I’m sitting at the gate with the Delta flight parked on the runway in front of me and wishing SO much that my trip was about to begin rather than to end. I wish the gorgeous sunset I’m watching through the airport window were my first and not my last here in Africa. Don’t get me wrong: I would not trade being an American and living in the US for all the leopards in Africa. But these three weeks have simply been magical. I have paid no attention to the clock or the calendar; getting out to begin a game drive seemed so much more important than a shower or clean clothes; I have seen things I really never expected to see and enjoyed myself so much more than I even hoped I might… I have wanted to do this and be here since I was five years old. And it was everything I could have hoped for, and more.
Thank you, Gina, Evan and Dana, for sharing with me the chance to spend that first week in South Africa. Thank you, Fred, for sharing the wonder of the next leg of the trip in Botswana and at the Victoria Falls. And thank you, Grant Craig, for making sure that we left Africa so much richer in experience than when we arrived.
It will be a very very long time before I will be able to close my eyes and NOT replay, in my mind’s eye (and ear and nose!), scenes of lions and elephants and wild dogs. Of hyenas screaming through the campsite. Of the roar of a lion behind the tent. Of the smell of wild sage and elephant dung. Of the delicate colors of the lilac-breasted roller. Of the joy and the wonder of it all.
And I would love, someday, maybe, just maybe, to come back…
We are back in civilization tonight, at the Airport Grand Hotel in Johannesburg. Civilization. Right. Noise, crowds, hustle and bustle. Sigh… at least we can pretend.
With all of the hassles of yesterday, everything worked out neatly today. First off, the weather was simply terrific: clear and calm and few if any clouds in the sky. Second, the logistics went off without a snag. Transfer company #1 picked us up at the guest house and got us to the Zimbabwean border where we quickly went through the exit process; that company then turned us over to transfer company #2. Transfer company #2 got us to the Zambian immigration station where we quickly went through the entry process (and, I think, where we astonished — and disappointed — the guy at the counter by having exact change for the exorbitant $135 visa fee to enter a country where we’d be staying for all of three or four hours). And they took us on to the helicopter airfield where transfer company #3 (the one taking us to the airport afterwards) was already there to meet us.
Rainbow over Victoria Falls
The flight itself was terrific. There were four of us in a four-passenger helicopter. Fred took the front seat, and I grabbed a window seat in the rear. The other couple split up, each one coming to a side of the back seat, and I am not ashamed to say I refused to budge. I was NOT giving up my window seat!
The pilot passed the length of the falls four times (up, down, up, down) and gave everyone a very good look — and the weather was bright and clear. So I got some great photos from the air, and some decent video footage as well (which I combined with footage taken from the ground the day we arrived in Zimbabwe).
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(I also volunteered to take the couple’s photo for them with their camera and they were pleased by that. Maybe not enough to forgive me for not giving up my window seat, but hey… They’re tour operators from South Africa and can come back sometime. I’m not in the travel business and I came 8000 miles for this helicopter trip!)
In all, we both felt the helicopter ride over on the Zambia side was nicer than the one in Zimbabwe would have been. In addition, it meant we actually DID something in Zambia other than just fly out from there, which made us both feel a lot better about the ridiculous visa fee that Zambia charges. So, all in all, it was one more case of something that could have been a snag working out for us in the long run.
Livingstone, Zambia is a bustling town that is obviously prospering greatly from the misfortunes of the folks in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The folks in Zimbabwe spoke contemptuously of the Zambians and how they used to have to drive over in their rattle-trap cars to buy gasoline in Zimbabwe and how poor Zambia was. But that’s all obviously past tense. Now Zimbabweans drive to Botswana to do their shopping, and the Zambians we ran into were only too happy to comment about how nice things were in Zambia these days! The contrast between the two towns right now is stunning. The joke going around is that, where the Big Five in Africa are the elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard, the Big Five in Zimbabwe are meat, corn, sugar, rice and milk. It’s sad, and we can only hope things improve in Zimbabwe. I’m glad we stayed where we did, and very glad we went… and very glad we left when we did. (As a side note, it’s amazing that even South Africans keep saying how completely out of touch with the reality of what’s going on in Zimbabwe that South Africa’s president is.)
