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)


South Africa – Part 2

January 12, 2008 at 7:27 pm | Posted in South Africa, Swaziland | Leave a comment

South Africa Part 2…..November 7 – November 26 20 days

We left Kruger and headed west to visit our new friends, Frank and Martha, who are Peter’s sister-in-law’s son’s in-laws. Got that? They live outside Johannesburg and we looked forward to some familial ties. We spent 3 days with them and were well taken care of, well pampered and well fed. The boys got their fill of t.v., yard races and tons of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches which are hard to come by outside of the U.S. We also got some good advice on where to go and some insight on life in South Africa. Thank you Frank and Martha! We were all sad to part ways as we had grown very close during our short visit.

We took the N17 straight east towards Swaziland thus resuming our trek down the eastern seaboard of South Africa. Swaziland is a small kingdom that lies south of Kruger National Park and we were attracted to it for its emphasis on culture. Martha had packed us an ample supply of sandwiches and we were carefree but unnerved by the conditions of the tin shacks that the locals live in. Row upon row of tin shacks forming maze-like tin towns festooned with rainbows of laundry hanging from shack to shack or on the barbed wire fences marking the township boundaries. We pointed them out to the children and simply asked them what they thought of them rather than asking them to be thankful for what they have. We know they would have to get closer to these people’s lives to truly begin to appreciate the difference. They didn’t know what to make of the shacks. The children are excited to find a nail or a bottlecap on the ground and now that they are living with a small handful of toys, they are able to naturally adapt and live with less and not miss their toys at home. The other day Laura found a plastic ring that came off of the bottle top of a water or milk bottle in Oliver’s collection. Looking like garbage, she asked him if she could throw it away and he insisted on keeping it because he uses it to scrape the sharp edges off of his new found sticks. So, we didn`t think we would get an objective opinion from the children on their thoughts about the shacks, not yet anyway.

We were taking in the increasingly lush and dramatic scenery when Peter, in a deliberate casual tone, asked Laura to refer to the car’s manual to see how much fuel is actually left in the tank when the warning light goes on. Laura’s heart immediately started racing and she felt the adrenaline pumping as fear permeated her body. The one thing you don’t want to do in South Africa is get stranded on a roadside especially the road we were travelling because we had just passed a road sign that read “High Crime Area. Do Not Stop”. We had heard that robberies and car-jackings are commonplace and the resentment felt by the locals despite the offical end to apartheid was very real. The extreme poverty rendered people very desperate. Being stranded was like being a lone baby gazelle on the open plain at sundown.

Peter had been in a quandry because the gas stations along the road up until this point were so unapproachable and forboding that he dared not drive into one also thinking that we would be left vulnerable and so he was trying to hold off stopping for fuel until we reached the more safe international border between South Africa and Swaziland. Now here we were 10 miles or so from the border and Laura is frantically trying to flip through the manual to see how much fuel we have. All the manual says is, “When the warning light goes on, fill up the tank IMMEDIATELY”. Our South African friends had told us a story about how they had gotten into a minor accident in the “middle of nowhere” years ago on a dark, forested road. Right after the crash, the accident scene was suddenly surrounded by a crowd of people who had seemingly come out from behind the trees! They were left with the impression that folks simply lurked everywhere like crickets that you can’t see but you know are there, waiting for a feast. Laura was already trying to imagine if we would be surrounded by helpful or opportunistic people in our stranded car and what words she would use to try to salvage what was most important in our car and let them have the rest. But it seemed that everything we had was essential and very difficult to replace – that was how we decided how to pack so lightly in the first place. But what she decided we would have to negotiate for would only be the boys’ journals and the pictures I had not yet uploaded to our online account (not that we would in a position to negotiate). Everything else could be replaced even if it set us back weeks. And in that few minutes that I had to ponder this while still panicked and short of breath, we rounded the corner and there was the Swaziland border as Peter coyly announced, “I knew we would be alright.” That episode added a few more strands to Laura’s already graying hair.

In the end, our fears were as close as we got the the reprecussions of apartheid. We never once had a bad experience and were never in danger and, in retrospect, it was enlightening to experience fear and skim the surface of what it must be like for either race to live together yet apart. It was important that we were aware of the situation from the start so that we wouldn’t do anything negligent like unconsciously flaunt our belongings, go into non-commercial neighborhoods, or… run out of gas. It also heightened our awareness as we crossed the border into Swaziland and experienced a very different form of interaction with the locals. Rather than being restrained and cautious as folks sometimes were in South Africa, Swaziland locals oozed a welcoming attitude and an enthusiastic outpouring of laughs, chattiness and attention towards us. The people were happy and lived a much better life – sometimes a simple life, but not a desperate one. Swaziland was a kingdom that always embraced peace and it showed. There were lots of crafts, bucolic valleys, enriching cultural experiences and good food. We were amazed at the number of people that actually live in traditional thatched huts. Small children spend their time casually walking along the main road unattended or gathered beneath a shady tree. Mothers were tending their small patches of earth with babies fused to their backs with traditional cloth tied in a knot. We wondered what it would be like to pull over and walk into one of their “hut compounds” and find out what their life was like. The whole area was beautiful and was dotted with the quintessential acacia trees so often associated with the African landscape. South Africa was a mix of beauty, wild nature and danger. Warthogs and Impala roamed outside of our cabin in the bush but then there were the crickets that we found under the sheets or the occasional millipede that slunked in under the door. It was in a Swaziland Reptile Center where we learned that snakes are prolific in Swaziland and South Africa including the extremely venomous Puff Adder for which there is currently no anti-venom. Nice.

