Africa

CDN Couple’s Great Africa Adventure (Part One)


Photo credit: South Africa Tourism

Following is the Day x Day tale of Mr and Mrs L who spent between October 25 and November 28, 2011 travelling in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The retired but “young at heart” couple, who are ages 70 and 68 respectively, have travelled many long and taxing trips during the last 15 years. And now it was time to visit Africa.  

Read on. This is Part One of a Four Part Series, beginning in South Africa.

October 25 2011

Johannesburg

Arrived Joburg after a relatively relaxed easy, smooth flight from Washington DC and were greeted at our guest house by our welcoming hosts. A short reorganization in our room was followed by a very acceptable home style meal and then bed for a try at sleep, although not too successful.

Because we arrived 12 hours earlier than originally planned, due to M’s diligent monitoring of the flight schedule availability, we had a bonus day available to see Joburg, and that we did.

October 26

The day started with an introduction to Soweto, created at the beginning of apartheid when the blacks were evicted from Johannesburg. What a surprise as we drove through a neighbourhood filled with comfortable and stylish homes that any of us would live in with pleasure.

The Soweto we expected was an area with tin shacks filled with hordes of family members living in conditions which were not humane, no running water, toilets, electricity and only with the cramped bare essentials for cooking, eating and sleeping.

Although there are some residents living in these much less than adequate conditions, who for a variety of reasons will not change, many more will eventually be afforded the opportunity with the help of the government to make their living conditions more acceptable, as in our definition thereof.

A walk through this area guided by a local “entrepreneur”, a well spoken young man, identified that all was not as it seemed. There was a clean day care for preschool age children and free public school education was available, albeit a 4 km walk away. The home we visited had one small bedroom and a kitchen living area which accommodated 5 family members. Outside in a fenced in ‘front yard’ was a hard dry area of earth swept clean daily. There was a sense of self respect shown in this home.

Further along we came across a similar home with a Mercedes Benz parked beside it in a covered parking space. It was explained that the individuals preferred to live here rent free, have a prestige car and continue their lifestyle.

Next stop was Vilagazi Street at the Hector Pieterson Museum. The museum commemorates the June 1976 massacre at a non-violent student uprising, a poignant realization of the brutal realities of apartheid that took the lives of young people such as Pieterson. This museum was on a street that at that time housed Nelson and Winnie Mandela as well as Desmond Tutu. Both Desmond Tutu and Winnie Mandela still have houses on the street.

After a lunch break, it was now on to the Apartheid Museum. Well, no matter how much you may have thought you knew about Apartheid, the stark descriptions, photos and videos of the realities of events and government statutes set in place to keep whites from being ‘contaminated’ (my words) by blacks brought a powerful sense of shame for the people and regime who allowed this travesty to occur. Unfortunately we did not have enough time to spend in this museum so that we could try to more fully comprehend what is an unthinkable period of human history.

Now our bonus day has ended, we moved on to the reason we chose to make a stopover, albeit short, in Johannesburg. Melanie, for those who are not natives of our Ontario, Canada home town, is the daughter of friends. Melanie chose to move to her parents’ home town a few years ago and make a life in South Africa where she could help to influence change for the better.

We met Mel for dinner at a lovely restaurant on the outdoor balcony. It finally occurred to the wait staff, that after checking at our table at least half a dozen times, we were more interested in talk than dining. Mel appeared to us so happy and delighted to spend time with us. We chatted and chatted about her life in Joburg and South Africa. Somewhere along the way Mel’s cell rang and a smile appeared as she said that her boyfriend would be joining us for a visit and that he did.

I’m not sure that ‘love at first sight’ is the appropriate phrase, but Mel’s boyfriend is a winner. He is bright, articulate (has been a journalist), tall and handsome and appears to be a ‘mentsch’. The evening eventually ended (yes we did get to eat and consumed some fine SA wine.

October 27

Hoedspruit


Photo credit: Stuart Bassil

Next morning we flew to Hoedspruit in a brand new DeHaviland Dash 8 Q400 aircraft inscribed as made in Ontario, Canada in January, 2011. We were picked up and driven to Drifters Game Lodge, our new home for the next three nights. Drifters is part of a private association of large tract land owners adjacent to Kruger National Park. There are no fences other than at the perimeter of the private areas, thereby allowing all the game in Kruger to wander into these private areas. After a short welcome we took the opportunity to put our heads down for about and hour until we ‘dressed’ in our drive/safari clothes for the evening game drive.