The airport is small but was packed with a number of flights going out around the same time. Had one bad moment at the airport where British Airways-Comair turned out to be the only airline that actually weighed carry-ons and mine, of course, was over the 7kg limit. The woman gave Fred a white tag for his bag and told me I’d get a red tag at the aircraft. I asked if I’d be able to keep the bag with me and she said yes. I wasn’t so sure… It turned out that if folks didn’t have a white tag, there were people at the side of the aircraft making them turn over their bags to be stowed in the nose of the plane (with the referenced red tag). And there was NO WAY I was going to give up a bag with thousands of dollars in owned and rented camera gear. Fortunately, Fred realized what was going on immediately and without a word simply ran interference for me. He kept putting his 6′3″ frame between me and the folks who were trying to check the bags for white tags and engaged them in conversation so I could simply get on board. Boy was I relieved when I got into the cabin and tucked the offending backpack into the overhead compartment… (I’d apologize to British Airways for this, but the fact is that between us, our carry-ons were under the limit, and if I’d known they were going to enforce it, we could have moved things from one bag to the other and been totally within the rules. So it was a no-harm no-foul situation.)
The only other bad moment was when some idiot decided I wasn’t moving fast enough to get through a security area and pushed a movable gate onto my ankle. I begin to understand why it’s not the Ugly American Tourist in parts of Africa, but rather the Ugly South African… (It’s kind of nice not to be the only Bad Guy in the tourism world…)
Fred agreed to take charge of figuring out what our options are for sight-seeing tomorrow. (Both of us began by feeling reluctant to impose on one of our South African friends (from the Delta) who had volunteered to be our guide, and then it all became academic when I realized I couldn’t find the card he’d given me with his contact info.) We’ve settled on a tour of a gold mine and a driving tour of Johannesburg. We should be back at the hotel just in time for me to head off to my flight.
Civilization does have its nice points, by the way. Nice meal, nice bar downstairs, nice room with coffee machine and a lovely tub to soak in…
It took us all a while to get organized and moving this morning so we had very little margin for error in getting from the lodge to the airport at Richards Bay. So we were all just a tad concerned when we hit some road construction en route and sat there and sat there and sat there for the longest time. It was definitely a bit hairy until we finally got to the airport and found that the plane had been delayed as well.
Another razzle-dazzle with the birth and marriage certificates, another boarding pass and another flight back to Johannesburg where we left the luggage and went out as quickly as possible to the Lion Park there. It was a lot of fun — we saw several kinds of new critters (different kinds of bok, black wildebeest, spotted hyena, black back jackal) and lots of lions, to Evan’s great delight (FINALLY the big cats!). We even got to pet and play with some lion cubs, though not for very long. VERY cool. We also got to see other cats (leopard, cheetahs) and feed a giraffe (though Gina didn’t seem quite as happy about the idea as the rest of us).
Gina Dana & cubs
Evan & cub
Judy & cub
Evan Gina & giraffe
A quieter dinner, knowing this would be our last meal together. Fred arrives late tonight; Evan, Gina and Dana have a sunrise balloon trip scheduled; and Fred and I will be off to Botswana before they return. I’m really sorry that the week is coming to an end. It’s been such fun to spend more time with Evan and Gina, and Gina’s cousin Dana has been the best roommate you could ever ask for.
I just hope the next part of the trip will be as interesting as this part and, most importantly, as different from this part as I am hoping. That’s sure what I’ve asked for (and I hope this isn’t one of those “be careful what you ask for; you might get it!” things!).
Yesterday was a long long day. Since I’m the designated waker-upper (remind me NOT to be the one with the one working travel alarm next time!), I had to get up at 4:10 a.m. to roust everyone out at 4:15 to ride 1-1/2 hours in the dark and cold to St. Lucia, board a small boat on a trailer at a gas station, drive out to the Indian Ocean in the morning chill, get dumped on the sand and pushed into the water (by a tractor!). No launch ramps for these folks!
The boat was fairly small and the seas were fairly rough, so we were all very glad by the end of the trip that Evan had the foresight to bring transderm scopalamine patches for us all. The fisher-folks all got some good catches though, and the sun made at least an effort to warm up the air (everyone keeps talking about the unseasonable cold front — sigh…).
