India, Turkey, a return to the Emirates – no stone was left unturned in our search for knock-about destinations that met our standards for ease and conditions of travel and cost.

For a few ambitious, well-rested days, we had a plan that involved flying from Nairobi to Lalibela, Ethiopia, touring the astonishing stone churches there, taking in a few additional Ethiopian wonders and then flying to Luxor, Aswan and Cairo to introduce Doris to Egypt.

Then we remembered the reason we planned to end our great adventure in Sicily in the first place was that we figured we would be ready to coast after four months of travel. That we would be tired of dust and chaotic third-world airports. Heck, that we would be tired of all the packing and unpacking it takes to move around and see multiple countries. We had anticipated this correctly. We were feeling a bit like these trudging penguins on the Cape of Good Hope. Hoping for the best but kind of trudgy.
So we opted for … Cape Town, South Africa. “The Cape.” The Europe of Africa (sometimes the Paris of Africa), as the Africa hands kept promising us. The cosmopolitan city huddled under an ancient monolith at the toe of a hemisphere. A region of interesting history, spectacular scenery and great wine. Sicily but with better weather and penguins.

Also, a city so direly short of water after a historic drought that residents are on water rationing. A place where an apocalyptic event called “Day Zero” has been scheduled when the water taps will be turned off altogether, and people will get water only by the allotted bucketful. A country in the midst of political crisis with the president being threatened with the equivalent of impeachment if he didn’t resign within two days after we arrived. He did, but political drama continues.

What could be more enticing?


In Cape Town, Louis can swim these salt-water pools daily guilt- and cost-free. (Fresh-water pools are widely closed because of water restrictions.)

For a mere $250 (the least of our airline penalties for changing scheduled flights we could no longer take), we flew south instead of north, via Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, instead of Rome, Italy. We were, finally, resigned to our visa fate but also curious to see what our bonus destination would hold and (old newsies that we are) excited to be flying into the middle of not one but two front-page stories.

In the rear-view mirror :

  • Feeding giraffes: No trip to Nairobi could be complete without a trip to the giraffe center (and the elephant orphanage and a few other beasty attractions).
  • Living like an ambassador: The only home the US Embassy had in its pool for Glen when he was posted to Nairobi was once occupied by an ambassador. Being house guests has never been so luxurious. Thank you, Glen!
  • Glimpsing colonial Africa: We spent our last afternoon in Kenya visiting the Kiambethu tea plantation, where a third-generation British tea grower greets guests in the home her grandfather built 100 years ago and talks (and serves) tea.
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  • “I had a farm in Africa”: The visit and tour of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen’s home in the area of Nairobi now simply called “Karen” was sublime for a traveler who started reading the great storyteller at least 30 years ago. Even the man keeping the woman company thought it was pretty cool.


    The typewriter, classic memoir and home of Karen Blixen 

Coming Soon: Cape Town: The Future of Urban Water?

Cape Hope

Hope for rain is the most precious commodity in Cape Town today. Never before has “water, water everywhere and nary a drop to drink” seemed so apt


Tanzania from the Air

Top of blogOur bush flights within Tanzania had their quirky aspects before our last day in the country. And then things got interesting.

Early on safari, we had learned the proud history of our bush airline and its “extensive fleet of nine airplanes” from the reverse side of their boarding passes. IMG_4818Less quaintly, our Air Excel e-tickets had come with a disclaimer that read “All times are estimates and depend on the final route on the actual day.”

We figured this was just the usual fine print but, no, the night before our scheduled 10 am departure, the amazing Laura from Amazing Tanzania urgently texted that our direct flight to Arusha had been moved up an hour to 9 am. She promised we would still arrive in plenty of time for our 12:45 flight to Nairobi, which seemed a little curious since we were leaving for it an hour earlier than previously scheduled, but we were too busy savoring our last evening to be curious.

On the dirt landing strip at Ndutu the next morning, there was a brief moment of passenger panic when there were not enough seats on our single-engine Cessna 208B for the eight of us waiting to leave, but that sorted itself out when six people inside the plane realized they had reached their final destination.

After they scrambled off, the rest of us climbed aboard, buckled in, and all that was left was for the pilot to finish loading the baggage, closing the doors and making all the other preparations a one-man crew has to make for take-off.