Before we left, we were sitting on the lodge veranda viewing three baboons with red tushies at the water hole. Our luck was with us as we were the only guests for the next couple of days and we had the Land Cruiser, driver/guide (Isaac) and a front fender sitting scout (Johnson) all to ourselves.

The collection of game sightings was impressive this first time out. Game sighted included McDonald impala (an antelope, so-called due to the distinctive ‘M’ markings on their tushies), several other varieties of antelope, a hippopotamus with the biggest mouth ever seen, many guinea fowl, a variety of mostly nameless (to us) birds but included eagles and owls, lots of zebras (some pregnant and some nursing), adult and baby giraffes, lions standing asleep in the bush, three cubs with their lion mother heading off to (catch) dinner,

October 28

Next morning after a night of thunder and rain we met for a quick breakfast and left on the morning game drive at 6 AM.

Now I must explain what the ‘drive’ part of game drive is. For those of you who are sailors, if you’ve been across eastern Lake Ontario in not the best of weather, you haven’t seen anything yet until you’ve been on the so-called roads in the veld. They are mostly ruts over rocks, stones, mud and water pools just after a rain, as today, up and down uneven terrain that twists and turns to accommodate any obstruction. It is somewhat exhausting as you utilize almost all your body muscles to maintain balance especially when all of a sudden, the driver takes off and increases speed to where there is game to be found a distance ahead, needing to reach the game before it decides to move on.

This morning proved to be somewhat less fulfilling in terms of numbers of animals seen, but satisfying nonetheless as we sat and watched three huge white rhinos (so named because they have a white mouth). They are so much bigger and stood higher off the ground than we expected. We came across some wildebeasts, more impala and waterbuck (antelope). We did a bush walk and had many opportunities to see and be informed about nature’s inter-relationships among the animals, birds, insects and vegetation.

One of the outstanding and unique displays we encountered involved the dung beetle. This insect forms round balls from fresh elephant, rhino and buffalo dung. The dung, roughly 8-10 inches round and about 6 inches high for elephants, a little smaller from the others, is mostly vegetation roughage that has not been digested. The beetle uses its front pincers to select the dung pieces and continues to roll the ball into sizes from a golf ball to much larger than soft ball. The dung beetle has been identified as the strongest living creature able to move 300 times its weight using its back legs

We headed back to the lodge for a more formal breakfast.

The evening drive with our new driver/guide (Gavin) and the same front fender guide Johnson, wound up to be a larger than life experience. A group of female adult elephants and their young ones were almost nose to nose with us as they ate their way across and behind our stationary vehicle. Not to be outdone by the elephants, a herd of buffalo heard we were so interesting that they too came nose to nose (their noses were huge and runny, but ours were dry and cute!) with us. Although it was pitch black dark by this time, a bright hand held light helped so we could not only see them close, but were able to capture them on our cameras. What exciting experiences and hopefully they will be repeated throughout our excursions. A few other impala, a lone steenbuck (smaller antelope) and one or two other animals were also seen using the light constantly being scanned through the bush as we drove back to our lodge for a fine dinner and good SA wine, then off to sleep.

October 29

This morning we awoke and got ready, then walked up to the lodge to have a cup of tea and small pre-breakfast snack. So we got the kettle boiling, found the tea bags and started to worry ‘did Gavin get picked off by a lion or whatever’, when in he came running, with apologies that he slept through two alarms. He was excused and forgiven and we headed out on our morning drive to do a nature walk. The knowledge and experience of a professional such as Gavin are to be appreciated for the way they are able to describe the workings of nature including not only the animals, but also the birds, insects, vegetation and all their interrelated interactions.

Back to the lodge, download the pictures, rest, have tea and then another evening game drive.

Off to seek more elephants, this time without the vehicle but on foot carefully walking one behind the other to not give the impression we were a large predator. We were led through the bush until we found them slowly meandering …

Then back to the Land Cruiser and away we bumped along finding more impala, kudu, small monkeys, wildebeast, more elephants, waterbuck, another herd of buffalo, giraffes and zebras. After a small snack and some imbibing watching the sun go down we continued on into the darkness along in the bush with our trusty spotter on his light, then back to the lodge for dinner on the veranda and then to sleep for a 0445h wake-up for our last morning drive at Drifters.

October 30

… onto the Land Rover. Zebra, steenbuck, giraffes, impalas, eagle, hippopotamus, dwarf mongoose, a lion track, many beautiful birds and back to our delightfully situated ‘tent’ accommodation, one of eight similar units situated a considerable distance away from each other. Although the comfortable sleeping area was a tent from the window sills up to the thatched roof, the bathroom was built with solid walls, tile floors and a glass door to the shower on a small porch overlooking the watering hole.