And then there was the beaching of the boat. We were headed in at a good rate of speed, sightseeing and paying very little attention to things and all of us, I think, expecting eventually to come to some sort of jetty or boat launch ramp. Then all of a sudden the captain revved up the throttle and I realized that we were very quickly running out of water. I was the only one who noticed; everyone else was just kind of stunned when he ran the boat, literally at full throttle, over the waves onto the beach in a barely controlled crash. Since I couldn’t move quite fast enough carrying 20 or more pounds of camera gear, I can now honestly say that I got my feet wet in the Indian Ocean.
Afterwards we took a very nice quiet boat ride along the estuary and saw hippos, crocodiles, all kinds of birds and a truly lovely sunset.
Just in time for another long drive back to the lodge where, once again, we had impala but no warthog!
We’ve had such long days that I’ve been falling into bed without even picking up a pen. I’m also the designated alarm clock for this team so I’m up first and so I’m POOPED by day’s end.
Thursday we were hoping to see some big cats — lions!! — so we went to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park (pronounced Shlu-shlu’-wee Im-foh-loh’-zee) for the day. Well, not the whole day: folks wanted to do some shopping first so we got a bit of a late start and that cut into our cat-tracking time. The location itself couldn’t be more beautiful — rolling hills and deep river valleys. We saw some really cool things: a baby puff adder, a troop of baboons, an entire crash of rhino (one with the biggest horn imaginable), blue wildebeest and a little bushbuck doe who surprised us all by making a sound exactly like the bark of a dog. Plus the usual assortment of elephants, giraffes, zebras, nyalas and impalas and, of course, warthogs (who are now, the general consensus decrees, cute — but I’d still like to see how they taste).
No cats, and it was just unbelievably cold driving back for more than an hour in the dark at high speeds in an open vehicle. Even hooded jackets and blankets didn’t make a dent in the cold.
My eyes are full of elephants. Oh, we saw other neat things as well — waterbuck at the first hide, bushbuck at the second, a spotted eagle owl and a genet on the way back — but oh… oh… my eyes are full of elephants.
We spent the day at the Tembe Elephant Park with a different field guide, an older quieter man. I was a bit annoyed during part of the drive because I just couldn’t hear what he was saying. I forgave him everything for what came later.
Five big bulls at the first hide, one big one at the second… The guide kept teasing Gina about the pronunciation of “giraffe” (“There are no giraffes in Africa, only girahffes…”). He also cleared up a misunderstanding as to what a group of giraffes is called. We kept understanding our Afrikaaner guide to say the herd was a “jennie” — turns out what he was saying was “journey.” A journey of giraffes, a dazzle of zebra, a clash of rhino.
elephant dust bath
The hides were great places to sit and watch the animals; the weather would clear then cloud up then clear and we stayed and watched and watched.
And then, when the skies darkened and threatened rain and it was clearly time to leave, the guide decided to take one last detour onto the East Swamp Road. A family of warthogs ran out from the culvert and we were watching them. That’s when we heard the guide say in a quiet voice: “Look up. Oh, look up, now…” And there, coming towards us, were elephants. Big elephants, small elephants, babies and grizzled elders. A bull. Cows. Elephants… so many elephants. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 18-20 in a breeding herd. We watched and watched as they drank at a waterhole; we watched as they walked off into the forest. Then the guide said, “Let’s see if we can find them on the road.” And he did. They crossed in front of us and behind us… and each of them, big or small, vanished from sight only a few feet into the brush.
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Elephants. Amazing creatures.
On the long ride back to the lodge (in a closed vehicle so not cold this time!), the guide pulled off the road, backed the vehicle up and shined the headlights into the trees so we could see a spotted eagle owl (huge). He also pointed out a genet as it ran across the road and disappeared trailing its long banded tail into the bush.
Back from the morning game drive and sharing a cup of coffee with Evan on the veranda. As he says, “it’s a tough life…”
Nyala at pool
The day began with nyala and vervet monkeys by the pool and just beyond the trees. On the game drive we saw many giraffes including two young ones, a whole mess of warthogs with their young, three male kudu and two females hidden in the bush, an entire bachelor herd of impala, a hippo that scared Gina when it suddenly moved, lots of nyala and a mixed herd of impala and nyala at a watering hole with vervet monkeys in the trees. (Deuced hard to get good photos of the silly beasts, though — they move quickly.)
The mornings are very misty in the hills and it is cold. South Africa is certainly greener and less dusty than I had expected. But COLD on early morning and late afternoon drives in that open vehicle.