Joining us at last, he gave a warm “Karibu!” (“Welcome!”) and announced we would be flying to Kilomanjaro International Airport via Seronera, two airports whose Swahili names we didn’t catch and Arusha.

Right. Our scheduled non-stop to Arusha was now a five-stop flight – and that was all before our commercial flight to Nairobi. Yes, indeed: “All times are estimates and depend on the final route on the actual day.”


It’s easy to see how passengers might not know where they are landing at this airport

But the hours that followed were magical, one of those random gifts the travel gods occasionally deal out to lucky travelers. From no higher than 10,000 feet and sometimes as low as 1,000, we reveled in a birds-eye view of the plains we had been driving for a week.

Ngorngoro had awed us by land. Now we soared over the rim as if in an IMAX movie.

Air - crater.jpg

The scratch marks in the slope are the roads that had carried us to the crater floor

Colors and swirls in the crater’s salt lick that were indetectable from the ground revealed themselves.
Air - EDITED Salt lickWe understood better why the dirt road to Ndutu is so scenic: It hems the edge of the volcanic ruin like an unspooling golden thread.
Air - crater road.jpgLeaving the Serengeti behind, the transition from the wild to cultivation was clear-cut.
Air - farmland.jpgFinally, Arusha – a small town of 2 million residents – hove into view, ajumble with tin roofs and city streets while Mount Kilamanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, loomed in the background, wreathed in clouds like a victorious Greek athlete.
Air - EDITED Kili

Some of our flights were full as we hopscotched across the savanna, swapping experiences with other passengers. The family of four from Bozeman was in complete agreement that the Serengeti landscape felt just like the high plains of Montana. The CBS reporter and her Yelp lobbyist fiancé (who live near Fourth and Massachusetts in DC!) were great for 45 minutes of news talk. In the end, on our cross-town jump over Arusha, we had the entire airplane to ourselves but for the pilot.

Air - Doris

As close as we will ever get to owning our own wings

Climbing down the stairway to the tarmac at Kili airport for our return to jet propulsion en route to Nairobi, we felt like kids on Christmas morning.

One-hour hot-air balloon ride over the Serengeti? $540 per person.

Five-stop flight to Arusha via four dirt landing strips? Priceless.

In the rear-view mirror:

  • Deep blue highways: Dusty, wet or hard-pack, the roads of the Serengeti are highways to Eden.
    Road - Ngorongoro.jpg
  • The romance of mosquito nets : Honestly, what says “Africa” like sleeping within curtains like these?
  • Massai: Except for matters that have been downright outlawed (female circumcision, hunting endangered game), the Massai largely maintain their traditional herding lifestyle.

Coming Soon: Prepare to Land in Zimbabwe


One last view of the Serengeti from the ground





Eden Revisited

Roaming the southern Serengeti for a week, groping for words to even faintly capture what we saw, your Partout duo kept defaulting to movies.

Jurassic Park (Louis), Land Before Time (Doris), that famous scene in Never Cry Wolf where Charles Martin Smith as the government researcher joins a stampede of caribou.

What left us all but speechless was both the landscape itself and the profusion and diversity of life on it. More than the magnificence of the alpha male lion, the immensity of the bull elephant or the elegance of the grazing giraffe, there was simply a dizzying abundance of life and close-ups of the circles of life we had not expected.

We saw johnnies of giraffes (always all females except for one lucky male).
Johnny giraffes Wildebeest on the move
Leaping wildeDazzles of zebra (who go wherever the wildebeest go for safety in numbers)
Zebra herdStampedes of eland
ElandSometimes, in a single scene, we watched hyena slink, jackals trot, Cape buffalo lumber, ostrich peck. We observed lionesses observe hyena in the distance (pondering whether to go rid themselves of predatory competition), while the hyenas scanned the plain for their next meal or menace.
Hyenas at denMeanwhile, always, above the plain, vultures observed the dying and dead, waiting for their turn.
Vultures in tree

An estimated two million wildebeest occupy the southern end of the Serengeti plain during the migration of December to March to give birth, nurse their young and, perchance, to die. One million zebra and assorted hundreds of thousands of other grazing animals join them. Locals and guides refer to the mass of animals simply as “the migration.”

“Let’s drive into the migration this morning to see what we see,” our guide would say.

What we would see was animals as far as the eye could reach.

