Thursday, December 3, 2009

South Africa

Greetings, I'm suffering from a cold that I picked up from traveling home from South Africa. It was a seventeen hour flight and I'm sure that's where I picked it up since I couldn't sleep and weakened the immune system. Of course after getting home Sunday I was told that Monday was going to be the last nice day so I took off on the bent for a 45 mile ride and was exhausted when I got home, which probably didn't help matters. But hey, I slept 12 hours last night and feel a little better.

We headed to Africa on November 14 and flew in to Johannesburg and then on to Port Elizabeth where the six of us picked up our VW van and headed south on the garden route with yours truly doing all the driving. I had to revert back to my New Zealand driving days of driving on the left hand side of the road. The roads were pretty good, but we had a lot of wind which kind of blew the van around and made driving tiring.

We drove to Knysna and was going to leave Ann there while we drove up to this pass that was supposed to be so beautiful, but decided I didn't want to leave her there by herself so we didn't go to the pass. We drove the road that I wanted to so all was fine and the scenery was superb. There is such a contrast in terrain as we drive along in the mountains and then drive in to a region of scrub and sand. We saw a lot of baboons along the road and they are considered a pest, but protected, in that they do a lot of destruction in the gardens, orchards, and homes if they can get in. They learn by observation and quickly pick up where the food is and how to get it.

We drove by shanty towns which are comprised mostly of refugees that have come to South Africa to get away from the violence of their homelands. They are often no more than plywood and corrugated metal forming a box. They get free water and electricity from the government and some have lines of toilets hooked in to the sewer system. Makes you feel pretty fortunate with what we have back home.

It was a pretty drive and we stopped at Hermanus to see the southern right whales come in to the bay at night to feed their young. The wind was blowing so hard that our hair was standing straight out, but we saw a bunch of whales. Nancy, Jack, Karin, and I went rock climbing along the coast which was fun and exhilarating while watching the clear blue waters for more whales. I thought I saw one, but wasn't sure so won't count it. Only later did we learn that the deadly puff adder snake lives in those rocks! We stayed in a nice place and went to the grocery and got bread, cheese, crackers, and wine for dinner and ate in the room and had a great time after a long day of driving.

We left there and stopped in Betty's Bay and saw the African Penguins and had an interesting talk with a couple of rangers that study and take care of the penguins. We saw a couple whales just off shore playing in the water.

Next stop was Stellenbosh. As we were driving we'd stop and watch the seals playing along the coast and sunning on the rocks. We stopped at Jack's Cafe and had a nice lunch while talking to the owner who was originally from England, but she and her husband moved here and started a cafe and the food was excellent and we had a great time. She told us about baboons watching a person taking off a sliding patio door and then later doing the same thing and trashing the house. We saw a lot of concentina wire and broken glass embedded in the top of walls and assumed it was to keep people out, but in reality it's to keep the baboons out. We made it to Stellenbosh where we turned the car in and the four days of driving are over. We stayed in a nice estate managed by a guy who couldn't even tell us where a grocery store was, nor could we find one! We did two wine tours in Stellenbosh. The first was educational and we learned some things, but the second wasn't that good. They basically said to pick 5 wines and taste them. Oh well. Danie was our guide and then he drove us on to Cape Town.

We stayed in a nice hotel near the waterfront, which was very much the lively place to be. They had malls and restaurants and great people watching. They had street entertainment and most of it was good. They also had people begging for money and they usually took no and left, but one was a little more persistent and I had to forcefully tell him to get out of my face. We took the gondola up to the top on Table Mountain where the view was breathtaking! Danie was our guide again and he then took us up another mountain to get a different view. We then stopped at a jewelry diamond facility to watch them cut and polish jewelry followed by a tour of Cape Town. Ann and I got out of the van at a garden and had lunch and then walked back to the hotel. We felt safe, but it was daylight and we stayed on the main streets. There is crime in Cape Town and you just have to use common sense.

We then headed to Kruger where we stayed at Perry's Bridge Hollow and it was nice. Dinner was included and I ordered a meat combination that was a little expensive so the next night they gave us special menus so we couldn't just order anything. We arrived at Perry's at 2 and headed out on a safari at 4 in a vehicle that had three rows of seats each one elevated a little so everyone had excellent views. We saw mongoose, rhinos, impalas, kudus, giraffes,warthogs, many birds, and more. Took pictures until the battery gave out, but there are three cameras taking a lot of pictures so we're sharing them which will be nice.