We packed, said our goodbyes, left our tips and off to the Hoedspruit Airport for the first leg to Joburg and then Cape Town where we will spend the next week on our own.

October 31

Cape Town

Table Mountain from the Cape Town waterfront
Photo credit: George Groutas

A relaxing day all on our own without schedules … you guessed right, we stayed in bed past 0500h today. Off to the Waterfront for brunch. A wander through the shops with delightfully interesting African wares as well as regular shopping ‘stuff’ occupied us until we headed out by foot to pick up our rental stick shift VW Polo. Most streets don’t have easily identifiable names and the numbers appear to be sometimes sequential by building and sometimes not. Although there were a few horns honked at us along the way as we retraced a few turns made in the wrong direction, we found our hotel even though it does not have a street number.

Tonight we visited the Seapoint area for dinner.

Tomorrow we head out to explore the areas out of Cape Town.

November 1

After a delayed start due to a booking error, we stayed in Cape Town one extra day, so off to Table Mountain … the mountain was without its often misty cloud or high winds and so it was open. The drive to the mountain provided a variety of scenery as we wound our way up to the cable car entrance. It was clear and sunny as we were whisked to the top although it was somewhat cooler up there. Spectacular views met your every turn … looking out to the other mountains in the immediate vicinity or to the spread of Cape Town below …

Then off to find Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens set within the city limits of Cape Town. Stepping into the gardens was instant serenity as we wandered the paths of greenery with profusions of Birds of Paradise in orange and yellow, gerbers which are native to South Africa and many beds of nameless (to us) tiny flowers all interspersed with the funny looking Guinea Fowl, a large bulbous body with a tiny colourful blue head always running hither and yon using tiny steps with a very quick pace.

November 2

Hermanus

Whale crier of Hermanus
Photo credit: South Africa Tourism

With our trusty SA GPS and my sidekick navigator M, we made our way to Hermanus, a whale watchers paradise. Taking advice provided by our hosts in Hermanus we headed for the scenic (longer) route following the ocean roads. The prescribed route meandered and climbed and descended through the mountainous coast and several seaside communities. What a ride it would make on the motorcycle.

At our Hermanus Beach Villa we were welcomed by our hosts Charl & Riana. We instantly developed a liking for this couple and spent much time with them. They were from Zimbabwe and had been evicted from their farm even though they won four separate court decisions reversing their eviction. Their life was dramatically changed as there was no compensation for their farm.

Hermanus has a seaside pathway that follows a cliff overlooking the ocean that continues for miles. We wandered out after a stop for lunch searching for whales and find them we did. In a smaller bay about 2 km from the guest house, which was backed onto the pathway, we spotted whales blowing and playfully jumping in and out of the ocean, tails flapping as they disappeared below the surface to appear again and repeat their act. The whales stayed close together for some time probably because they were teaching the smaller younger whales what every parent whale teaches their children. As we meandered back to Charl & Riana’s place we stopped and chatted with other visitors exchanging our experiences and more importantly providing directions to the recent whale sitings.

November 3

Franschoek

Cape Dutch House, Franschoek
Photo credit: South Africa Tourism

Next morning after warm sincere hugs and kisses we left Charl & Riana, stopping again to see our whales and to try for a few more pictures. A 16x zoom lens and a steadying monopod are still not enough to capture the wonders of nature.

From nature to the cell phone shop, we got our voice mail fixed.

Next stop was wine country. It was almost off our must see list as we obviously have our own local Niagara wineries, but we listened to the advice of others and we are happy we did so. First stop was Franschoek, a small but delightful community with many guest houses/B&B’s including our new home for the night. A little bit of resettlement and soon we were off to lunch on the patio at le Petite Ferme winery accompanied by a couple glasses of their Franschoek wines, M now drinking with gusto including her not so loved reds until now. On the main street after our petit desjeunier we found whatever the town had to offer … shops with fine Belgian chocolate, clothes and of course souvenirs. So far, only looking and admiring.

At our hosts suggestion we had dinner a short distance away. Dinner was a culinary experience. The food was delicious, but the presentation was beyond expectation. A Caesar salad was presented with a duck egg cooked and covered in a delicate, flavourful deep fried potato batter alongside a scooped out tomato filled artistically with a flower design consisting of leaves of Romaine dressed with a Caesar style dressing, situated beside shaved large slices of Parmesan cheese as well as a couple of long bread stick like croutons. The rest of the meal was equally well presented.

