South Africa – Part 3

January 23, 2008 at 5:23 pm | Posted in South Africa | Leave a comment

South Africa – Part 3………… November 27 – December 12

We hauled across South Africa for about 9 hours the next day to traverse the great expanses of agricultural land and just plain land separating the Drakensburg from our next area of interest. So far, the long car rides seem to be fostering an environment that continues to ripen the boys patience and enhance their listening and comprehension skills leveraging their existing eagerness to listen to audiobooks. The car rides also improvv their ability to engage in lengthy contemplation. Unfortunately, this results in us having to devise responses to questions like “Did cavemen get to have dessert?”, “What does ‘No Vacancy’ mean?” and “Can we get a hampster when we get home?”

After a good dose of Van Morrison and James and the Giant Peach we arrived at our destination, the tiny town of Craddock where the trucking route passes right through the center of town past the old Victoria Hotel which has gingerbread-style houses adjacent to it that are let out. Entering the house was like walking into a time warp as you expected to see an old couple sipping tea in the sitting room or seeing the maid running a bath for you in the old clawfoot tub. The hostess at the hotel looked as though she had worked there since 1879. The old hotel was decorated with artificial Christmas Trees done up in Victorian style with oodles of tinsel and bows adorning each one. This was our first familiar reminder that the Christmas season was approaching. The boys thought it was all great and went about sniffing out all the nooks and crannies of our tiny house and raved so much about the caramel fudge muffins at breakfast the next morning that the hostess packed them some extras for the road.

The next day was our visit to nearby Addo Elephant National Park, another one of South Africa’s gems. We saw more wildlife here including some animals we hadn’t seen elsewhere and that made it very exciting. It seemed we would never get tired of searching for animals – large and small. The boys made sure that Dad carefully drove the car in such a way as to avoid flattening the cute dung beetles crossing the road. As they were the size of an Oreo cookie, they weren’t hard to miss. Finding places to stay has always been easy for us. Perhaps we are lucky but we simply haven’t seen hoards of people to compete with. We rarely see Americans and find that is primarily because Americans have (and use) less vacation time than many other developed countries and so, when visiting South Africa, they tend to target Cape Town and Kruger and forfeit anything in between. We see Germans and South Africans for the most part. Often we end up in an accommodation and don’t even see any other guests or drive on long stretches without seeing another car as if we are in the Twilight Zone and we are the only people on earth except for the people serving us. We are so used to the dense east coast of the United States that these wide tracts of land are foreign to us. We should appreciate it before we get to India, China and Japan.

We ended up staying at a nearby place but as soon as we arrived, the electricity went out. This is because of South Africa’s less than efficient contracts with power suppliers. South Africa did not contract for enough power for the country so different areas must experience 2 hour blackout periods on a rotating basis to make up for the shortfall. The impact on us? We ate by candlelight. Maybe this isn’t such a bad idea afterall. It conserves energy and is romantic. The following day we headed to metropolitan Port Elizabeth to renew our car rental contract which is only valid for 30 days and we are renting for 45. We travel along the well-known Garden Route which hugs the southern coast. We landed in the shadow of the Tsitsikamma Mountain Range in an idyllic setting overlooking the wild and rugged Indian Ocean as it crashes against the coast lined with dramatic boulders that looked like they had been slammed against the coast until they were permanently wedged in place. We had an entire house and the proprietor’s 10 year old nephew was visiting so our boys enjoyed his company for a couple of days. His name was Keaneau and he accompanied us down the practically vertical trail to the water and assured us that he was quite adept at catching snakes if the need should arise. They played in the tall grass, went exploring, rode ATVs and watched videos.

We visited nearby Monkeyland and World of Birds. Despite their hokey names, these places were fantastic as we roamed a fenced-in preserve and watched many different species of monkeys spy us from all around. World of Birds was even more surprising as we had never seen so many different kinds of magnificent birds within an aviary that was so large you didn’t know you were in it. We spent hours and hours at both of these places. After a cockatoo tried desperately to pull the button off the top of Peter’s favorite cap, we decided to move on. We headed inland to visit the famous labyrinth of limestone caverns called Cango Caves. On the way we drove through South Africa’s ostrich capital and 30 minutes later Oliver and Henry found themselves riding on these feathered broncos! It was quite a sight. The boys were the only children who volunteered and they sped (I mean sped) around the fenced in pen along with two men acting as spotters. It was hilarious and, undoubtedly, very strange. They had seen it in Swiss Family Robinson so I think that was part of the incentive to get them to try it. Looked easier in the movie.

