South Africa – Part 1

January 7, 2008 at 7:54 am | Posted in South Africa | 1 Comment

Part 1 – October 29 – November 6

South Africa is a delicate blend of dramatic beauty, lurking wildlife, and a painful history with visible repercussions. Our first few hours there brought all of the associated emotions to the surface. We were aware of Johannesburg’s reputation for crime and racial tensions so we didn’t hesitate a moment to head directly east toward the coast and it didn’t take long before the landscape became a wonderland of giant bright purple flowering Jacaranda trees, winding roads, gorges, waterfalls and rainbows that led us into the places that resembled life before apartheid. The life we wanted our children to see before it was stained by yet another occurrence of dominance of one people over another. The boys had witnessed this recurring theme loud and clear on our travels whether it be in the form of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the fall of great cities like Ephesus to other powers, the now defunct yet grandiose buildings of the former communist regime in Romania, the hieroglyphics in Egypt that told of Ramses victories over different peoples shown lined up and bound, and our own stories of Native Americans being forever displaced. We refer to the leaders, for simplicity sake, as “good kings” and “bad kings” and that the world strives to have more “good kings” than “bad kings”. We explain that Jesus and Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln were “good kings” and that sometimes there are selfish “bad kings” who take away people`s freedoms. Oliver has asked on so many occasions with a pleading voice, “Why, why don’t they just leave people alone?” Shortly thereafter we admired the brilliant colors of the grasshoppers in the fields. Grasshoppers. Even the simplest creatures in Africa are magnificent. They had so many different colors and patterns on their small body. A work of art. We took lots of pictures and tried to get close enough to get a good look. Then we saw our first mammal in Africa – in the distance a lone baboon. We strained our eyes to see him in the tall grass across the field. We were clambering, pointing and squinting just like typical tourists. Just what we had been waiting for – true wildlife. We asked the nearby ranger what the baboon was doing in the grass. He said, “Why, he’s snacking on the yummy grasshoppers.”

We didn’t embark on this trip so that we could save the world – it all came about too quickly for us to be trekking around with a specific well-defined mission. However, what we are experiencing on this trip is that by getting closer to the cultural and natural riches that this earth and its people have to offer, we can begin to truly appreciate what there is to protect and, most importantly, our children will appreciate it and who knows where that may lead. We understand that this is not a new concept but for us and the busy lives we lead they were just familiar words. Some people get it or think they get it without ever taking a step out of their livingroom. We are not sure what understandings we will come back with. It is a big world to try to absorb in less than a year. In Africa, the wildlife tells us over and over, “Eat or be eaten” yet we must explain to our children that, as humans, we are not to behave this way despite human history.

One of South Africa’s gems is the Kruger National Park where wildlife abounds and is well protected. It lies in the northeast corner bordering Mozambique. We headed to an area just outside the park for a few days that`s known for its natural beauty and a plethora of outdoor activities. It didn’t take long for Peter to master driving on the left as he has done it many times before. We arrived in Sabie and the local tourist center directed us to a nice B&B nearby with a family room (a term to indicate ‘sleeps 4’). We first had dinner in a old railroad car turned restaurant. This restaurant had all of the fixin’s – full bar, nice decorations, full menu, entertaining signs advertising their specialties like you would see in an old Irish pub- somehow we thought we would see wild boar around a roadside bonfire, or grasshoppers for that matter but no, South Africa had all of the modern amenities that we were used to. Afterall, that is why we chose South Africa as opposed to Tanzania or Kenya. We didn’t want to be too far away from civilization when we have the children to take care of. We pictured Kenya to be completely wild (which it probably isn’t). Yet we continued to be surprised and a bit disappointed and at the same time a bit relieved every time we encountered something familiar. The restaurant did have a live parrot to amuse the boys and we ate out of traditional cast-iron potjie pots – so that satisfied our need for a little culture.