We returned to South Africa a few days later to the dramatic and stunning Greater St. Lucia Wetlands National Park. We drove a few hours to get there passing by uniformed children getting out of school and happily making their long walk home along the main road for miles as there are no sidewalks. Others had already reached home and were heading back out rolling large plastic containers along the road to where the supposed water supply was. We had to constantly keep our eyes on the road to avoid hitting crossing cattle. We stopped to use the restroom at a tourist center. Oliver was in the restroom as Laura waited outside. She opened the door to check on him and something fell from the ceiling and hit Oliver’s shoulder and landed on the floor. Oliver turned and shuddered then squeaked out, “It’s a scorpion!”. He managed to get out unscathed but his newly purchased wooden car handmade in Swaziland remained on the sink. Mom had to rescue the car in the face of this seemingly deadly predator which remained frozen on the floor staring at her 5 feet from the sink. She grabbed the car and slammed the door. The scorpion didn’t move. Was it even alive? We are not sure to this day. Perhaps the wind blew its lifeless shell from the rafters. We checked for bite signs on Oliver’s shoulder and learned that there are new dangers lurking in restrooms that we had never considered before. The children were always attended into the restroom after that. We drove a long way and again, without reservations, were lucky to secure one of the cabins nestled among the clifftops of the dunes that dramatically descend down to a huge expanse of wild beach where loggerhead and leatherback turtles come in from the warm Indian Ocean to nest.

We made arrangements to have someone take us out for a turtle walk after dinner so we donned our fleece pullovers to guard against the wind, took torches (aka flashlights) and headed down the wooden stairs which lead down the cliff towards the ocean with our guide, Blessing, which we are sure reflects his mother’s sentiments upon his birth. It was pitch black and while we were busy worrying about snakes, the thought of walking the beach on a moonless sky was very exciting. We reached the sand and the scene unfolded with a display of a trillion stars in constellations that were familiar but seemed backwards or upside-down at this end of the earth. The black cliffs rose behind us and we plodded down the powdery sand dunes towards the gentle crashing waves which were now tame at low tide and had an easy walk along the shore on well packed sand. It was already 8:00pm and we were planning on a two hour walk so we were hoping the wind and waves would keep the boys awake and motivated.

The yellow crescent moon must have already made its shallow rise and descent because we just caught a glimpse of it before it fell behind the cliffs. Besides the stars and the white caps of the waves, the only other things we could make out were distant and nearby flashlights that the night fishermen were using to light their way in hopes of a meal after a long workday. Blessing made some purposeful deep tracks in a long line from the stairs to the water to mark the spot where we would return since there was no other landmark to indicate the path back to the camp. It was a gentle reminder of how untamed the surroundings were. The wind was warm and we tried to walk and watch the stars but not step on any of the crabs winding around our feet. The boys excitedly made tracks with their new walking sticks and Blessing drew a picture in the sand of what the turtle would do to lay her eggs and what we would have to watch for.

We walked looking for tracks and had planned to turn around at one hour. We hadn’t seen anything. Henry was getting tired and Blessing happily offered to carry him on his shoulders. Blessing was very big and strong and had admitted to carrying lots of kids on his back over the years. We had hoped that while we were heading out, a turtle would have crossed our footprints so we could catch her on the way back but there was no such luck. There were no turtles this night. It did not seem like such a disappointment though because the night walk was so thrilling. Here we were, in Africa, searching for turtles under a glistening, velvety sky in a place so natural that we have to mark the sand to find our starting point and we again relished the fact that we had discovered this place by ourselves, no organized tour stop, no itinerary.