I petted a cheetah that was in the process of drinking chicken blood this afternoon, plus a serval that was chowing down on a chicken carcass. Everyone had a chance to pet the serval but the cheetah only allows himself to be petted as long as the blood supply holds out in the bucket. The guide said that would allow 5-6 people to pet him; I practically elbowed little old ladies out of the way to make sure I’d be in that group. Sigh…
Our afternoon trip to the Cat Rehabilitation Centre at the Emdoneni Lodge & Game Farm was a great treat for all of us. We saw four serval, three cheetah (including the one male who allows himself to be petted), four or five caracal (including one who literally leaps off the fence into the air to catch the chicken carcass thrown to him) and a number of yowling African wildcats (small like house cats but wild and very aggressive).
The tour was just at dusk so we could watch the animals being fed, so no game drive tonight: dark and cold on the way back to the lodge. Got some photos but not so many in the failing light. Switched to video and got some interesting footage.
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The jumping caracal:
The African wildcat:
More impala at dinner tonight. We keep asking for warthog. (They’re so ugly that they’re beginning to grow on us.
Full full day! Game drive this morning, Zulu Village Cultural Show this afternoon, game drive again this evening. Hard to keep track of what happened when with no time to sit and think!
The day started with a nyala outside the door and the does just to the side. The breakfast buffet was excellent, then on the morning game drive we saw impala, warthogs, nyala, a hippo, giraffes and the second of our Big Five: the cape buffalo.
We also saw a bird with a tail so long it flew only in dips. (Turns out it’s a broad-tailed whydah.) The long tail is part of its summer dress; it loses the tail in winter, so we were fortunate to see it in its summer plumage.
Quick lunch and off to the Zulu cultural display. It was interesting even if clearly created for tourists. (The Zulu dancers all wore skin tight shorts under their skins — some were so discreet that you couldn’t really see them, others were bright red or with side stripes. I mentioned them to one dancer; he just smiled and said admitted simply: “NOT Zulu…”) Evan wanted his picture taken with the medicine man; when I took it, he motioned me over as if to look at the digital picture and then chanted “money, money, money” under his breath.
In our second game drive we got to see another of the Big Five — the rhino. Not out in the open so no real photos, but still very large and very intimidating! More giraffe, some wildebeest but too far away for photos. However, we got great views of some zebras just before the sun was setting.
We tried to set the schedule tonight for the rest of the week but the weather is very unsettled so I’m not sure we’ll get in all of our entire ambitious schedule. We’ll see. The guide is making serious efforts to steer our schedule choices (based as much on his interests as on ours, I suspect…) but he is generally knowledgeable and besides he is also cute. He and Evan spent much of the evening trying to negotiate a swap of impala horns for good binoculars. (The guide is absolutely green with jealousy that Evan lives near a Cabela’s store.) Gina went down to the tennis court to see the stars (no lights there so no light pollution) and was scared by a bunch of nyala (“there were a LOT of them!”).
Tomorrow, weather permitting, it’s a game drive in the morning at the Cheetah Rehabilitation Center in the afternoon. For now, it’s off to bed — 6 a.m. comes VERY early!
Despite my concern with the issue of the name on the ticket, I had no problems with the flight to Richards Bay. When the ticket agent was confused by the mismatch of name on passport and ticket, I simply waved the email from the one SA Airways Express agent who said it would be fine as long as I had my birth and marriage certificates and the documents themselves, and she shrugged and handed me the boarding pass. After that, nobody cared: all that was needed was the boarding pass, not the passport. And nobody on South Africa Airways Express weighed carry-on luggage so no problem there either. (For that matter, they didn’t weigh the checked baggage either: they had all four of us put our luggage up at the same time and then asked us if we’d weighed the bags.)
deHavilland Dash 8
The flight — on an old deHavilland — was interesting. Evan and I had to change seats and sit in the exit row since the people sitting there originally didn’t speak English. We got a more thorough than usual lecture about being able to guide people out to safety AND blocking the exit with our bodies if the exit was NOT safe. It was also interesting that we flew over thousands and thousands of acres of what were obviously tree farms. Turned out they’re eucalyptus trees originally imported for use for mine props and now used for building construction.