Herd 5
Ridge lines that looked from a distance like forests until they started undulating. Columns of trudging ungulates that stretched to the vanishing point. These were scenes from paradisal Eden or maybe from the American West before the white man.


From the distance, these could have been bison on America’s high plains.

But this was no romantic Jean Jacques Rousseau painting, no lion lying down with the lamb. For we urbanites atop a food chain that consists primarily of Costco, Trader Joe’s and Safeway, this was a dramatic and sometimes bloody demonstration of the interdependency of countless species that survive by feeding upon one another in a complex hierarchical scheme that starts between species and continues within families of single species.

At the zebra kill where we watched the alpha male gorge, one of the lionesses who brought home the meal (it’s nearly always the ladies who bring home the bacon) had the temerity to try to sneak a nibble. The lion roared and lunged at her, all teeth and claws, prompting her to instantly roll onto her back with her soft, vulnerable belly exposed in a show of abject subservience.

Lion kill

Almost as dramatic as the sight of feeding predators is the sound of bones being crunched and flesh torn and the occasional growls and howls of competitors at the lunch table

Only after the male sauntered away with sagging belly did she and a fellow female dare take their share of what they had brought home.

Doris crop

Notice how little meat the male left for the females.

When animals have fed recently and well, their stomachs clearly bulge and sometimes nearly touch the ground.

Full cheetah

We often felt this full leaving the dining room following our four-course lunches and dinners on the savanna.

Female wildebeest have a remarkable survival knack that allows them to extend their pregnancies up to two weeks if the conditions for birthing – rains not fallen, grass too sparse – are not quite right. (Giraffe can do the same for up to a month or more.) On Wednesday of our week on the plain, we had driven miles through the migration with nary a calf to be seen. Cows everywhere were swollen with full-term young, but no newborns. That night, there were rains. The day after was overcast and cooler.

On Friday morning before dawn, we set out on a childbirth search. Not far into the drive, we spotted two vultures and a crane in a three-way tug of war over something that flashed bright in the early morning sunlight. They withdrew when we drove up, leaving behind the bright red placenta they had been fighting over. The calving had begun.

PlacentaSoon, we were spotting golden flashes in the herd – the light, camouflage coats of infant wildebeest. First a single one here and there, then two or three among the long dark legs of moving adults. Birthing seemed to be contagious. Once one or two mothers in a herd of cows gave birth, others followed suit.
Doris cropYoung are born feet first and start walking immediately. We didn’t luck into a live birth but saw several minutes-old babies slick from the womb staggering after mothers who still trailed umbilical cords or afterbirth from their birth canals. There is no hanging around the maternity ward on the savanna; birthing mothers and their babies are both highly vulnerable, and many don’t make it.

At the scene of one childbirth fatality, the hind legs of the calf protruded from the dead mother’s carcass. Vultures thrust their heads up the birth canal to feed on the unborn young. Among vultures as among lions, there was a pecking order. That’s a dominant male below spreading his wings as he flew in and moved to the front of the ranks.

Doris cropBreaking rank provokes aggression against interlopers (as below). Meanwhile, predators unequipped to compete with the vultures wait their turn at the edge of the scrum, pulling rank within their own species. The stork at the upper right inflated his red air sac to signal superiority to the stork  on the left.
Vultures feeding 2Cats cull the herds, large scavengers feed on the leavings of the cats and other big predators, small scavengers feed on leftovers from larger ones, insects pick the bones clean, birds and bats gorge on the insects. Nothing goes to waste – not a placenta, not a carcass, not a morsel of edible meat. When these are all consumed, hyenas eat the bones. Then porcupines and hedgehogs eat the hyena dung, white and rich in calcium.


Eventually, all that’s left is the skull or maybe a rib cage, testimony not only to death on the plain but to life.

In the rear-view mirror:

  • Beautiful faces in all the right places: Louis took all these shots without a long-range telephoto lens.
  • Too many lions to count: By Day Four, Louis told our guide, “Can we skip lions today? They mostly just sleep anyway.”
    So many lions
  • Leopard on the run: Leopards are solitary and skittish. Note the silhouette of the one that headed down to tree trunk as we drove up.
  • Sunrise: Setting out by dawn was a daily source of great viewing, cool temperatures and beautiful sunrises.
  • Binocular bipeds: Another common species on safari

Coming Soon: Tanzania from the air
Herd 2