We enjoyed the sun and sand of the untamed coast and waded in the warm water of the Indian Ocean. Laura cut everyone’s hair and we snacked on nuts and bananas – it was a bit Swiss Family Robinson-esque. We discovered it was a bit too untamed when Laura got stung by a bluebottle (like a jellyfish). After a little aloe cream from a first aid station, we moved on to the town of St. Lucia for a few days and saw crocodiles and hippos. The national park had over 500 species of birds and is protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. We were always on the lookout for the endangered Black Rhino, as opposed to the more abundant White Rhino, but never saw one. Our next stop was the cultural village of Shakaland. We slept in a beehive hut which is the traditional architecture in Africa – a dome structure shaped by long, young, pliable saplings, we dined to the sounds of African music, watched ancient dancing and Zulu chanting by firelight and threw spears with the much more athletic fur-clad residents. The food so far has been great and did not consist of worms, grasshoppers or white clumps of grain that we associated with African fare. So much for the planned diet. The next destination was the stunning Drakensburg Mountain Range. We crossed wide expanses of flat land singing to The Mamas and Papas and the soundtrack to The Lion King while skirting the potholes along the mostly dirt tracks, alone again (where is everyone – certainly no Americans?), as we approached this mountainous wall that separated the highveld from the lowveld – where the land in Africa simply takes a giant step down. We headed to an area called Giant’s Castle which is known for its wealth of San rock art. We travelled into the green carpeted hills and then on foot, headed right to the cave paintings that were part of a guided walk. The guide herself was of San origin and she spoke with an interesting set of lilts and rolls in her voice and when she spoke her native language it included sounds and noises not part of the American vocabulary including clicks and snaps that one makes with their tongue and teeth. Seeing cave art was one of the highlights of our whole adventure so far and was something we thought we would never see. It is a shame that some of these San people were still living their traditional lifestyles as recently as the late 1800s until they were driven from the lands and absorbed into the dominant culture. It is interesting how the widespread cave art all has the same look and feel as if they all went to the same art school and studied under a well reknowned cave art master. After the one hour tour, the boys frolicked in a nearby stream and upon being stunned by its beauty, we learned that therer are cottages right in the thick of things. They had one available and we decided to turn one day into several and took day long hikes in the drizzle and sunshine over hills carpeted in green unchanged for thousands of years. We saw fascinating birds and the boys played games such as giving the flowers their own names based upon how they looked since we didn’t know what they were really called- names like popcorn flower, rabbit ears flower, tickle flower and Greece flower for its brilliant blue petals. We walked for hours and hours not seeing another soul.

We spent Thanksgiving in our little cottage surrounded by Chacma baboons, cave paintings and whyddah birds whose tail feathers are so long, they look like they`re dressed for the Oscars. The boys made Thanksgiving decorations like turkeys traced from their hands, pilgrims, Mayflowers and pumpkins. We ate in the pleasant restaurant overlooking the valley and each of us had written down what we were most thankful for and shared our lists at the table before dinner. All of these types of things – drawings, lists, mementos – all go into our “send home box” that we carry around in the trunk until we accumulate enough to justify the cost of shipping and so far we have sent home about six boxes all of which have arrived home safely with one still enroute as of this writing. At night we would read another chapter or two of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory until we decided to move on to another national park after we read on the daily sightings board that someone had sighted a Puff Adder near the stream where we played the day before. Nice.

We headed to the highly recommended Royal Natal National Park, one of South Africa’s gems. It was the weekend so when we tried to get accommodation within the park, we were out of luck. We passed a sign that simply said, “ACCOMMODATION” and underneath it said, “PIZZA” then “AHEAD”. We thought, “Oh, great, we are going to end up in some room above a pizza joint in a strip mall”. Then another sign said, “TOWER OF PIZZA”. This is not looking better. But, it is lunchtime so we decide to pull in and check it out. It turned out to be an oasis in the middle of acres and acres of land and we just fell in love with the place and stayed 3 nights! It was a homestead in the middle of wide open fields – it looked like how we picture Nebraska. In the distance, the mighty Drakensburg Range surrounds the area. There was a main restaurant that looked like a barn with a tin roof and antiques all around with “Ginger Beer” signs on the wall and white tableclothes on the tables. They had three cottages and the restaurant made killer pizza in their wood-burning oven, they had FREE wireless access, two neighboring horses kept us company and the cheap price included a great breakfast served by a woman of few words, a no-nonsense attitude yet a gleaming white smile and her hair done up in a scarf and tied in a knot above her forehead just like Mamie in Gone with the Wind. The kids were ecstatic to stay for more than one night – throughout all of our travelling, they always fall in love with the places we stay. Even more than the animals, rides, treats, adventures – they love their temporary homes, no matter how homely. Their inner souls must long to nest and stay put but their enthusiasm keeps them moving on. They required that we all say, “Goodbye Tower of Pizza Hotel” aloud, one by one, as we departed. No tears, just acknowledgement while maintaining a ritual within their spontaneous lives. While there, we uploaded hundreds of backlogged pictures, did lots of laundry, the boys ran in the grass for hours and we climbed magnificent paths in the nearby mountains. One day we hiked 7 hours to and from the world’s second highest waterfalls – Tugela Falls. The landscape was gorgeous and rugged and we could hear baboons’ yowls echoing in the canyon or sense their presence with the sudden movement of a faraway tree branch. We were proud of the boys’ endurance despite the unfortunate fact that we never reached the actual falls as there was a treacherous vertical climb at the end to actually view them (which they failed to make clear in the literature) but it was still another valuable, bonding family achievement which is one of many goals on this adventure.

The isolated townships (areas where the oppressed Africans were originally designated to live and still do) were hard to drive through and witness how little opportunity there is for them. Teenagers and even young children walking the land with no particular place to go or groups playing soccer with a half-deflated soccer ball or the men gathered around the “shopping center” which consisted of a single store, a plastic table outside, and a stoop to gather on. Each family has a hut and a small tract of land to grow their food on and an animal or two to provide milk and eggs. Our 7 hour hike suddenly didn’t seem like a test of endurance at all.

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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