The next day Sam picked us up for the 'panoramic tour' and it looked like rain, but cleared up nicely. Sam drove us to Blyde Canyon which is the third largest canyon in the world. First is the Grand Canyon in the US and the second is somewhere in Africa, which I would think would be Victoria Falls. Blyde Canyon was beautiful and we took a lot of pictures. We bought nuts off the local vendors and they really hustle you as they really need the money. It was fun and we had more great food. Sam could speak eleven languages! His parents had a large farm and had sent him and his siblings to a private school. He paid 18 cows for his wife as they have dowries and negotiations. The women thought this rather barbaric and I guess I can see their point, but it used to be the other way around. We were up the next morning with a 5 am pickup for another safari, this time with Elvis, in to Kruger and this time we saw our first lions although it was a ways off the road, which we had to stay on. Elvis was bound and determined to get us a lion sighting and he came through. It was a good safari and I really liked Kruger National Park.

After the morning safari we were picked up and transported to Elephant Plains in Sands Sabi on a two hour excursion over some really rough roads through villages and quite a few people. The roads were wash board and dirt so it was also dusty and the driver didn't slow down too much, but it kept us awake once we hit that patch. Then we crossed into the private reserve and drove eight tenths of a mile to Elephant Plains and checked in. We saw a wildebeest on the way in plus impalas. Ann and I stayed in the Wild Dog room and we stood on our deck watching elephants which is just pretty darn cool. We had lunch at 2 and then it was time for our afternoon game drive. On this first safari here we saw giraffes, cape buffalo, rhinos, elephants and numerous brightly colored birds. This was so cool. We were driven around in range rovers with three rows of seats each a little higher than the one in front of you. This gave everyone a good view no matter where you sat. Wayne, our ranger, replete with a 458 cal. rifle on the dash, told us that the animals are used to the shape of the vehicle and people, but if we stood up our raised out hands that the animals would bolt away. So we didn't do any of that and had wonderful experiences. Conie, our tracker, rode on the seat that was attached to the front bumper and he was our game spotter and at night he shone a big bright spotlight looking for nocturnal animals. Then back to the lodge for dinner at 8 and to bed for a 5:30 game drive! Woohoo! There are five private game lodges here and they've taken down all the fences separating them so that they can all share a much larger area to view the animals. They are in contact with each other so they can share the good sightings.

There was a beautiful sunset last night and a nice sunrise this morning so life is good. We drove up to a female leopard with her three cubs who were taking turns eating on a freshly killed impala. As long as we were quite and not moving around the leopards didn't seem to mind us being there. So cool! The leopard completed our 'Big Five' sightings, which are the elephant, rhino, cape buffalo, lion, and leopard. I'm telling you, life is good! Next we got a call that there was a pride of lions headed to the boundary and going to cross in to Kruger so off we went only to have a tree that an elephant had pushed over, across the road. So with Conie on the front directing Wayne backs up and we start a true safari of off road and around obstacles until we were back on the road and made the lion sighting. There were 7 or 8 young males lounging around and one by one they would get up and walk a ways following each other and then lie down for a short period and then once again one by one they would get up and move on. We are just sitting there and they are walking right in front of us or we are sitting beside them, up close and personal. Definitely a great morning game drive! Returned at 8:30 for a great breakfast.

Then at 10:30 most of us went on a bush walk with Wayne and his trusty 458. We saw a giraffe and some impala and studied the termite mounds and he explained the workings of the mound. He showed us the different tracks the animals made and insects including an ant lion that is a beetle that makes a cone shaped depression in the sand and then buries itself below the bottom. Then when an ant walks in the ant lion will blow sand up and the ant slides to the bottom and he becomes dinner. Wayne was able to trick the ant lion into thinking there was an ant walking across and it threw the sand up, but nothing slid down. Then we saw a few vervet monkeys, but they stayed clear of us.

The termites keep the inside of their mounds to within a one degree variation by air tunnels that they open and close as needed. While we were out the night before we saw a lot of bugs flying around after dark and there were quite a few bugs in our room as well so we decided that the mosquito net around our bed was more to keep the other bugs out more so than the mosquitoes. I found a can of bug killer and dosed the window and door openings and that seemed to help some, but we're in the middle of a game preserve so that is to expected. The lodge was very nice and the people were great, except the bar didn't have any African tequila, which I've been searching for since I found out they made some there.
We hung around the Wild Dog room until it was time for our evening game drive. On the game drive Wayne and Conie both missed a leopard that was lying right alongside the road, but eagle eye Jack spotted it and Wayne backed up and the leopard started walking up the road marking it's territory by urinating on bushes as he walked along. We turned around and followed for a while until she had to lie down for a little while to rest.
I thought about jumping out and marking a little piece of territory for myself, but Wayne advised me against such a plan and I listened. We had our sun downer, drinks and biscuits, near the waterhole with the hippos swimming around. While we were there we watched an elephant walk along the far side of the waterhole. I thought it was going to get a drink, but another vehicle drove up close to it and it went on and was gone.