November 4

Stellenbosch and Cape Town

False Bay Coast
Photo credit: Flickr user Kyknoord

This day was a day spent tasting wine, starting in Stellenbosch at La Motte winery, an elegant five star experience, especially for early in the day. Too bad we felt it impossible to buy wine to bring home. Another wine tasting at Boschendal Winery, then to Takara Winery for lunch (another five star winner) overlooking the beautiful rolling Stellenbosch valley and yet again another winery and more wine tasting. Along the way we chatted with many other tourists from all over Europe and down under, exchanging wonderful travel experiences and offering each other our ‘expertise’ for their enjoyment. So many more wineries, hundreds and hundreds that it would take ages to enjoy tasting wines at so many of them. By the way, our rented Avis VW Polo was a manual shift car so M was not able to be the designated driver and H was enjoying the wine tastings too much to care.

Now back to Cape Town, with Mel’s mom’s school hood girlfriend from Joburg. Louise and her husband took us to the Great Synagogue of Cape Town, a magnificent courtyard and building with the traditional women’s balcony, centre bima from which the cantor and choir chant the prayers, surrounded by the pews with the torah and rabbi’s lectern at the front. The service was familiar and comfortable in spite of separate seating and being orthodox.

November 5

A scenic drive was had along the False Bay coast, with colourful beach houses at Muisenberg, with Simonstown our lunch stop overlooking the False Bay Yacht Club before heading to Boulder’s Beach, home to the African penguin, shorter and squatter than those we have seen at the zoo, but nonetheless cute and still’s M’s favourite animal.

November 6

We returned our car and off to the Jewish Museum and Holocaust Centre both located in the same courtyard complex as the Grand Synagogue. We were disappointed in the presentations at the Jewish Museum as it appeared to not balance the reality of most Jews in SA. It’s focus was on the more successful wealthy in the community, but neglected to provide a narrative of the majority of those who had immigrated to SA omitting the nature of their work, homes, education, religious observances and affiliations. There were however, exhibits that indicated that there were strong influences by the Jews opposing apartheid including the only outspoken anti-apartheid representative in parliament. Also displayed were newspaper caricature/cartoons by a well known SA cartoonist, Zapiro, (actual name is Shapiro) illustrating the struggle to achieve the end of apartheid with a strong message that Nelson Mandela was respected and supported. The more recent cartoons were critical of the current government for having lost its original post-apartheid values. The Holocaust Centre was emotionally moving and an experience not to be missed, although the National Holocaust Memorial in DC is outstanding in its presentation, but certainly not to the extent of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Then we met our Kiboko Adventures travel group at the hotel for our briefing and then out to dinner.

November 7

As we had already visited Table Top Mountain, we had breakfast with our new group of friends and left to go to the GreenMarket where we enhanced the economy. We then joined our group at the bottom of Table Top.

Back to our tour to the famous Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point which did not disappoint. Befuddling as it seemed to us at first, we learned that Cape of Good Hope was not the most southerly tip of Africa, but was the most southerly tip of western Africa, which when rounded brought those who did so into False Bay. This turned out to be a very safe anchorage. Cape Town developed early on as ships rounded the cape and were replenished with fresh foods and other necessities. It was determined that wine aboard the ships kept better than water and the area around the cape was ideal for grape growing and wine making, as we had already found.

Off to visit the penguins again, for the others in our group had not yet observed them and M was happy to visit again.

Back to the hotel, dinner, money changing, snacks and bottled water …

Early mornings were in our future, making bedtime and sleep time precious, especially as we are not morning people, so good night to all it was.

November 8

Calvinia

Drakensburg Moutains
Photo credit: South Africa Tourism

On to our vehicle, specially converted as an overland safari truck to seat 16, carry minimal amounts of luggage, a freezer/cooler, battery inverter and adapters for recharging batteries (unfortunately this didn’t work for recharging body batteries) and away for the 1st 400 km day … did I forget to mention that it had minimal suspension and the seats were, shall I say, not airline style …

Calvinia was our destination driving through the Karoo area where delicious Karoo lamb is raised.

The land was sand covered with sparse vegetation and included our exposure to the quiver tree which thrives on minimal water and so named as its branches were used by the San (Bushmen) people to hold their arrows. Rocks and somewhat rectangular boulders, with colours of red, copper and black were exposed above ground due to natures’ changing geological structuring and rock erosion over the millennia. These rock formations were so artistic in their appearances that we at first believed that those who may have tilled the land had placed them in such poses, but this was not the case … it was mother nature who was the artisan.

Arrival at our destination found us at a historic house, our room decorated with a four poster canopied bed and numerous pieces of antique carved wood furniture and a washroom with all the modern amenities and as large as a living room.

