Australia Part 4 – Great Inland Road

April 7, 2008 at 10:19 am | Posted in Australia | 1 Comment
January 30 – February 8…………… 11 days

With our Great Barrier Reef adventure under our belts, we took a big sigh and headed for our long, long, long drive back to Sydney. 1,800 miles to go. There was heaps (Aussie for “lots”) to see on the way up but we were not sure what was in store for us on the way back. Our plan was to follow the Great Inland Route (there are only a handful of recommended, paved routes). It was not far enough inland to be truly considered the Outback but far enough inland to be considered The Bush. With all of the flash floods, heat warnings and huge expanses of deserted land, we opted to not venture too far inland.

Our first stop was at a town not far from Cairns that had a lot of shops and, more importantly, a bat rescue center. Our boys had grown quite fond of flying foxes during our adventure in Australia and were anxious to get a closer look. Down a small pathway, a generous lady houses dozens of bats that have either been injured or orphaned or stuck on fences. She rescues them and takes care of them until they are ready to be reacclimated to the wild. She held a variety of bats for us to look at closely. She held them upside-down, as they prefer, and fed them cookies. She explained that despite their name, their closes relatives are primates and that they are very smart. She walked over to the cage containing all of the hanging bats and called “Tilly!” and sure enough, one single bat eased her way from the middle of the cage rung by rung with her feet and walked, upside-down, over to the lady. The bat knew it’s name and the other bats knew they were being spoken to and didn’t budge from their hanging perch. The flying fox had the cutest furry face and deep, dark eyes and nudged around looking for cookies. It resumed it’s vampire-like position with its wings symmetrically covering its body. For us, all evil connotations were permanently thrown out the window.

We were impressed with the amount of recycling that Australia does. Wherever there was a public trash bin, right beside it was a recycling bin. All of the streets and sidewalks were 100% litter-free. All of the toilets used low flush and motels encouraged their guests to leave glass, paper, and cans aside for proper disposal. Australia being an isolated destination, needs to be careful of how it uses it resources and needs to vigorously protect its unique wildlife. The customs folks nearly confiscated our grass baskets from Africa as they may have contained miniscule mites but we got away with a good dousing of spray instead.

When we spied a group of kangaroos from afar at a golf course, we knew we might be in a good place to get up close and personal with these giant mice. Up until now, we had not seen them in the wild. We read about a good campground with cabins nearby so we headed for it. Tourism was low in these parts due to recent floodings but there was no rain in sight and we were one of only a few guests at this huge campground – or so we thought. After selecting our sight, we were surrounded by about 30 kangaroos and wallabies hopping around the campground. It was such a treat to be alone with these strange creatures. They were very cute and came complete with joeys to make our encounter that much more special. Kangaroos are big while wallabies are smaller and prettier. To further accentuate our outdoor adventure, Kookaburras were everywhere flitting from tree to tree overhead. We hadn’t seen one of these large birds in the wild either. We couldn’t believe our luck. We slept in strange pod-shaped plastic huts to the sounds of the Australian bush and woke to an outback-style breakfast outside where we cooked our toast over fire and sat on logs while eating our oats. The boys loved it.

We had to hit the road again and dodge the enormous “road trains” that barrelled past us every 20 miles. They were huge trucks hauling 4 cars carrying coal. The whole car would shudder and shake when they rolled past us. We think we counted 74 tires on these road trains. After the kangas and kookaburras, that was about all the excitement there was for a few days. Just the road and more road and more road. We did see beautiful parrots along the way and a flock of emus here and there but otherwise, the infamous long stretches of Australian highway was what we saw. There was lots of time for pondering so we had to answer some hard questions like “What are eyeballs made of?” and “Can people run faster than the wind?” and “Do germs have germs?” We listened to My Father’s Dragon and watched the beautiful country scenes pass by dotted with old windmills, purple fields, horses, crops, and towns that were a potpourri of saloon-style buildings, victorian hotels, and non-descript motels that we called home.

After spending a couple of nights in the Australian country music capital of Tamworth for some good barbeque and to watch a depressing Superbowl (yes, it was televised in Australia), we finally made it to Sydney and without reservations, needed to go around door to door looking for a place to stay in the outskirts in a town called Manley. Everything was extraordinarily expensive or booked so we ended up in a backpacker-style place (ie flimsy beds, old furniture, no soap, don’t look in corners) type of place. Ughh. We spent the days in Sydney returning the car, going to the museum, touring the Opera House and strolling through the botanical gardens decorated with flying foxes in the trees. We mailed home yet another box of collected trinkets and felt that our adventure in Australia had been successful and worth every mile.

