Toby Shapshak is an award winning journalist and expert on the topic of innovation in Africa. He will be hosting the WYSTC 2015 opening keynote address on Tuesday, 22 September so we picked his brain to learn more about his passion for travel, innovation and gastronomy.
You recently wrote an article for the Financial Mail about your experience with Uber and the controversy that surrounds it in various cities of the world. What are your thoughts on this type of service as it pertains to young people? How do you think Uber- or other peer-to-peer services- will fare in the long run?
With any luck Uber and Uber-like sharing services will be the future. They are easy to use, provide a service for customers and willing customers for service providers and are cheaper.
Airbnb is one of my other favourite things about this century. A way to stay in foreign cities, in the area you want, without paying through the nose. I’ve used it in Berlin, San Francisco, even Cape Town. I was trying to book a hotel room in Cape Town and it was so difficult and arduous, I just swapped over to Airbnb and had a room at half the price with a great view in minutes.
We live in a world were convenience and ease-of-use are expected. If your service doesn’t have them, us consumers will migrate to places where we get it – like Airbnb. Besides, with Airbnb, the WiFi is always faster because you’re not sharing it with 100 other people in a hotel.
What are some of your most memorable travel experiences as a young person and why do you think they stuck as memorable? Did you ever stay in youth hostels? Did you ever experience difficulties in obtaining a travel visa or with language differences?
I loved travelling. My earliest memory of an overseas trip was to Paris, where my father was born, when I was about five. I loved every part of the trip, from staring out the window at the passing clouds (I still love it and find it meditative) to the little plastic containers all the food came in. For years, because of this, I loved airplane food.
When I finished my journalism degree, I went backpacking through Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. I loved it. They were some of the best years of my life.
Is there any technology that you wish had existed when you were younger and travelling?
I did my backpacking in 1990’s, so it was a mostly pre-Internet age, where I wrote letters and postcards home. I think this lack of connection somehow made the experience more immersive, because, at most, you could take a picture with a camera. Now, when I travel, I suddenly become a snap-happy Instagrammer. I often find myself feeling frenetic about seeing great things, and having to post them when I’m near wherever I took them so Instagram can tag where it happened.
I travelled when the Sony Walkman was still the pinnacle of portable music, and cassette tapes the media. Compare that to my 128GB iPhone 6 Plus, which is now my GPS, guidebook, music store, video player as I’m falling asleep in my hotel – and then my social media gateway to the world, as I check email and SMS, WhatsApp and Facebook, etc., etc. I think I’m happier I had those carefree backpacking days.
What is your favourite travel destination and why?
New York. No matter how many times I’ve been there, I always get an extra kick when I’m en route there. It’s truly the ultimate modern-day megalopolis.
Where would you like to go (that you’ve not yet been to)?
I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand. I never made it to South East Asia when I was a backpacker. I’ve also never been to South America, and would truly love to see Machu Picchu.
South Africa recently implemented new visa regulations, affecting travelling children under the age of 18. What is your take on the new regulations and the debate taking place around these regulations?
It’s mind-bogglingly stupid. Irrational in the extreme. Tourism is the lifeblood of any economy. To restrict it is just foolhardy, by any government.
Where did you grow up and did your family travel when you were young?
I grew up in Johannesburg. My father was born in Paris so we often travelled there to see family, including visiting my mother’s close cousin in London. I got the travel bug young.
Where do you live now and is it an interesting destination for young people? Why or why not?
I live back in Joburg, which I love. It’s home, so it has special meaning for me and my family are here. If a young person wants to experience what a vibrant African modern city, then Joburg is a great place to visit. It’s got wonderful things to see and do, including the near cradle of humanity.
There seem to be two polar opposites developing in terms of travel and digital connectivity, on the one hand: constant, hyper-connectivity, need for free WiFi and sharing via social media while travelling and on the other hand: ‘unplugged travel’ and specifically taking time off from our smartphones. What are your thoughts on this? Are we in a love-hate relationship with our smartphones? Why do we want to travel to discover and at the same time constantly connect back to what we already know (home)?
I did my backpacking in a pre-connected age where I took pictures on a film camera. I held onto those exposed rolls of film until I got back to London, and, only then, saw the images. While I was walking around seeing an amazing destination, the most I had to do was take the odd picture. I think I had a more immersive, less distracted experience then. Now when I travel, I am as glued to my smartphone and those fantastic free WiFi hotspots that seem to have proliferated just as anyone else.
It makes travelling infinitely less disruptive to have email on your phone and to be able to respond to mail quickly and easily, but you’re always looking down like a CrackBerry addict. Or Instagramming. I try to limit that, but it can so easily overwhelm you.
Snapchat…what’s your take on it?
Thankfully, it’s passed me by. I never got the bug; no-one I knows uses it.
Are you authoring a book and would you like to tell us a bit about it?
Yes, I am writing a book on innovation in Africa.
For those visiting South Africa for the first time, what are your top 3 travel tips for them?
Cape Town is arguably one of the greatest cities to visit in the world, with its visual splendour and breath-taking views. It has everything: sea, mountains, winelands, good wine and great food. It’s hard to have a bad time in the summer in Cape Town, catch the sunset from the bar on top of sea-facing Wakame or on-the-beach bar The Grand.
Secondly, drive an hour inland and spend a few nights in Franschhoek, which is nestled in the mountains and home to some of the finest vineyards and restaurants in the country. Try French Connection and Reuben’s.
Finally, bring sun block. Wear it liberally.
For foodies, what are your top three recommendations for authentic food experiences in South Africa?
Have a braai – South Africa’s national pastime is the barbecue, as much a part of our cultural identity as our knack for solving problems.
Biltong is a gift from the gods. Cured and dried meat, it sustained the Boer Kommandos during the Anglo Boer War of 1902 and is now a gift for the low-carb world.
Try the wine. The Cape winelands around Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are legendary. Take advantage.
WYSE is currently doing a survey with young travellers to learn about their experiences and opinions on food and travel. Is food an important element of your travels? Do you think cultural cuisines have more interest thanks to travellers sharing photos via social media? Do you have a favourite food destination outside of South Africa?
Yes. I love food. I experience so much of a country by eating the food. I have vivid memories of so many great places because of the food I ate. I totally plan my trips based on what I can eat and where. I’m always especially delighted when I go to San Francisco and Austin for the Mexican and BBQ respectively. My ultimate food designation is Japan. I still dream of the caught-that-prong sushi I had at Tsukiji Market at 7 am in Tokyo.