Saturday, January 8, 2011

South Africa

Once again we left Doha on the red-eye special…haven’t figured out why all flights seem to leave at 2 in the morning…perhaps we’re just cheap and it’s the price…
AISJ and those wonderful clouds!
We arrived in Johannesburg bright and early in the morning…and immediately noticed the wonderful white fluffy clouds. Now sometimes I must admit the beautiful clouds turned dark and dropped some heavy duty rain on us – nothing like our Portland rain -  but these were just the wonderful fleeting images clouds and I never seemed to tire of them. They followed us everywhere on the trip, making the sky and sunsets just gorgeous.
African Hoopoe
Suzanne took us out on a great tour of Jo’burg, heading out for the international school where she was teaching, through the maze of streets and sights, and finally to her home. She lives out in the suburbs where there’s less traffic and noise, parks to walk in while dodging the dogs and poo (no pooper scooper laws here) but also to just relax. It was delightful to wake up to the sight and sounds of birds flitting through her yard and the park. The African Hoopoe caught my attention with its bright red head and zebra striped wings. I worked on lots of pictures of birds on this trip…and caught few.

Indaba Restaurant with Suzanne

We headed for a great African restaurant that night – a smorgasbord so that we could sample lots of different foods. Beautiful setting overlooking a pond, more birds, beautiful sunset…and lots of great food!  Jeff found lots of new meats available…ostrich, kudu, ox, springbok…and maybe others we can’t remember. They also have a wonderful butternut squash dish – actually many different dishes. Some salads were similar while others included different tastes and spices – a real delight to enjoy so many new tastes.
African Sunset
After dinner…and severe jet lag…we wisely (huh) took off downtown to see what Suzanne thought was a play. It turns out it was a story of the South African people told in song…but much of it not in English. The ambiance was great, the rhythm moving, the room warm and the eyes drooping. It was held in a small area of town where there was a lot of development going on, various shops to wander through and an old town feel. South Africa isn’t a place to wander about too far at night but fortunately Suzanne has explored various places areas with movie theaters, restaurants and such that are great for an evening out. On our own, and without her knowledge, we’d have probably been stuck staying closer to home.   I did get a picture of the Nelson Mandela Bridge at night – it was near the theater area we went to.
The next day found us in the township of Soweto, at Nelson Mandela’s home. Suzanne took us around the streets, through the museum and out to eat at a small local restaurant.
 We enjoyed a very typical African dish of pap (cooked maize, similar to cooked cornmeal) and spicy vegetables – delicious and extremely filling! One of the gentlemen there was drinking a local brew from the traditional bowl and shared some with Suzanne and Jeff. 

Safari Gecko Style...

Our home away from home
Safari time! Suzanne drove us out into the threatening thunderstorm, across Johannesburg, and out to the small community of Pretoria. There we were to meet the other people on our tour, heading out into South Africa and through Zimbabwe. The great orange truck pictured here would be our roving home for the next 10 days. The Tawana Lodge, jumping off point for our tour, was a small, rustic lodge, set out in the middle of nowhere, leading to somewhere…or many somewhere as the case may be. We had been prepared for a group of at least 9 people, though we knew we could have as many as 22 on the trip. 
We were extremely surprised to discover there were to be only 5 of us on the trip! We came to the conclusion that the smaller trip made it because they needed the truck in Victoria Falls for the next, much larger, leg of the trip.
Misheck, Irvine and Clayton
Now…for the stars of our trip…I have to start with our guides…Misheck was our fearless leader – the one who filled us in with everything we needed to know, told us great stories and told us where to go. He has a great sense of humor and is a wonderful humanitarian. Clayton was our intrepid driver, over the mountains, through the rain, across the plains…you name it, he drove through it. I do believe the most daunting task was the paperwork from one country to the next! Irvine was our cook extraordinaire. It’s one thing to cook gourmet meals from the comfort of your own kitchen…he managed to create wonderful meals on camp stoves and wood fires. We had absolutely amazing food!
Nick and Tom
Our three companions all came from Australia – we wondered about that at first and then discovered that Gecko’s is an Australian company – seems that we were actually the novelty. Believe it or not…two of the three were lawyers! Nick is our official storyteller – I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has had a more varied life than he has had. He kept us in stitches with his many tales, trials and tribulations. Tom is quiet and reserved, but if you want to know something about Africa, he’s the one to ask. He had spent time at university, studying African history and was a veritable gold mine of information. Jackie’s our third companion, another university student, on the eve of graduation, traveling across Africa while contemplating that final paper that is due (hmmm…seem to remember a trip across Europe a number of years ago…with the university waiting…) and where to go once she’s finished. Seems like we all have that question at one point or another.