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Australia Part 3 – The Northern Tropics

March 19, 2008 at 8:59 pm | Posted in Australia | Leave a comment

Australia Part 3 – The Northern Tropics

We returned from other-worldy Fraser Island to picturesque Hervey Bay, the launching spot for Fraser Island, and felt the need to stay put for a while and we found a motel that was like a little home along the esplanade of the town with the beach right across the street. This little apartment had lovely decor and a dvd player with free rentals! We think the kids watched 4 movies in 24 hours! Having dvd players in the motel rooms was a novelty for us. We were ecstatic! We watched movies, caught up on schoolwork, watched the bats make their nightly foray towards the giant fig trees and indulged in some much missed Mexican food. Plus, they had wireless internet and a pool! This was beyond expectations! Who needs reservations? We felt like trying to slow down a bit and enjoy a home for a few days. Just like home, the boys would dump their entire cache of Lego on the floor and play for hours. School books would be strewn around, our world map would be hung on the wall, our clothesline would be precariously fastened to a kitchen cabinet and a doorknob and we would cook in our own kitchen. Most places we stayed were categorized as “self-catering” which meant that they had a full kitchen, table, chairs and cooking utensils. Australia had all of the foods that we were used to, just fewer options. It felt embarrassing to see that Australia would offer 15 different cereals where the US offers 40 or 50! It seemed completely unnecessary. Furthermore, ALL of Australia’s cereals were healthy and made from whole grain as were some of their yummy cookies. The boys had their favorite 2 or 3 cereals and we were able to get instant oatmeal – Oliver’s favorite. Things we missed as far as choices were concerned were a better variety of granola bars and snack foods. Australia specializes in potato chips. If you wanted Cheetos or Corn Chips, they didn’t exist. There was usually one brand of popcorn and one brand of pretzels offered in one shape. But the potato chips were practically a “meal-in-a-bag”. Some of the offered flavors were “Chicken, Lime, Chorizo”, “Proscuitto, Parmesean”, “Steak, BBQ, Onion”, “Sausage, Rosemary, Pepper”. They brought potato chips to new heights. We missed bagels, fig newtons, and miniature carrots (we looked like cartoon figures chomping on larger than life big carrots in the car!) Our car was usually stocked with nuts, trail mix, bread, peanut butter, jelly, parmalat milk, plastic utensils, plates, paper towels, crackers and leftover candy that was begged for regularly.

After Hervey Bay we headed north as the boys learned the words to songs on our Ipod such as “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens, “Wasting Away Again in Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffet and “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John. We headed to Bundaberg near a sanctuary called Mon Repos which is a popular nesting ground for sea turtles. We were disappointed to have missed them in South Africa so perhaps this would be our second chance. We made a booking and headed over to the sanctuary at dusk as the turtles do not beach until nightfall. We were lucky to be here during the egg-laying season. After everyone arrives they get assigned to a specific group according to when their reservations were made. Later in the evening rangers scan the beaches and when they see a turtle come ashore they call the first group to come observe. If only one turtle comes in then only one group goes. One group per turtle. After a few hours of patient waiting, we were finally called and in the darkness we got to watch a turtle the size of the hood of our car lay over 100 eggs into a hole she dug with her uncoordinated flippers. No lights and no cameras were allowed but the boys sat right up front watching each egg drop into its nest. Then we watched her diligently bury them and attempt to make the beach look unaffected and then she made her way back to the sea never seeing the fruit of her labor. Because we were the last group, we were lucky to watch another turtle who came in beside ours and this time we watched her face rather than her backside as she decided to face the opposite way. These were loggerhead turtles and we learned all about the different sea turtles and why they are endangered and how nature urges these creatures to come back to the same beach they were hatched on 30 years ago and lay eggs for the first time. We also learned that the gender of each hatchling is determined by the temperature of the sand the eggs are laid in. Warmer sand produces females and cooler sand produces males. It was all very amazing especially learning that only 1 out of 1000 hatchlings will successfully return to nest.

The next day we celebrated with a visit to the Bundaberg Rum distillery. We were all interested especially after having driven by thousands of acres of sugar cane. It seemed that was all that was grown on the east coast. The boys were interested in seeing how this pirate grog was made and we were excited for the tastings at the end. Bundaberg Rum is very popular and a proud sponsor of many Australian sporting events – everyone drinks or sells Bundaberg. We all felt like having some refreshing rum drinks as the tropical latitude was becoming quite apparent. It was very strange to travel north and have it become warmer and warmer.

We arrived in Agnes Water with hopes of going out to the pristine island of Lady Musgrave, one of the southernmost islands of the Great Barrier Reef. We waited a few days but the wind and rain didn’t let up enough to allow for successful snorkeling. With the price tag associated with snorkeling the Reef, we wanted good weather. So we opted to move north and hope to get out to the Reef from up there.