After it got dark we were spotting game and Conie spotted a young leopard lying in the grass and then a beautiful eagle owl sitting atop a tree. We were back for dinner at 8 and ate outside around a fire and it was nice. Then they brought out marshmallows and roasting sticks, but nobody wanted to roast them so when they got to me I took a stick, which could have been a little longer, and several marshmallows and roasted them and handed a few out and ate a few myself. One other brave soul came out after I started and roasted one. Then for dessert they brought out Jack's with a sparkler in it and we all sang happy birthday to Jack and that was fun.
For lunch they had made a cake for him and everybody shared that.
We were up the next morning at 4 along with the birds and got ready for our 5:30 game drive. We drove to the water hole and saw elephants playing in the water and then they got out and marched off while the hippos were cavorting and bellowing in the water. And then the highlight of the trip happened. We drove up to a tree that had a hyena lying at the base and up the tree a female leopard was lying down with all four legs hanging over the limb. One of it's cubs were in the tree with her along with an adult impala that she had killed the night before and carried up the tree wedging it between some limbs so the hyena couldn't get it. The cub would go up every once in a while and chew a little. Wayne turned around to us and said that it just didn't get much better than this, and I agree! It was just like National Geographic, but truly up close and personal. We watched them for quite a while and it was stunning. The pictures and verbal descriptions just can't and don't do it justice. Then all of a sudden the hyena and another that had appeared perked up and trotted off to our right only to return a short while later. The leopard kept on alert to see what they were up to and then laid back down content that all was okay. Then we went to the waterhole and had our morning sun downer, or should be be called a sun upper? What a way to finish out safari and our visit to South Africa!
We headed back to the lodge and packed up and headed towards the airport outside Kruger to fly to Joberg and then Atlanta. We sat around the game lodge until it was time to head out and Rufus was our driver and I guess he had a bad case of BO as it about made everybody sick, I was sitting directly behind him and didn't smell a thing so I guess there are some advantages to not being able to smell very well. It started raining a little as we approached the airport and by the time the plane was approaching to pick us up a real storm hit and the winds were blowing gale force so the plane had to return to Joberg and African Airlines said sorry bout that sh%$(, but we aren't responsible for anything. So we were scrambling around trying to figure out what to do. The airlines offered to get a bus and drive us for 5 hours through the mountains in a storm for 800 rand apiece and we still wouldn't make our flight to Atlanta. Eventually they got a plane in and we flew to Joberg where we got a room at Summer Sun right next to the airport and then sat around the hotel until they kicked us out at 3 when we went to the airport and sat around there until our flight left at 9:05. Oh, and did I mention that we had to pay $250 each to rebook our tickets? Just a little pissed. Now we have to hassle with the insurance company to get reimbursed, wish us luck.
The airport in Johannesburg had a machine that was wrapping suitcases and packages so I walked over and talked to the people wrapping them and asked them if the handlers were that bad that they had to wrap them and they replied that there was a lot of theft. They said that it was better than it used to be, but it was still bad. So they didn't sound too optimistic that our bags, which have been 'locked up' in the basement for a day, would appear intact. I really thought that our bags would not appear in Atlanta or at least with some things missing, but I was pleasantly surprised when they appeared and everything was there!
If I ever do a long flight like that again I will be drugged to sleep as 17 hours is just too frigging long to be in a plane! I didn't sleep and watched a ton of movies and didn't even get to sit with Ann. We were in the back row and I was on the center aisle with Ann next to me in the center seat. On her right was a woman with a 20 month old baby! I was thrilled to say the least, but then they asked me if I would move to a center seat in the first row of economy. Ann thought it best if I did so as not to do harm to the baby or her mother when it started screaming. I checked it out and thought it would work as I had more leg room and it would allow the mother, who was most appreciative, to put the baby down on a seat and sleep some. It was a rough flight in spots and Ann got sick so was glad I was up where I was as it wasn't bad at all there. Felt sorry that she got sick though. Got to Cincinnati airport around noon and Linda was there to pick us up and I was ready to get home and go to bed! Got up Monday and decided to go for a ride since Tuesday was going to get pretty nasty. I went out for a 47 miler and was totally exhausted when I got back and was chilled to the bone. When I got up Tuesday morning I was sick! I know some person on the plane gave me a cold!!! But in the grand scheme of things I guess a cold wasn't too bad and the trip was well worth it.
So all in all the trip was a trip of a lifetime and finishes off our quest to visit all the continents plus I can claim Greenland and the ice cap when I was in Air National Guard. So I'm ready to spend some time at home and the long trips are over for a while. I tried adding pictures, but wasn't too successful so will try again to post a few pictures. I can add them at the beginning, but I want to place them as they appear.