Richards Bay airport
The airport is small and there was a whole troop of some kind of apes (either vervet monkeys or chacma baboons) along the runway! When I say the airport is small, it may be easier to imagine when I say that the luggage from the flight is loaded into a van that makes multiple trips between plane-side and the terminal where it’s unloaded by pushing the bags through a rubber-strip curtain.
We were able to see game even on the drive into the Zulu Nyala property, but did have a bit of a problem when we arrived at the Zulu Nyala Heritage Lodge, where Gina said we were staying: they had no record of the reservation! Fortunately, it was only because we were actually staying at the Zulu Nyala Game Lodge, which frankly is gorgeous — a glitch that, we all concluded, was in our favor.
First sight of elephant
Our first game drive was at 4 p.m. with a very young Afrikaaner guide and the same four young MBA graduates of Georgetown who had been on the flight with us to Richards Bay and who rode out to Zulu Nyala with us. Very nice folks all. We’re using an open-sided vehicle typical to South African game reserves. The drive itself was magical — we saw our first hippo, various antelope types (nyala, impala), a giraffe. We also saw our FIRST of the Big Five — a trio of elephants including a young one:
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They came close enough to the Land Rover to be actually scary (if we hadn’t been so much in awe and wonder that we forgot to be afraid)… (Dana did confess at one point that she was frightened when she was zooming in on one elephant until she realized the zoom made it look a LOT closer than it really was.)
One note: it is winter here. Days are relatively warm — light jacket weather — but early mornings and nights are cold. Coming back to the lodge in the open vehicle in the dark, it was VERY cold. It doesn’t help that the weather is a little dicey — not rainy but overcast. I suspect that “cold” will be a common word during this trip.
Back to the lodge in time to clean up for dinner. Meals are buffet style and very good. Impala stew is tasty (very lean, a little like beef and nothing at all like chicken)…
It is just before 5 a.m. SAST and I’ve been up for almost an hour — a combination of too much excitement and jet lag. It feels like it’s been at most 24 hours since we left the States, but with the time changes and all, it’s now two days later!
The looooong lens
No problems at JFK at all. The Chicagoans arrived without incident along with all their bags, we meandered over to the international terminal, checked in with South Africa Airways, got some food, waited around some more and finally boarded the plane.
SAA flight taking off from JFK
Last sight of US: Long Island NY
I grabbed a photo or two of the departure and we all settled down for the flight.
SAA serves excellent — and abundant — food. We had a nice dinner (Evan had salmon, I had beef), watched some videos, talked for a while, slept for a while and finally — some 4100 km after we left New York — saw the lights of the African coast. It was way too dark to see anything in Dakar but we were all intrigued by a kora — a gourd-bodied guitar-like instrument — that one of the new passengers brought on board. We had another meal (breakfast), more dozing, more chatting, another meal (lunch, with poor Dana trying to wake Gina up to make a choice between meat and fish).
Africa! Africa below!
Finally the light was good enough to see — Africa! Africa below us!! And then we were on the ground in Johannesburg.
The passport and customs check was thoroughly routine, but it really hit us in the arrivals hall at JNB: “we’re in AFRICA!” A group hug didn’t begin to express the joy and wonder of it all.
We were met by a driver from the property where we stayed overnight. Evan engaged him in current-affairs discussions and I have to confess to being frankly shocked by his xenophobic attitudes expressed so freely: I’ve never heard anyone defend genocide before nor complain that the police were stopping ordinary citizens from setting fire to illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe and Mozambique. We also saw homeless folks in the outskirts of the city burning fires for heat and cooking and are struck by the generally negative view of South Africans as to their future — there’s still a very serious black-white divide and the current black-against-black violence has not helped at all. And living behind gates and walls with barbed wire and/or electrified fences is not my idea of living.
But we put that all aside when we arrived at the hotel which is lovely and exotic (thatched roofs, African colors and appointments, and even some zebras on the property which Evan HAD to see — by flashlight!). Another meal (dinner) and finally to bed.
This morning I had one moment of absolute panic when it seemed that the portable storage unit I bought for photos wasn’t working. Turned out it was just a battery issue (the way I was carrying it appears to have turned the unit on and totally discharged the battery!) and it works fine now with it charged.
Walked around a little this morning — the grounds are lovely and there’s a large dog (the owners say it’s a wolf) who keeps trying to get into all the rooms. One more meal at 7 a.m. (breakfast!) and then the Fearless Foursome is off to the airport for Richards Bay.