On our way north, we stopped in an Aboriginal Cultural Center and got some hands-on lessons for throwing boomerangs. That was a blast! We arrived in Airlie Beach which is the launching site for excursions out to the fantastic Whitsunday Islands. The islands are famous for snorkeling, diving and sailing and are the most accessible islands comprising the Great Barrier Reef. The weather looked promising for the next few days (as much as it could be predicted in these unstable skies). We booked two different excursions and on the first day, although there was heavy cloud cover on the land, the skies on the sea were blue. Dolphins chased alongside the boat and the captain let the boys take turns “driving” the boat to a secluded cove. We tried to memorize the fish names on laminated identification charts before diving in to watch oversized Wrasse fish with giant lips dominate the water while clown fish and giant clams and an octopus completed the underwater scenery. Dad even took an introductory diving class and we watched him explore the ocean bottom while we hovered above him. We learned that Wrasse (as do other fish) can change from female to male should the males become scarce. We had donned our stinger suits because of vicious jellyfish that can hospitalize you yet are invisible to see. Nothing is free. It seems that most of our adventures involved looking over our shoulder for some potential danger. We suppose it wouldn’t be an adventure otherwise. On the way back, we enjoyed the seascape as the brilliant green Whitsundays floated atop the royal blue water and the white sea foam splashed the boys legs as they dangled them over the bow of each hull of the fast catamaran. After a day of rest and basking in the pool at our apartment and watching hundreds of cockatoos gather at dusk in their favorite tree, we headed back out to sea for another view of the underwater world. We slipped into our stinger suits. Peter and Oliver went first and Laura and Henry followed. The stinger suits came up to our necks as 95% coverage seemed sufficient, unless you are Henry. Two large typical jellyfish swam on either side of us with, what we thought, plenty of clearance. Their tentacles must have trailed farther than expected because Henry blasted out of the water grabbing his neck. “I’ve been stung!” he shrieked. He was familiar with the situation from his mother’s experience in South Africa. However, he was not prepared for the stinging that ensued over the next 45 minutes. This was not the type of sting that hospitalizes you but seeing the labyrinth of red lashings surrounding his neck like a turtleneck was startling as each serpentine strand swelled into long welts. Peter and Oliver were unaware as we were lifted into the dingy that we hailed to come to our aid. We sat near the back of the front of the boat so as not to alarm the other passengers swimming off the back as Henry’s wails were disconcerting. We tried to apply ice packs but Henry refused as he sweat from the sheer energy of crying. The welts looked gruesome on such a small person but we were reassured that it would only last a relatively short time. After what seemed like eternity, Henry began to settle down, especially when cookies were offered as snacks. Another little girl bought him a bag of potato chips to cheer him up and he got to drive this significantly bigger boat for a while. Later, he was fascinated to look in the mirror at his war wounds and became quite proud of himself after all of the reminders from the crew and passengers of what a brave snorkeler he was.

We took a little bushwalk on one of the islands and while we hiked our guide wondered if anyone had ever eaten ants. When no one raised their hand she asked if anyone would want to try one. Oliver and Henry were the first to put their hands up. She foraged for some particular ants with a lemony pouch on their lower body. She snipped off the pouch and fed one to each boy. They decided the first taste was not exciting enough and asked for a second. Thereafter, they were foraging around the trees gleaning their own snacks much to their mother’s chagrin (she was secretly glowing with pride in her brave boys). Next, we pulled into Whitehaven beach – a gem in the world of beaches. The sand is the purest in the world and tons of it were harvested to build the lens of a NASA telescope. It was as soft as silk and so bright it seemed it would glow in the dark. To walk the beach we would need to wade through the water from the boat. Henry was the first person to put his stinger suit on and jump in! Helicopters landed on the famous beach and we all frolicked on the sand before reluctantly returning to our boat. It was a glorious day to be out on the water.

We continued north to the towns of Townsend and Cairns. Both are nice towns with fabulous “lagoons” built at the waterfront. Because of the poisonous jellyfish in the water, towns need pools. The pools are so nicely incorporated into the landscape that they call them lagoons as if they were part of the natural landscape. The fabulous and often warm pools have helped improve the boys confidence in the water to include diving, cannonballs, underwater obstacle courses, somersaults and swimming long distances in deep water. The esplanades in both towns are so well laid out and each have a waterpark and playground. The one in Townsend includes water spraying out from guns, poles, mushrooms, sprinklers and a giant bucket that gets poured regularly on those below. Even Dad joined in the fun. On the way to Cairns we stopped to explore Wallman Falls – the tallest falls in Australia. Strangely (or not so strangely with our experience), we were the only ones there. We thought we could swim under them so we climbed down, down, down the face of a cliff on a zig-zag path through rainforest and timber and vines as brush turkeys flurried away at our approach. We got to the bottom only to see that there was no easy and safe access to the pools below. So, we took pictures and started our nearly vertical ascent back to the top. It was definitely a test of perseverance and our reward, besides personal gratification, was a package of melting Tim Tams – Australia’s favorite chocolate covered cookie.

We could not get enough of the tropical landscape and wanted to wander further and further until we could reach the tip of northeast Australia but, as it was, we had traveled 1800 miles – roughly equivalent to the distance from Maine to Florida and we still had to get back the same distance. So, due to time and dirt roads and a profusion of man-eating crocodiles living in the northern reaches, we only went as far as the lovely and UNESCO-protected Daintree Rainforest, home of the elusive and endangered Cassowary. The Cassowary is a flightless bird smaller than an ostrich with a remarkable bony mass protruding from the top of its head. It is like no other bird we have seen or read about. We saw one in sanctuary but its home is in Daintree. Unfortunately the harvesting of timber threatens the Cassowary’s life and, thankfully, most of the rainforest is now protected. Few people have seen the shy bird despite its size. We were always on the lookout from the road. We took sidetrips into green, green Mosman Gorge for a good look at the rainforest landscape and for a swim among the boulders where iridescent blue Ulysses butterflies eluded Mom’s camera and then we drove further towards Cape Tribulation to a recommended ice creamery where they dished out flavors-of-the-day. We enjoyed passionfruit, coconut, and black sapote (a fruit that resembles chocolate!) all made on the premises. We were far from our motel in Cairns when we headed back from Daintree. The sun began to set and all was quiet on the roads. As we turned down a sideroad to explore one more beach, a Cassowary emerged from the bush and crossed the road right in front of our car!!! We nearly jumped out of our seats and as Dad jammed on the brakes and Mom fumbled with the camera, we caught a glimpse on film before it blended back into the bush. To this day, Henry claims that this is his favorite unexpected encounter with wildlife.