Have to make an addition here...partway through the trip, Ruth from New Zealand originally but now living in England joined us. She had gone to a wedding and then joined up with our great team!
Food on the fire...delicious!
The bouncing, rolling, rocking, truck became our home as we made our way across the country, traveling mile after mile, or should I say kilometer after kilometer, trying to take pictures on the road (no, most of them did not come out), enjoying the scenery and the stories, reading books, basking in the air conditioned comfort (20-50 air conditioning…20 windows at 50 kmph), corralling the rolling water bottles and attempting to snooze during the hot afternoons. I’d suggest you refer back to the initial description…snoozing wasn’t easy. 

On the road...

And now to get it hooked...
Where did you say it went?

One of the first things we had to learn was how to put up our tents. Tents you ask??? Well, this wasn’t one of those drive around all day and then pull up at a lodge and sleep in beds…nope…we had our bug screens surrounding us in the form of tents – actually very nice tents that kept you dry, bug free, and companionable with your travel buddies because it was much easier to put them up as a team (and there’s no way I could have gotten the first 4 hooks up there!). The first day took a bit of doing and Misheck led us through it but after that, we got pretty darn good at getting them up and down each day. I will admit, however, I was very glad at the end of the trip to turn over the tent to the next group of people.
Lunch on the road
Now…I don’t know about you, but I usually think of vacations as relaxing, sleep in, leisurely breakfast, take in the ambiance…well, apparently it is a novel concept for African trips. We were up early…usually before 6:00. ‘Course it helped that we went to bed early (gets dark early), hence giving plenty of time for 8 hours of sleep by 6 am. It also worked out that they wanted to be on the road early…usually by 7 or 7:30. We got pretty good at taking down tents…quickly. First day on the road we headed out for the Tshipse Hot Springs – about 5 hours away. We finished up breakfast and tents and headed up into the truck. Being our first day it was all novel…the view, sitting high up, tales to share, clouds, trees, anything that moved…it was all wonderful, fresh and with primarily paved roads so it was quite smooth riding. Little did we know we should have relished that part. 

Border Towns

People truck
Before we arrived at out campground, we stopped in Musina City, a town near the border crossing to Zimbabwe. 
It appears that it’s a popular place for people to shop, and, since it was the Christmas season, lots of people were shopping and filling up their cars, trucks, campers, and buses with stuff, stuff and more stuff along with more people than you can imagine. I have never seen so much artful packing of stuff all over, around and inside so many different vehicles. 

Loaded bus...with people and things
The bus, while an example of the creative art of packing, was by no means the most packed vehicle we saw. The cattle truck was a total surprise – I don’t have any idea how many people were in the back of that truck. All of the people were buying things to take with them to Zimbabwe, to family and friends they were visiting for the holidays.
How do they balance it?

We, of course, were also amazed at the loads that the women carried routinely. Always there was something balanced on their heads – and frequently a baby on their backs. Though I must admit…they would have walked down the streets without thinking a thing about the weight they were carrying…while we required a lot of teamwork, a cart and four people to get our load back to the truck.
Ahhhh…but it was all worthwhile. Tshipse Hot Springs were not quite what I had imagined…small natural pools dotting the landscape, possibly a waterfall, cascading down from one pool to the next, each successively cooler – I think I was in Japan for too long. What we got were a number of swimming pools, indeed of different temperatures, but definitely sterile. Still, it was nice to slip into the water to soak and relax. While our truck was MUCH more comfortable than the ones we saw in town, still, it was nice to sink into the water to contemplate … whatever.

Border Crossings...