The caves were outstanding and a magnificent adventure for all of us. We trekked far into the cave into its many different “rooms” and were fascinated by the size of the stalactites and stalagmites that grow an inch every 100,000 years. The caves were elegantly electrified and at one point they had turned off all of the lights to illustrate what it was like for the pioneers who discovered the caves and explored them with a single lantern. Their true magnificence can only be seen with light. The tour was a highlight of our trip. We travelled quite a bit that day to reach civilization again and rest in a pre-arranged bed and breakfast. We arrived late and we learned from another guest that the proprietors had left to go to a new hotel opening party. Stranded, we ended up crashing the party in search of the owners so they could let us into our room. These are survival skills at their finest and, lucky for us, our hosts were more impressed than ruffled and gladly led us to our room. We were in South Africa’s famed wine region so we enjoyed a sumptuous meal at one of the nearby gourmet bistros – now this is what we realized we miss. Truffles, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, gorgonzola cheese, foccaccia bread, filtered olive oil, fine wine – it was all coming back to us. Aaahhh.

The dream only lasted a day as we headed over mountainous terrain to get to the bucolic major wine districts bounded by lavender fields and grapevines. We took a late morning boatride along a river while sipping a fruity cabernet, snacking on aged gouda and fresh baked french bread. Laura had a headache lurking as we arrived in a lovely town lined with trendy shops and fancy cars and well-heeled weekenders here visiting the champagne tasting festival. We passed on the champagne because only one out of four of us loves the stuff and we aren`t exactly well-heeled. We found a great, inexpensive place to stay along the main street. By dinner time, Laura’s headache had turned evil and we went back to try to sleep it off. The morning was bright and lovely and we had managed to pack our things and check out but as soon as Laura tried to walk more than 10 paces or sit down or stand up, her body ached and her head pounded and spun. Feeling homeless, we went to a nearby park so she could lay down and the boys could play. No relief. We were to head to Cape Town that day but Laura could not make the car ride as no position offered any relief except for lying completely flat. Laura was nervous enough as this felt like a very unusual sickness, that she should see a doctor to check for malaria as you can still contract it despite the fact that we were all on anti-malarial drugs. We stopped in to see a local physician who luckily had some free time. After drawing some blood and a couple of shots to ease the pain we checked back in to our room and rested all day and waited for blood test results. The shots didn’t work and there was no respite the next day so we revisited the doctor after several bouts of vomiting in parking lots and streetside trash bins. Nice. Blood tests did not show any malaria but because Mom was in dire straits, the doctor called the nearby hospital and Mom was duly checked in. Scary. We had heard that public hospitals in South Africa are poorly run but that private hospitals are much better and, luckily, Laura fell ill in an affluent part of the country that probably wouldn’t settle for less than the best. After shots, blood tests, cat scans and IV drips, blood tests came back negative for malaria. After four days, whatever was in her body had made its way out and she was able to check out. It wasn’t until days later after talking with several locals that we were quite convinced that the perpetrator may well have been the anti-malarial drug itself which is known to wreak havoc with one’s head. Some locals who regularly travel to malaria regions steer clear of the drugs because they had experienced worse symptoms than what you would experience if you contracted malaria. To think that we avoided snakes, scorpions, raging elephants and other wildlife and instead the enemy was our medicine. Figures.

Peter and the boys took up residence at a guest house near the hospital and the staff at the hospital took very good care to ensure that they had everything they needed and watched the boys while Peter and I were off dealing with logistics. The care and attention at the privately-owned hospital was top notch. Peter and the boys went to a raptor and cheetah preserve where the boys wore special gloves so that raptors could land on their arms and they also got to go into a cheetah`s cage and learn about him while petting him. They drove into Cape Town and went to the aquarium. Morning and night, they visited Mom and the boys were very loving, calm and curious. It was an opportunity for them to see what happens when we get bad germs (helps with the lectures on using soap in the restrooms!) as they had only heard of hospitals but had never been inside one. Peter also took them to their favorite restaurants, Wimpy’s and Spur, which are ubiquitous in South Africa and cater to kids with kiddy meals, bright colors, playspaces and balloons. We all went off the anti-malaria drugs after that and were advised that as long as you go to the doctors if you feel sick after visiting a malarial area, you do not need to take the drugs. Plus, the drugs often mask the malarial symptoms if you do contract it. We are relieved that this episode happened to one of us rather than the kids and are glad we were in a country we`d be visiting for a long time so there was very little disruption in our sightseeing. All turned out well and we moved on to Cape Town.