After contemplating wind speeds, visibility, wave action, sunshine, jellyfish and the boys’ enthusiasm, we decided to give the Reef one more visit and booked a trip out the next morning (since Henry missed out on the last one). This trip took us out to the outer reef to a permanent pontoon to which a glass bottom boat and a semi-submersible were docked for activities besides snorkeling. We saw some more of what the Reef had to offer and although we never really hit the proverbial sweetspot of the Reef with oodles of fish and fluorescent colors and patterns, we feel that it was time well-spent on one of the precious natural wonders of the world and one that is in danger of becoming extinct due to the very imminent dangers of global warming.

It was time to start heading south again to return to Sydney.

(click photo for slideshow)

Australia Part 2 – The Coast

March 1, 2008 at 9:12 am | Posted in Australia | Leave a comment

Australia Part 2 – The Coast Jan 2 – Jan 11

At this point, we believe that Peter has driven more miles on the left hand side of the road than the right, however, it still continues to be difficult crossing the street. We end up looking 360 degrees before attempting to cross despite the friendly reminders painted on each corner to ”Look Right’. We arrived at Hertz with the throngs of other folks who stayed in Sydney until the fireworks were over. We were lucky to secure a car and headed west towards a favorite Australian destination – the Blue Mountains. Our original plan was to see more of Australia than just the east coast but eventually it sunk in that it was a lot of land to cover and intra-continental flights would have been expensive for us. After covering so much territory in South Africa we figured we would focus on one area. As much as we would have liked to see Ayers Rock/Uluru, it would have been a very long haul with not much in between along with the worries of breaking down in the hot outback. We also decided not to go south of Sydney as we anticipated that the wilds of Queensland would keep us very busy for 6 weeks.

Outside of the city, we saw our first cockatoo squawking over our heads as we went in search of lunch. We also had our first experience competing with the other Aussies travelling on their summer vacation as we drove from one lodging to another all full with tourists and no vacancies. So far, we have always landed on our feet and have not yet had to spend a night in the car and we still prefer to travel with no reservations to have as much freedom as possible. The only time we attempt to make reservations is when we are heading to cities. It is easy to drive from place to place in a small town versus a large and confusing city. Campervans would have been a good fail-safe option but with minimum research, we couldn’t find anything that wouldn’t exceed our daily budget and, besides, tight quarters for 4 people 24 hours a day would have been hard. Instead, we had to pay a premium for the “last room” at the local motel. The Blue Mountains are known for their blue haze from the evaporating eucalyptus reflecting the sun. We walked a recommended cliff walk and viewed the “Three Sisters” which are three famous pinnacles of rock that attract a lot of tourists. We descended into the valley on the steepest rail in the world according to Guinness. We meandered through orchards and discovered Australia’s famous meat pies. Little four inch pies stuffed with meat, chicken, vegetables, spices and any combination of these. They are sold everywhere.

Once we left the blue mountains, the first matter of course was to see a koala. It wasn’t long before we came upon a koala sanctuary where we were able to mingle with a koala – up close and personal. In addition, we interacted with wallabies and crocodiles. Koalas are very soft and sleep most of the day. The sanctuary was only an appetizer for our coveted main course – The Australia Zoo owned by the late Steve Irwin and his family. We arrived at the zoo promptly the next day – an hour early actually because we didn’t realize that by crossing from New South Wales into Queensland, you gain an hour since Queensland doesn’t participate in daylight savings time. The zoo was phenomenal to say the least. All of the animals are in natural habitats and there is a wide range of interesting animals many which we had never seen including the fierce Tasmanian Devil, Dingos, Wombats, Cassowaries, Kookaburras, Galapagos Tortoises, and of course, meat-eating crocodiles and kangaroos. There was an undercurrent of sadness as Steve Irwin’s face was larger than life on various billboards and posters around the zoo enthusiastically wide-eyed while posing with a native Australian creature. The conservation message was loud and clear delivered in a friendly, inspiring way. One of the highlights for us was to arrive at the 12:00pm crocodile show and be wowed to see Terri Irwin host the show along with Steve’s best friend and director of the zoo, Wes. She hand-fed several gigantic crocs and got the crowd roaring with applause. We were lucky to catch her in town.

We continued to meander up the coast. We would just pull into a town and usually there was a plethora of motels to choose from. While the term “motel” in America has less than favorable connotations , the motels in Australia were so spic-n-span and well maintained that we wouldn’t choose any other lodging. Australia is chock full of motels- nice, clean, lovely motels. One of the first motels even offered us complimentary beer or wine upon arrival!. All motels provide a pint of fresh milk for your morning coffee or tea and most have wireless internet. They always had a refrigerator and often had kitchen facilities. They are extremely clean – extremely. This was the first place on our trip where motels were king! There were at least a dozen in every town, even small towns. We don’t recall seeing a single motel in Egypt or Morocco. So, we motel-hopped happily up the coast and the competition for vacancies weaned as we headed north into hotter and hotter weather which was unfavorable for summer vacation.