News flash…the streets in town, all the towns we came to, had news headlines printed on large paper and then posted on boards, trees, signs, all teasing the public into buying the paper to read the article. Hmmm…have to admit I don’t know what to make of this one. If you figure it out, please let me know.
The next day found us schlepping tents early in the morning, then heading out the border crossing to Zimbabwe. The line of trucks waiting to cross was probably 3km long – thank goodness we were not considered to be a commercial truck – we were able to drive up to the first crossing point with the cars. Still, it was quite an ordeal, shuffling from one line to the next, wrong place to the right one, divided group, reams of truck paperwork, but finally we were successful … with the first stage. 
No man's land crossing the Lompopo River
We piled back on the truck to cross the Liimpopo River (a bit muddy here) and on to the 2nd stage…again in the lines, filling out forms, presenting them to the right person, following the passports as they moved from one clerk to the next but again…we made it through. Clayton had the longest wait, again, getting the truck paperwork correctly processed but…finally, we were officially in Zimbabwe and off for the next adventure!

Great Zimbabwe - Home for the King

The speaking platform overlooking the courtyard

The King's home on the hill.
The following morning we headed off through Zimbabwe to the ancient ruins of Great Zimbabwe. During the 11th century, this was the greatest medieval city in all of sub-Saharan Africa. This particular site is what gave Zimbabwe its name – “Great Stone House”. Approaching the hillside, you are impressed with the mammoth size of the city that once stood up here. The king and perhaps his main queen (they had many wives in quite a complicated system of inheritance) and the primary “important” people appeared to have lived up here.
Our Guide sitting in the cave
 The approaches were often very narrow or steep – all the better to thwart attacks on the “palace”. We climbed to the top of a natural bridge where the king once stood to hold court. People would stand below in a large open area so that they could see and hear what he had to say. Further on there was a cave with amazing acoustics. You could sit in the cave, speak with a relatively normal voice, and be heard across the country. The king could use this location to address the common people assembled on the plains below or, heheh, to call for a different wife for a given night (the women lived across the way…we’ll get there in a bit).

Great Zimbabwe - for the Queen

The silo...what was it for?

View of the King's home on the hill
We made our way back down the path and headed across the plains for the 2nd half of the great ruins – the home for the women and children. According to the stories, the king made a great huge silo type structure (being polite here – there were lots of speculations as to what the particular column might represent). It is not a silo – it’s completely filled in – so it’s not certain what it was for, though perhaps as a display of power? Maybe we’ll never know.
The queen lived here and was in charge of the education for the girls. The young boys had a tutor who worked with them on the outside ring of this enclosure – men were not allowed within. Looking over some of the ruins you can see the king’s home perched on the hill – and imagine the voice carrying from there.
A very old aloe plant - about 20 ft tall!
A short side comment…. We kept seeing these rather tall palm trees, or at least they were tall like palm trees with fronds, dry and green. But wait…they weren’t really fronds…they looked like succulents. Succulents, on a palm tree? Finally, I had to ask…what in the world are they? Well…they are aloe plants, obviously VERY OLD and VERY TALL aloe plants. 

Lions in Antelope Park

Our next stop was Antelope Park. Now, I must admit, my first impression was “tourist trap” and in reality, it was designed to satisfy the tourist and part them from their ready cash. That said, I became impressed with what they are doing to support African wildlife, return animals to the wild, eliminate poaching, and educate people. Their lion program is their reason for existence. They hand raise lions that can be used in an extensive breeding program that is a part of a multi-step plan for releasing their offspring into the wild. They work to increase the genetic stock released in the wild as well as to increase the number of animals. One of the tours we took was the behind the scene program where they talked about the steps and what they were doing to ensure safe and successful releases-really fascinating.