We found City Lodge which was similar to a homestyle suites hotel and the boys fell in love with it. The breakfast was a bounty and it was smack in the middle of the best parts of the city. We had just arrived in town the day before and stopped at the local Tourist Information desk where they made a few phone calls for us and we found it. The first thing we did was conquer Table Mountain which was easy via cable car. Table Mountain provided a dramatic backdrop to this lively city and we were, once again, lucky to have a crystal clear day where Table Mountain was not covered by the infamous “tablecloth” of clouds. The flat top and the 360 degree vistas encouraged us to spend several hours there walking the paths and chasing lizards. We went to the harbor every night to witness the typical myriad of restaurants, street performers, Christmas shoppers and buzzing boats. It was a nice conclusion to our trip here to come to a place with all the familiarities and conveniences of home without the hoards of crowds. In the past, we dreaded the cities and steered clear as they were usually jam packed and centers of confusion. We didn’t always have the energy to penetrate the initial bombardment of chaos to taste the sweetness that each city beholds. From the start this city was neat, clean and seemed brand-spanking new with new construction of condos, malls, hotels and regentrification of some once taboo districts. Cape Town had it all – a modern city awash with African color, music and pizzazz surrounded by stunning natural beauty. We loved it.

We spent a day exploring the peninsula that Cape Town reigns over. A highlight was a visit to the penguin colony about an hour south of the city. It was remarkable that the public can literally mingle with these tuxedoed creatures. Actually, most tourists view them from a viewing platform yet if you carry on a bit further (where buses tend not to go), you can frolic with them in their beachfront abodes nestled amongst the protection of gigantic boulders. It was very exciting for all of us. The boys really go to see all of the dimensions of the daily life of the penguins – swimming, burrowing, nesting, pairing up as couples, guarding eggs, cuddling and just being non-stop cute. The boys dug a few custom-built burrows in the sand for any unfortunate homeless couples.

Then it was on to the Cape of Good Hope that juts out from South Africa thus allowing for dramatic coastlines, wild beaches and protected species. Windswept and hardy flora unlike anywhere else blankets the miles and miles of land. We avoided the throngs of buses carrying tourists who want to climb to the popular scenic lookout and instead we parked the car down a sandy road and, as if they had telepathy, the boys sprinted to the beach and began to gather beach finds (sticks, washed up rubbish good for construction purposes, large shells, seaweed, rocks) and silently created another sand world while we gathered some of the most beautiful sea shells. The wind and surf drown out what little signs of civilization there is as we watch the endangered Oystercatchers nest and fish. Their brilliant red beaks, feet and eyes contrast against their shiny pitch-black feathers and we feel so lucky to come upon them on this deserted beach. This is what we love on this adventure.

Our last two days in South Africa were spent walking the streets visiting historic buildings, grand parks, and happening boulevards. We visited old districts that are being refurbished to the point that they look so colorful that you want to lick the paint it looks so delicious. We also stopped into a few establishments that encourage handmade crafts to assist the locals in making a living. The boys walked for miles usually on the lookout for treats in the shop windows. They came to know who Nelson Mandela is and why he was important and they got excited to see places where he gave speeches, where he was captured or where he was imprisoned which we had seen in picture books about him in the bookstores. They hope that South Africa can get another president who thinks like Nelson Mandela. They hope all of the countries in the world can have presidents like Nelson Mandela. We spent our last night at the famous Mama Africa club. Although our hotel had called for us and was told that Mama`s was booked for the evening, we showed up anyway and got a table next to the band who belted out reggae music while we dined on crocodile, ostrich and lamb – African style. It was perfect.

(click on picture for slideshow)

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