Our next exciting adventure was to Fraser Island. It’s notoriety is that it is the largest sand island in the world yet it boasts many diverse ecosystems. Despite the threatening forecast, we rented our 4-wheel drive vehicle which is required for driving on an all-sand island. The allure is that you can drive along the beach for 70 miles and camp most anywhere along it. The only thing to remember is that you can only drive on the beach during low tide. So along with rented camping gear, we drove onto the next morning’s ferry. Peter was happy to get behind the wheel of a Land Rover Defender, Laura was happy to be on a pristine island and the boys were happy to go camping. The sand tracks meandered through ancient forests and past florescent-blue lakes and over dunes until they spilled out onto the main coast long and desolate enough for aircraft to land on. The forests were filled with towering Satinay trees so water-tight that they were harvested for boat-building and for lining the Panama Canal. It was very exciting as we bump-bump-bumped along in our rustic vehicle watching downward to avoid the ocean waves and upward to avoid collisions with planes. We also were on the lookout for the elusive Dingo – a sweet-looking, honey-colored dog that lives in packs on the island. We found an isolated spot – just us and the ocean. No vehicles passed by as it was high-tide. We set up camp, ate and got comfy just in time for the rain that had been threatening all day. Well, we must have done something wrong because after a few hours, our sleeping pads were floating in no less than 1 inch of water! We migrated to the truck and slept airline-style for the rest of the night while the boys lay on the bench seat none the wiser. The next day we climbed sand dunes, waded in a spring-fed creek, built sand castles and forts and enjoyed our solitude. A Dingo paid us a visit as we were setting up camp the next evening and sniffed around and looked for some handouts but got none and his lean body scampered away. Oliver and Henry were elated to have been approached by a wild Dingo!!! We built a better house and stayed dry the next night. There were plenty of Dingo tracks the next morning telling us that they returned to see if we left any peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the sand. We took a dip in the idyllic Lake MacKenzie and headed back to the mainland. We didn’t have much sun but the overcast and windy atmosphere lent itself to the wild and uninhabited nature of this island and what life must have always been like along this windswept coast. While we waited for the ferry, we passed the time looking at slideshows from the earlier part of our trip trying to keep the memories alive in our heads and especially for the boys. The number of images, places, languages, music, vegetation and animal life must be so intertwined in their minds. To help, we play the “JFA game” where Peter asks questions such as, “Where were we when we saw the Blue Mosque?” or “What city did we eat chocolate crepes in?” or “Where did we sleep in a bivouac?” or “Which country did you drink peach juice every day?”

We were only 9 days into our driving adventure and had seen some beautiful scenery and animals. We couldn’t wait to see what else Queensland had to offer us as we traveled further north into the Tropics.

Australia Part 1 – Sydney

February 18, 2008 at 9:31 pm | Posted in Australia | Leave a comment

We were nervous due to our pessimistic thoughts that somehow we would not make it successfully to Sydney for Christmas. We loved Africa but we wanted to be somewhere more…familiar for the holidays. We imagined Australia to be more like home…but warm. Afterall, both countries originated from England. Maybe they’ll have plum pudding? Maybe there will be Salvation Army Santas outside department stores. We had missed our flight 7 weeks earlier when trying to get from Madrid to Africa due to our own negligence and flew standby on a flight the next day by the skin of our teeth. After we heard about the hundreds of flight cancellations in Chicago due to snow and ice, we got to the airport 5 hours before the scheduled 6:00pm flight to ensure we would take into consideration any unseen events which, in the end, did not occur.

We arrived safely and on-time aboard our lovely and comfortable Qantas flight. We had our choice of several movies, good food and Wiggles treat bags for the boys which were a big hit and slept most of the 11 hour flight. We love Qantas! Despite not having internet access in Bostwana, we had slipped into an internet cafe and quickly googled a few hotels in the Sydney area. We phoned Radisson and secured a nice room right in the center of things at a reasonable (for the city) price. So we landed, boarded a train for a quick ride into the city, walked a few blocks to our hotel and relaxed. We had made it literally halfway around the world and in a place where we wanted to be for Christmas – this was all we could ask for.

Our nice hotel was located right beside Darling Harbor which is one of the major stomping grounds in Sydney. It was a great place to be. We were so excited and feeling so fortunate to have landed such a great spot with little planning and a lot of luck. We originally hoped for a homey guest house decked out in holly, garland, gingerbread spices wafting throughout and a cozy place to celebrate the holiday. However, our standards have adjusted accordingly and we are relieved to simply have a place to sleep. Christmas would take on a new flavor for us like our lives these days, it would be a bit spontaneous. This is normally NOT our lifestyle – usually we try to plan things out. Now, we are landing in cities without even a guidebook in hand and simply figuring out how to get around by the seat of our pants as well as figure out where to go Christmas shopping with 2 days to spare!

Our arrival started out in a jolly way. Sydney was celebrating the holidays with its annual ‘Carols in the Domain’ concert. The Domain is Sydney’s “Central Park” and everyone gathers on the lawn one evening a few days before Christmas for a televised concert. We squeezed in among the throngs of Aussies and one family was nice to offer a section of their oversized blanket to us. This nice family shared masks, candles and cookies with us too. The mother was still glowing from spotting Russell Crowe earlier in the day. It was great as we listened to Christmas carols, watched Santa make a helicopter landing and got an unexpected visit from the Wiggles. As it got darker we were shocked to see hundreds of seemingly giant bats (aka flying foxes) take to the skies for their evening flight. While everyone else was unfazed, we didn’t know whether to be frightened or in awe. We weren’t sure how to accept bats into our Christmas mood and it emphasized for us that although we expected Sydney to be more familiar, it would still be different.