Yeah…now for the fun part. To support the program, Antelope Park has tons of activities that you can participate in, yes indeed, for a fee. Their hallmark activity is “walk with the lions” and what a rush that is. Now, to be fair, you’re not going out there with a full grown lion – thank goodness.
They have young cubs, around 14 months or so, that walk with their handlers and, just incidentally, with a rather large group of people. We wandered around the African countryside, strolling with the cubs, meandering around (they do wander a bit), taking pictures and generally being awed. The two females were very social, allowing us to pose with them, pet them, and watch them play like great cats that they are. The male, however, held himself aloof from the proceedings, generally keeping to his own path separate from the rest of us. We periodically could catch him off in the bush, looking quite disdainful, head held high, nose in the air, eyes partially closed – great shots of him with his great mane just coming in.
Now, even though the lions were “tame”, we were warned not to wander off from the group. The lion’s stalking pattern is to find the odd animal, the one that is separate from the group. Every group that goes out for these walks includes a volunteer observer whose job it is to watch the animals, do they notice prey, do they start stalking it, periodically they’ve even made a kill on these walks. They actually want this to happen because it’s one of the steps in the release program – the animals have to learn to observe, notice and stalk prey. Obviously, it’s important NOT to be the only one standing there trying to get the perfect shot. 

Elephant Rides

Not to miss out on the fun, we decided to sign up for a number of different opportunities that were available…I mean how often are we going to be out there on safari in Africa -even if it is a tourist spot. Oh well…. We decided to go out to look for wildlife at sunset from the backs of the elephants. 
Riding on an animal has its advantages because they’re much quieter and wild animals, in theory, won’t run away meaning you could get better photographs, however, we discovered that theory and actual experience didn’t mesh. Yes, we could get closer and evening was a great time to be out because there were quite a few animals around. The sunset was gorgeous…but the photos…hmmm. 
Just imagine being on the back of a great elephant – it’s not a smooth ride, he kinda rolls along in great undulating waves. You can get into the rhythm of it and it’s not uncomfortable however, it’s not smooth, you don’t stop quickly, and the pictures end up being pretty blurry. Ah well…I did indeed try and I think one I took came out and only a couple from the man taking pictures of us on the elephant – and then they were only the ones when the driver actually stopped the elephant for him.
 Alas… It was, however, a great trip. There was something magical about watching the sun set in vivid colors with the blackening trees standing out in the horizon. You could hear the calls of various birds and animals and even hear the roar of the lions. The terrain became quite dark for human eyes but the elephants continued on, lumbering into the darkness, surrounded by the sounds of the veldt. Quite an experience. 
You must note that our wonderful elephant didn't work for free...all along the way she would reach back for a treat from our guide - I even got to feed her when we got off to leave at the end of the trip.

More on Antelope Park

The next day found us on horseback, searching once again for the elusive animals. The list was impressive: giraffe, zebra wildebeest, kudu as well as the blesbok, tsessebe, duiker and steenbock – most of those could have walked right up to me and I wouldn’t have known what they were. We did end up seeing many steenbock on the trip but still…I couldn’t point one out because there were so many small, antelope type animals out there. The guides on the trip were phenomenal; they could locate and identify the animals when they were so far away they were no larger than a gnat! If you waited, sure enough, it would be the animal they said (or at least we took their authoritative assertion as authentic).
I can accept that these are carnivorous animals and that obviously, they do indeed need to learn to stalk and kill their food to be successful. However, I declined the opportunity to watch the lions race out of their compound to tear apart the remains of an animal and watch them snarl at each other as they ripped through the carcass. It was, however, popular with the rest of the group. It is set up so that the bloody haunch is placed on one side of the bars with the people, cameras ready, standing on the opposite side. The lions are released from the far side of the enclosure and you get a great view of them racing towards you, hell bent for the carcass lying on the ground (lions are scavengers also). It was reported to be quite a rush to have them careening all out towards you. It was noted that the males savagely defended their portion, snarling at others that came near while the females picked up a portion and then settled down to eat it in companionable silence. Stay tuned…I’ll add the video when I get it from Jeff. 