We arrived at our B&B which is in a residential area. Each property was entirely surrounded by metal electronic gates. We pressed the button and the gate opened and the hostess greeted us in the driveway. It was late and we easily settled in after our routine of soaking laundry and finding a place to hang our clothesline. The next day we learned all about the high crime rates and how every house must be gated. We learned that they`d been robbed 3 times and had lived there less than a year. We were anxious to go exploring but were feeling cautious. We saw the baboons, the grasshoppers and cute long-tailed Vervet Monkeys watching us from the trees as we passed by. We visited waterfalls and were amazed at the sheer volume of crafts that were assembled on swaths of blankets at tourist sites, major intersections and in parking lots wherever we went. Locals pleaded with us to look at their wares – “Just look Mama – it is free to look.” Men hid in the trees behind parking lots and emerged selling Macadamia Nuts, roasted or plain, and asked earnestly that we support them. The nuts were delicious and now Henry loves them! Men wash your windshield when you are inside having lunch and then look for tips. Children stood on the side of the walking path dressed like scarecrows with their heads inside of the shirts and a stick holding out the arms and wearing rubber boots. They would do a little stomping dance while peeking out between the buttons to see if we would come by and offer a little tip for their efforts.

The boys loved the craft markets as much a we did. The shapes, textures, and materials used to make so many different animals were fascinating for them. We all wanted to buy everything. Drums, wooden giraffes, soapstone hippos, wooden cars, striped bowls, beaded necklaces, batik wallhangings and much more. It was getting dark and we didn’t want to be out and about even though there were guards at most public places. We stopped in a tourist center and it was most fortunate. We wanted to find a copy of the book “Jock of the Bushveld” which is a classic book for children and adults alike in South Africa. We wanted to read it to the boys while there since it took place in the area we were visiting. We told the man at the man at the tourist center that we were travelling independently and didn’t have any plans and wanted to know if he had any recommendations in the area. He said, “Have I got a treat for you. Tangala.”

He told us about Tangala which is a safari camp outside of Kruger National Park. The downside of Kruger is that, although it is a gem, it is a self-drive park and seeing animals is hit or miss. At a safari camp the rangers are intimate with the animals habits and favorite locations and the roads are not paved so it is more natural and “wild”. Tangala happens to be more affordable than its nearby luxury counterparts because the owner created a small (6 cabins), nicely appointed camp with no electricity. It was all lit by kerosene lamps. Since Laura was still stinging from not being able to work true safari into our trip back in the planning stages because of their high cost, she was excited about this option and it sounded romantic. Peter was swayed by the long list of selling points despite the somewhat hefty pricetag – it sounded like a good value. The boys, of course, just wanted to go on a safari, whatever that was, if it involved seeing animals. Lucky for us, two cabins were still free so we could take both since each cabin only sleeps two. Each parent could take one child. So much for the romance. We paid our deposit and he gave us a free copy of Jock of the Bushveld and we were on our way.

The next day we made our way to Tangala but first had to stop at a nearby shopping center to replace a lost pair of binoculars. We didn’t know where to buy them and none of the locals knew what binoculars were when we asked – they have no need for binoculars. We finally found a camera store and while parking the car learned about the career of a “Professional Car Watcher”. While you are in the store, someone watches your car. Why? From car-jackers of course. Actually, this is a very real and common practice of acquiring cars in South Africa and many people we had spoken to in our travels had had unfortunate experiences with car-jackings. While waiting for our flight to Johannesburg, we learned of the death of one of South Africa’s most loved reggae singers, Lucky Dube, who was killed in a car-jacking gone wrong. Lucky was a cross between Bob Marley and John Lennon who sang of world peace and unity and he was extremely popular. Sadly, he was killed days before our arrival in front of his children while his car was being car-jacked. So, someone watches your car and you pay them about .50 upon your return. South Africans are very creative in their ways to earn money – they have to be.