Although we were only a few hours hence on the global timetable, we were somehow very jet lagged and were sleeping until close to noon (the comfy beds at Radisson may have played a part). We only had a couple of days to hunt down the few and far between toy stores for the boys to make their “wish lists” and find wrapping paper, stockings and a few items to make our humble abode festive. It was odd seeing people Christmas shop with their hair still wet from the morning’s surfing, flip-flops echoing in the Victorian archways and red and green garland on the lamp-posts glistening in the hot, hot sun. Perhaps California is the same way. We thought to create a paper Christmas tree from green wrapping paper. We went back to the hotel and cut it out and stuck it to the wall. Then the boys colored paper ornaments and stuck them on. They were so incredibly proud – more excited than we expected. We played Christmas music on the laptop that we had loaded before we left Marblehead. We couldn’t find Christmas stockings so we bought colorful small gift bags and placed them by our paper mantle and yule-log (we pretended to need a fire in the balmy Sydney weather). A woman on the airplane had reminded the boys to leave a magic key for Santa so he can get in when there is no chimney. So we cut out some magic keys and stuck them on the wall outside of the hotel door. The children were assured that Santa would know where they were in the world and, alas, that theory was proven correct when the boys awoke to a small pile of treasures “beneath” the tree. With our “Do Not Disturb” sign on our door, we remained inside our hotel cocoon and called our family, watched the boys play Lego and watched “The Grinch” which appropriately reminded us that the spirit of Christmas is within the heart and not under the Christmas tree. With their modest gifts, the boys were very grateful and happy to have created their own “home away from home” and we felt that they really understood that concept of Christmas in our hearts, as did we. They also seem to understand that the abstract benefits that we are gleaning from our adventure are a gift that will stay with us and that is what we are thankful for. But you still need a good meal so we ventured out for Christmas dinner and found a restaurant overlooking the Sydney Opera House. They handed out Santa hats to everyone and there were crayons and champagne to keep everyone happy.

We knew we were staying for the New Year’s Eve celebration so we relaxed for 10 days in Sydney – the longest in any one place. Darling Harbor was full of life and full of kids activities. With Australia being a part of the British Commonwealth, Sydney was the perfect blend of British influence, architecture and finery with Aussie character – rough and relaxed. Think tea at the Ritz and a stroll in Hyde Park with a barefooted cowboy adorned with various tattoos. It is a place where you don’t have to be a patron to use the restrooms, you see more surfboards than dogs, you can shop for groceries barefoot, there is a recycle bin on every corner, no cigarette butts in the gutters, and the most spoken phrase is, “No Worries” (Aussie for “You’re Welcome”). We were happy to stay for a while.

We saw an Ice Man exhibit about an ancient man buried under ice who was found in the Tyrol Mountains a few years back. We took in a movie for the first time in months (The Bee Movie), enjoyed a cruise around the harbor and got our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean from the “other” side. The city is friendly, easily walkable and very inviting. It`s clean as a whistle and seems to have the latest of all a city could offer – monorails, high-speed ferries, gleaming skyscrapers, fumeless buses, efficient trains, international foods, IMAX theater, museums, botanical gardens – we suppose it is what you would expect from a young country who learned from everyone else’s mistakes.

We headed to famous Bondi Beach to soak up the sun and watch some serious lifeguarding. The seas are rough along the coast and there is dangerous marine life to watch out for. The lifeguards earn their paycheck. They monitor the swimmers via Skidoos, dune buggies, surfboards, motorboat and from the chairs and control tower. Helicopters buzzed by constantly and whistles were blowing reminding swimmers to “Stay between the flags”. We later tuned into a reality show entitled “Bondi Beach” depicting the stressful life of a Bondi lifeguard. Aussies also take the sun very seriously and posterboards and newspaper ads continually remind everyone to reapply their sunscreen as Australia has a skin cancer rate of 1 in 3 – one of the highest in the world.

One of the administrative things we needed to take care of was to secure our visas for India. We could not obtain them before we left home as we did for some other countries because the visas we need for India are only good for six months from the date of issue. So we had to wait until it was closer to our Indian adventure to apply. This meant leaving our passports with the India consulate and, adding Christmas and Boxing Day to the mix, they would not be ready for 7 days which was 5 days later than we planned on being in Sydney. This meant having to venture around Australia without our passports until we returned to Sydney in early February. Yikes. Travelling without passports seemed like travelling without your wallet or your glasses. What if something happens like an accident or a national emergency? Alas, we had no choice and had to leave them if we wanted to go to India.

We had to gear up as the New Year approached. We had scoped out the city and identified the best spot for viewing the fireworks display. Fireworks is an understatement in Sydney as it was to be a dazzling spectacle so we were willing to do whatever it took to see it loud and clear. First, it involved paying a premium for our hotel room for the 2 nights closest to New Year`s. Ouch. Next, it involved getting to the city park early enough to grab a spot. So we grocery shopped (with shoes on) for the day’s picnic essentials and stuffed them in our packs along with essential toys and reading material and a sheet from the hotel’s unmonitored linen closet and headed toward the park at 7:00am. We arrived at the park’s entrance gate and they told us that the gates would not open until 10:00am! We queued up with the 200 other people crazy enough to wait (who were all, by the way, between the ages of 17 and 28 – our little family made up the oldest and the youngest in the crowd). The sun was beating down on us even at that early time of day so we pinned our sheet to the railings and created a little tent, munched on muffins and played with our newly acquired army men and tanks. The crowd hit a beachball around and if you failed to keep the beachball off the ground you were berated by the crowd so we all had to pay attention which kept the boys entertained for a while. We hadn’t done this since college (sans the army men). Finally the gates opened at 10:00 and Peter ran ahead to secure a spot. He nailed a spot at the furtherest tip jutting out into the harbor with an unobstructed view of EVERYTHING – harbor bridge, opera house, skyline – perfect. We continued our vigil for another 14 hours in the hot sun for a total of 16.5 hours. Our children were unbelievably patient – they always rise to the occasion but this was a new threshold. They played army, ate ice cream, read books, and waited and waited. These are the same children who on the one hand can race uncontrollably through a department store like a couple of Tasmanian Devils and on the other hand, wait in harsh conditions for an event they don’t even fully understand the importance of or appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime aspect of. The killer for us was that all this waiting was for a mere twelve minute show at midnight. Back in college at least Bruce Springsteen put on a two hour show!