A museum, originally built as a synagogue in 1920, continued as such until 1986 when the Jewish population diminished. The building and land were donated to the town council by the congregation for use as a local museum. There are only three known Jews remaining in Calvinia and I believe I encountered one of them riding his bicycle down the main street, although it hasn’t yet been confirmed by the Guiness Book of Records.

A walk down the street for dinner at a sister guest house and off to our comfortable bed.

November 9 through November 13

Distances between farms and small communities are immense, connected by a sparse myriad of roads that vary from modern to hard packed dirt, to stones, to sand tracks, to privately maintained ruts over rocks and boulders. Sometimes there are many kilometres before one sees any signs of life, human or animal. Seldom do we encounter other vehicles in either direction, but when we do all windows are closed in unison if we are on a road that stirs up dust. Not so nice even for a short while in our non-air-conditioned environment, but we soldier on without complaint.

The scenery along our travel path for the next few days varied between lush fresh water irrigated fields of vineyards and fruit trees to the desert that is much of our travel area.

Water in the Karoo is provided by the Orange River traversing from the Drakensberg Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. Much of the water is redirected via canals although it is also supplemented with wind mills pulling up artesian water to storage tanks as well as to watering holes for the animals’ benefit. The climate does not provide for much rainfall, so in many areas the annual rainfall is less than 100mm or about 4 inches.

Augrabies Falls

Augrabies Falls
Photo credit: South Africa Tourism

The Karoo was left behind as we made way to our next stop at Augrabies Falls. Here we were reminded of the effects of nature on the land and way of life, changes that are largely unpredictable and often dramatically sad. Augrabies was a case in point.

Fed by many branches of the Orange River, the Falls has been a source of change and wonder. Just a short while ago, this past March, the rains brought on the second highest recorded levels of rainfall causing forceful flooding that even the viewing stations at the top of the Falls, some 100 metres or so high, were damaged so as to be unusable. Swirls of water created holes in the huge boulders by moving rocks in a circular fashion acting as a drill. The water level is now extremely low, dramatizing the immense difference which occurs in short time frames.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a part of the Kalahari, so named because it crosses the frontiers of SA and also Botswana, is the largest of the reserves in Africa covering some 3.6 million hectares (slightly smaller than Holland).

The drive to our lodge in the park was the beginning of another fascinating opportunity to see the wildlife in form. The game included many we had previously encountered during our first week, but also provided sightings of new animals, oryx, a sitting lonely giraffe and especially a face to face meeting with a lion. Birds appeared along the way, but were difficult to identify as they flew by. Ones that were able to be identified were a gorgeous lilac breasted roller, a large secretary bird which mostly walks, a corey bustard (big @ 18kg and it flies) and up to hundreds of social weaver birds that form and live in large upside down nests which hang from tree branches, or in areas without trees, from hydro poles. The entrance to these nests is from the bottom creating a more difficult time for predators to attack.

We found a lion resting at a water hole. It was oblivious to our two 4×4’s parked next to him. As we continued to watch his somnolent posture, we were privileged to be within 10 or so feet away and were able to capture his face and body with our ever-clicking cameras. (I can’t imagine having to stop midway through a photo op like this to change my 36 exposure roll of Kodachrome, probably 3 or 4 times. Thank you Mr. Digital!)

This particular lion apparently had consumed a porcupine and was ill because he had not removed all the quills before dining. He was trying to consume huge amounts of water, thereby helping to bring up the quill from his stomach. His sibling lioness will bring him food and we were comforted to learn that she would provide this black maned lion the sustenance required and yes, he will recuperate.

A bat eared fox and a bustard bird, although not as exciting as a lion, were also within view.

Although the African Bushman, a very tiny people, no longer exists in his original villages, the vestiges of this once flourishing tribe are trying to establish a way to maintain their knowledge of the traditions of their forbearers by teaching the young how they hunted and lived in the bush. A small group has been established adjacent to our lodge. Here they practice some of their craft making, alongside family members. It was sad to learn that they were the objects of tribal wars that forced them to move from place to place ending in the extinction of their historical way of life. Today, not many of the Bushmen (also known as San) remain.

With the scarcity of natural water supplies, water is extracted from plants and fruits such as the tasteless summer melon, a honeydew lookalike with black seeds and no colour. In the areas without rainfall and accumulation of water in rivers or even catch basins, artificial waterholes have been created by drilling to the water table using mostly windmills, and sometimes solar powered pumps, to bring the water to cisterns which feed the man-made waterholes.

Read Part Two: Namibia, Part Three: Botswana, and Part Four: Zambia & Zimbabwe

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