An hour later, with new binoculars in hand, we approached Tangala with excitement and as we followed the dirt track off the paved road for 30 minutes, an abundance of “not small” animals greeted us even before we reached the camp gate. It was as if Disney had strategically placed animatronic wildlife along the way, each nodding and turning their head in a warm, beckoning way and then, as if on cue, darting away into the bush as we moved ahead. And, once again, we hadn`t seen anyone for miles before we arrived and we were certainly the only people on this dirt track. We first watched, not 10 yards from our car, a massive rhinoceros with two large, piercing horns while it grazed. Then we watched a majestic male Greater Kudu with its spiraling antlers pointed skyward as his striped body stands frozen while he assesses our threat. He and his big-eared mistresses darted off into the bush in unison. Next, a large warthog stops and turns his head toward us showing his curved tusks and his wiry tail stands at attention until he decides to take cover. Then the shy and elusive male Nyala that we were lucky to catch a glimpse of crosses our path. You can only imagine the scene, our excitement and our gaping mouths while Laura tries simultaneously to take a photo and look out the window while Peter tries not to drive the rental car into a thornbush or over a turtle and the boys are consulting their new african wildlife picture books attempting to identify these new creatures.

Everything about Tangala was absolutely perfect and it was the best investment we made in South Africa. Our experienced guide, Janco, was young and enthusiastic and our ranger, Ruben, could spot a needle in a haystack. We went on a total of four game drives over the two nights that we were there and saw not just the big 5 (a now commercialized term for the 5 most dangerous animals to hunt according to hunting history) which include lions, elephants, rhino, buffalo and leopards, but many others as well. Many people come to Africa and never get to see a lion or a leopard. Our rangers spotted marks in the dirt that indicated a cat had pulled a kill across the dirt track. They went back without us to later on to investigate and their instincts were right as they tracked on foot and found a leopard enjoying her feast under a tree. They then took us back to the same spot on our next game drive because leopards tend to stay in one spot eating their kill for hours or days. He drove his jeep right into the bush – over small trees, branches, bracken – definitely not a place where one usually drives and we were rewarded by getting to watch the leopard guard her treasure. She was so camoflauged beneath the dappled and specked sunlight of the bush that only a trained eye could spot her. We all had to be extremely quiet as the animals are familiar with vehicle sounds but not human sounds. The children did great and seemed to understand the rarity of the event. Our second, SECOND, special encounter was when our hostess was on her way to get supplies and spied a cheetah in broad daylight by the dirt track digesting a meal with her cub. She turned around and gathered us up from our leisurely rest time and sped back to the sight and the cheetah was still there panting rapidly yet sitting still as they do after a big meal while the vultures congregated nearby to pick through the leftovers. We saw two prides of lions and a cheetah with two teenagers and three juveniles lounging beneath an acacia tree. Your eyes wanted to pop out of your head. Some people just want to see the “big 5” and go home but we were equally amazed at the diligent dung beetle who seeks out some fresh elephant poop, scoops it into a neat ball much larger than himself (who’s already bigger than any bug at home) until it resembles a sugar coated munchkin and then he pushes it back to a safe place for mom to lay her eggs inside and then the babies eat their way out – a house you can eat!

Except for the last day, there was only one other couple with us so we had a lot of attention from our guides. We were at Tangala on Halloween and we had told Janco about this. Unbeknownst to us, the two guides had secretly conspired and had prepared decorated candy packages and delivered them to the owner’s nearby camper. The guides collected Oliver and Henry from the dinner table and, despite no costume, they were taken to the nearby camper (Janco had to carry a shotgun as it wasn’t as nearby as we thought – the camp doesn’t have fences) and the boys knocked on the camper door with an enthusiastic “Trick or Treat!” and ended up with quite a treat including gummy boa constrictors (it is Africa, afterall)! The evenings were further enhanced in a not-so-spooky way by the beauty and tribal influence of the dozens of torches lining the paths to our thatched camps and the kerosene glass lamps lighting our mosquito-netted abodes and the bon-fire boiling the water for our tea. Drum beats signaled that our meals were ready and a few local women cooked sumptuous meals and bountiful breakfasts as we overlooked a waterhole frequented by rhinos, baboons and nyalas. At 5:30am, we rubbed our eyes and eagerly headed out to the jeeps for our morning 3 hour game drive with a stop midway for coffee, rusks and biltong as a snack. This was Africa.