During the day they had aerial shows, fire boat geysers and the harbor filled up with all sorts of marine vessels. The Sydney Harbor bridge was outfitted with an illuminated hourglass that dropped giant grains of sand every five minutes to help us countdown (and remind us how slow time was going). There was a 9:00pm family fireworks show that was fantastic. Then an electric boat parade followed where tallships were outlined with illuminated garland and sailed in procession around the harbor. Finally, midnight arrived. The harbor exploded and was lit up from the light of six separate barges shooting off identical fireworks from various locations a mile long. The harbor bridge exploded upward as it had been planted with loads of fireworks which turned the infamous roof-lines of the Sydney Opera House shades of red, green and blue. Our little hotel sheet had been encroached a bit by an international melting pot of people just like us who were there to see the spectacular show. One desperate woman who barely spoke english had asked if she could leave her children on our blanket with us so they could see the show (we declined). Everyone else just sat tamely, politely and enthusiastically and we all watched together as a cohesive group of spectators. There was no chaos, no unruly behavior, no pushing – it was New Year’s Eve Aussie-style, no worries.

After a bit of recouping and resuming our “sleep till noon” routine, we rented a car and headed out of Sydney for our adventure along the east coast of Australia.

(click picture for slideshow)

ZimBotsNam

February 2, 2008 at 6:10 am | Posted in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe | Leave a comment

Zimbabwe – Botswana – Namibia………December 13 – December 22

Zimbabwe

We had driven 3600 miles across South Africa from Johannesburg on the mid-eastern side to Cape Town on the southwestern side and were due to return our car to Johannesburg but we didn’t want to make the trek across the country so we purchased a flight back to Johannesburg. A good investment. We made it to Johannesburg by 11:00 am and caught our 1:00 pm flight to Victoria Falls, affectionately referred to as Vic Falls. It was a clear flight until we were hovering over Victoria Falls and the pilot announced that the ground controls were not working to support an instrumentation landing with no visibility so unless he could actually see the runway, we would have to return to Johannesburg. We all crossed our fingers but there was no break in the clouds so we headed back. British Air was generous enough to put us up in a nice hotel and buy us dinner for the inconvenience which they were not obligated to do since it was a weather-related issue but, then again, they could have landed if the instrumentation had been working – that’s Africa. We headed back the next day with hopes of being booked on another flight. We learned we had been placed on a South African Airlines flight but had to wait on standby until the flight was closed. We could only get on if someone had cancelled and this was not expected. Once the flight closed, we and some other passengers hovered over the poor clerk all clambering to get a seat. It was very tense and while all the passengers remained friendly, it was cut-throat. We were nearly ok until a family of 5 with small children showed up and took what seemed to be the last of the remaining seats. Miraculously, she told us we could go as there were still 4 seats left but we had to run as the flight was to take off in 15 minutes. We still had to get through security and customs which we knew the exact layout of because we had done the circuit the day before. We asked forgiveness and cut in front of all of the other passengers waiting in the security line and quickly removed our laptop, tossed our packs, threw jewelry, cellphones, cameras and wallets into the buckets and then put ourselves back together. The kids were experts with the security routine by now. It helped that some of these smaller places do not make you take out your liquids or remove your shoes. We asked forgiveness again as we cut to the front of the customs line and people seemed to be supportive of us (small kids always help) and then we sprinted to the gate with people pointing and laughing at the scene as we were carrying backpacks, bags of snacks, gifts, and other straggling items. We made it to the gate where they kindly announced that the gate was closed and that no more passengers can enter. Despite our pleading, they sent us to the transfer desk where, finally, we were successfully placed on the next flight out with a secure reservation which was to depart 1 hour later which we could get on without having to go through security and customs again. This time we successfully landed in tiny Victoria Falls. We stood on line for at least 45 minutes in the tiny ballroom-sized airport and paid our visa fees in American cash to enter Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe, you must pay in either South African rand or American dollars. They won’t allow Americans to use Zimbabwe dollars or South African rand in an effort to obtain as many American dollars as they can as they are worth more to the government. It seemed like a racket – we never heard of a place that dictated what currency you can use based upon your nationality. Our hotel cost us more because we had to pay in American dollars. Zimbabwe was a very strange place to be. The government is starving its people yet Victoria Falls, one of their main sources of revenue, appeared to be a facade untainted by the reality of the rest of the country. There were signs of desperation throughout. For example, there needed to be tourism police stationed around town to avert the desperate locals from hounding the tourists into buying their crafts. We needed to be escorted to our hotel for “protection” because it is out of desperation that folks lurking in the bushes may demand your wallet, or your shoes or the shirt off your back. We had many offers for our shoes in exchange for a soapstone carving.