Matobo National Park

Our next destination was Bulawayo and the Matobo National Park, a reserve for the endangered white rhino. The park is absolutely gorgeous with huge granite boulders in sculpted (by nature, of course) into impressive and amazing shapes. Among the rocks are an amazing collection of bushman art though were were unable to get out of the jeep to view any of them (pictures were available in some of the museums we visited). Even though the park was the home of roughly 40 some odd black and white rhinos, we were never able to find any of them, though we did learn how to identify rhino tracks. We followed the tracks along the dirt roads but then were unable to pursue them when they disappeared into the bush. We were originally going to go on a “walk” through the jungle but somehow the appropriate paperwork didn’t get done so a jeep safari was all we were able to do. We did, however, have the opportunity to watch a hippo family cavorting in the lake and see hundreds of different birds.
We stayed next to a small hut that provided us with drinking water and sanitation facilities. It was pressed into cooking and dining facilities when the heavens opened up with a downpour! Clayton and Irvine picked up the ½ drum that was being used for cooking (the fire was brightly burning) and carried it into the hut. There, without batting an eye, Irvine continued cooking our meal. We huddled around the one table to enjoy our meal and listen to the falling rain. Fortunately, rainstorms here tend to last for about an hour and then move on to drop their load further away. The only problem was the thunder…we continued to hear it long into the night. 

Hwange National Park

Hwange National Park, a massive 14,000 square kilometers, was our next destination, home of thousands of elephants as well as other indigenous wildlife. One would think that with tens of thousands of elephants we would run into them all the time, anticipating tons of creative, spectacular photo opportunities…wrong. During the entire two days we were there, we saw a small herd of 4 or 5, miniscule in size, making their way across a single swath of land. It seemed ironic that the massive, enormous elephant was impossible to spot but the tiny birds and small duikers were readily spotted everywhere.  
The park is so large that there are a lot of different areas included. We camped on an outside edge of it – still protected for the animals but open for humans. There was a large water hole down from our campsite with a great blind for sitting in to observe the animals. Although it was the rainy season with water holes available all over the park, we still had quite a few animals that came down to drink and eat, giving us the opportunity to observe them easily. Jeff spent one afternoon in camp, declining to sit on the jeep for another 3 hour jaunt into the jungle, searching for elusive animals. He was rewarded with the sounds of something making its way through the jungle, giving him time to race to the blind for a view of some elephants making their way through the underbrush. 

More on Hwange Park

We spent an entire day combing the park, searching for our wild animals. We finally came upon a number of giraffes out in an open field. They seemed frozen in time, watching the cars that stopped on the road to observe and photograph them. A few of the animals went back to chewing on the trees and bushes in the area but we noticed, on one side, two of the animals still frozen, looking off ino the distance. Then it became apparent that one was female, and one most definitely male. Hmmm…he seemed to be exhibiting a certain amount of hmmm…physical interest in this female – and then suddenly, instantly, he leaped on her and in nano-seconds was off. It was absolutely unbelievable fast  but fortunately my camera worked in nano-seconds also. I was stunned that I even remotely caught anything at all because it was so mind boggling fast. Afterwards he nonchalantly walked over to the bush and started nibbling, without a care in the world.
While Jeff declined our last jaunt into the wilds, the rest of us piled onto the jeep, hoping, just hoping, to locate a great rhino. We searched and searched but alas, no great animals were found. We did, however, find a rather large, dark, nimbus cloud. The driver decided that putting the top on was probably a good idea…and no sooner said than done…the cloud burst. Sadly the water seemed to focus on one side of the jeep – my side. Despite our blankets and being huddled in the center of the seats, those of us on the wrong side were soaked. We miserably decided that enough was enough and we headed for camp. As we were crossing out of the main park and heading down the road, our eagle-eyed driver slammed on the brakes and started backing up…lions! He had found a female with her two cubs crossing the path, heading towards the bush on the other side. It was amazing – even though we had seen the lions before, these were truly “in the wild” so we celebrated – and all of our miserable thoughts of cold and wet evaporated! We at least returned with some pictures!

African Reality

Gecko’s trips advertise that they use local guides, people who have grown up in the area and can offer unique experiences, the popular tourist sites as well as other opportunities, off the beaten track. Misheck offered us one such view into the real life in Africa. For quite some time he has been involved in working with local families affected by AIDS. He has been instrumental in finding funding and help for children who have lost their families, providing schooling costs and locating homes and families for them to live with. The home he took us to visit was small but very busy, a couple who have taken in children who have no one to turn to. There were about 10 children there that day – some who lived with them, others who live with neighbors. 
Things we take for granted are not found here. Even the water is about 2km away from their home and every day they need to go to the well, hand pump it up, and cart it back to their home. Their life is so far removed from anything we’ve ever experienced yet they shared spontaneous smiles and welcomed us to their home.