We sadly left Tangala but the boys constantly talk about it and play safari with their legos. They were so impressed by the whole experience and they bonded with Janco who they respected as he was nice yet firm and they felt safe with him and thought he was cool because he got to carry a rifle and wear safari clothes and drive jeeps over trees. Oliver wants to grow up to be a ranger (until the next cool guy comes along). We could not get reservations in Kruger National Park for a couple of days so we headed into Blyde Canyon National Park nearby (this area of South Africa was chock full of stuff) and looked for a place to stay. It was getting dark and we drove and drove. Once again, we seemed to the only car on the road and there were no lights in the national park area and the steep walls of the canyon loomed over us like shadows. We saw a sign for Maholoholo Ya Mati Lodge that someone had suggested. We turned in with our headlights lighting up the nightbugs and the iron gate. No one was in sight. Slowly the gate opened and an armed man walked out. We asked if this was a place to stay. He seemed unsure and would make a call. It was not like Holiday Inn where the receptionist gives you a smile and hands you a key. There were gates and men in fatigues and darkness and we weren’t sure what kind of place this was – a hotel, a camp, a prison. He waved us on and led our car deep into the compound. The only thing we could see was his flashlight shining ahead. There were no hotel lights, no parking lot, no guest services counter. He led us over a lawn towards a grove of bushes. We thought – this is it. We made a big mistake. We are too trusting. We got out of the car and expecting, “Your money AND your life”, he said, “This is your place – cottage number 1.” When we started breathing again, we found ourselves in a two bedroom beautiful apartment with a balcony and nice furnishings, african art and a full kitchen. After sleeping with one eye opened all night, we took a look outside and it was one of the most stunning settings we had ever been in. It was Shangri-La. Thatched roofs on the myriad of bungalows along a rainforest-like setting with a gurgling stream surrounded by red and gold canyon walls and a blinding blue sky. Our elusive hostess finally appeared and advised us that they usually hold weddings there but, lucky for us, there were no weddings for some strange reason, so we have the whole place to ourselves! Oh, and she reminds us to watch out for the hippos that live in the stream – they can be deadly. There is always something dangerous lurking in Africa – even in Shangri-La. We stay for a couple of days and explore the canyon and find a great restaurant that we eat at twice that has a playground (what luck, in Africa?) We do get to see the shy hippos before we leave.

We go to Kruger, our original piece de resistance, but now, because we have seen so many riches so far, Kruger becomes a nice meander with no pressure to see anything. We stay for three days and stay in a different camp each night as we traverse the vast park that is one of the ten largest national parks in the world. Despite the hit-or-miss warnings, we are rewarded with an abundance of wildlife and with the weekend daytrippers gone, we feel we have the park to ourselves. It is hard to fathom the wide expanses of land. We are in the comfort of our own car and we can stop whenever we want as we weren’t sure how much driving the boys could handle. To our surprise, they couldn’t get enough. They never once complained about being in the car and we would drive from 9:00 in the morning until 5:00 at night stopping for lunch and it was perfect. We didn’t have to wear seatbelts in the park because of the low speed limit so that helped us to stay comfortable. It was in Kruger that we gained an appreciation for birds. They take you by surprise how big, small, colorful and unique their calls are. It is on safari that we learned the rhythms of nature and how to sense danger. When the antelope all stand at attention looking in one direction or the flock of guinea fowls start gobbling in unison or the vultures start circling. The only close calls we had with danger were with elephants. One was while we were travelling a track of road lined with large trees and dense with bushes and instantly, a massive elephant appeared out of the bush and onto the road. He was as startled as we were and turned so his huge body so his long tusks were facing us and he gave a piercing warning roar ensuring that we keep our distance. The second was also when we were partially blocking the elephant’s path after his bath at a watering hole and he gave us a warning charge where they pretend to charge but then back off. We caught that one on video and you can hear Mom yelling “Close the Window!” Like that would help.

All of this was within the first 9 nights of being in South Africa. Our plan was to be in Africa for almost 50. If this was South Africa has to offer, then we were in for quite an adventure.

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  1. We’ve just been to Tangala during Christmas, and it was just overwhelming. During 5 Safaris Janco and Bennet showed and explained us so much about the wildlife, we saw so many different animals and we’re sure to return to South Africa as soon as possible.
    Best regards
    Fam. Sych, Mannheim, Germany


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