As soon as we dropped off our bags, we made a beeline for the falls which were conveniently located steps from the hotel. The sun was shining bright and it was hot. The falls were spectacular to say the least and we walked along a paved walkway within a mini rainforest that took us along them. While the sun shone over the falls, buckets, we mean buckets, of rain fell over us as we tried to take pictures of the falls. It was unbelievable. We walked along further and folks who were returning from their walk were dry. It literally only rained a few hundred feet around us and nowhere else. We laughed at how fascinating it was and were rewarded for our efforts with a splendid rainbow that festooned the sky above the falls. We dried off during the rest of our walk. The falls gave us mixed emotions – they did not seem as big as the pictures and it may be because you view them from the top as opposed to the bottom where they would potentially have more impact. However, we were lucky to view them during the wet season when they are the most powerful.

The next day we had to figure out how we were going to get to Botswana. We were winging it more and more as our adventure went on (not to mention that guidebooks cost a small fortune due to a very high tax on all books in South Africa- without a guidebook, it is hard to plan ahead and we didn’t have one for Botswana). The town of Victoria Falls was smaller and less modern than we expected as we were hoping to consult with an experienced travel agent upon our arrival. Our hotel only booked day trips so we wandered into town looking for an agent. Two tourism police escorted us down a path where there was supposedly an agent. They started to lead us up an unlit stairway to the top floor of a strip mall when we said, “No way.” It all looked a bit unsafe. Just then, Fletcher, the travel agent, came walking up to us. We felt a bit better and we all went to his office upstairs, along with the tourism police. Hmmm. Fletcher’s office consisted of a desk, a computer, a small rack of outdated brochures, and four chairs – two for us and two for the tourism police (the boys played with their cars on the floor). We told him we wanted to book a place in Chobe. He was very nice and professional and suggested Chobe Safari Lodge which we had in mind anyway. He made a few phone calls and got us a room plus he would transport us in one of his vans. We gave him a small deposit and we saw pictures of the vans and they looked new and we had a confirmation number for Chobe so all seemed legit, plus with the tourism police there we figured Fletcher wasn’t going to take advantage of us. He was to pick us up the next morning.

Then the tourism police led us to an open market. We spent an unanticipated several hours there where a small group of locals set their wares out on blankets in a dusty lot with each blanket containing at least 500 individual items and there were probably 50 stalls. Most of the items on all of the blankets were the same – soapstone carvings. We were the only 4 tourists visiting at that moment and we were safely accosted while we shopped. At one point, we showed interest in purchasing some now defunct Zimbabwe paper currency. Immediately about 20 men had formed a human hut around us so that the boys, who were sitting on the ground at our feet, couldn’t see the sky. The paper currency came out of their pockets and pouches like disposable tissues and were offered to us in clumps for prices anywhere from 75 cents to $2. The paper currency was beautiful before the devaluation- each piece a different color engraved in painstaking detail with elephants, buffalo, lions, and rhinoceros. They were worthless except as souvenirs reminiscent of an earlier Zimbabwe. Everyone was very friendly despite their disregard for our personal space. They were very kind to the children showing off the many crafts. After purchasing currency, coins, wire spiders, bracelets, soapstone carvings and grass figurines, we felt we had contributed amply to the cause. Conversely, our hotel/resort was supposedly a tribute to the ethnic culture right down to the minutest detail but instead it was an overdone monstrosity amid the have-nots. We felt uncomfortable in the cavernous place as no one was in the casino and no one was walking the outdoor corridors. Where was everyone? It was like a movie set! We went to a restaurant on the premises and ordered pizza but they were out of pizza. Then we ordered hamburgers but they were out of buns. Then we ordered chicken but they were out of chicken. Zimbabwe’s situation was starting to show through in lovely Victoria Falls.

Despite the fact that the hotel was out of place in this deprived country, there were some interesting parts about it. Our room overlooked the bush so there were baboons swinging from the trees nearby. Our sliding glass door had a notice on it to remind us to close and lock it as the baboons are smart enough to switch the latch up if unlocked. Lurking underneath the trees on the other side of the electric fence were the locals hoping for a transaction from anyone sitting on their veranda. Imagine trying to pass money between the rails of an electric fence – we don’t know how much business they were expecting. Outside our room was a family of about a dozen mongoose living in a burrow beneath the walkway. They scurried by us during their evening forage for food. A giant crab larger than your spread hand stood guard in front of the utility closet in the corridor. Not sure where he came from as we were nowhere near the ocean. Are there land crabs? Our favorite was a moth that nature had camouflaged as a stick. We stared at this “stick” seemingly clinging to the wall unsure if was a creature or not until we were able to detect tiny legs. The boys were especially fascinated as we waited for long stretches to see if it would move. Oliver kept an eye out for dung beetles who had unfortunately rolled onto their backs and were rendered helpless like a turtle and he dutifully set them straight. We remember taking walks with Oliver when he was three and the walks would take forever because he would stop and transport every creature in the path to the grassy sidelines.

The hotel was decorating for Christmas with a tree and gifts in the lobby. Christmas seemed very strange in this part of the world. Evergreen Christmas trees in the bush? Red and silver wrapping paper? Christmas specials at the 10 little stores in town? It seemed out of place. We watched as locals lined up at the bank to make withdrawals of their near worthless currency. When they would emerge from the bank with wads and wads of money, we initially thought that they were withdrawing their entire savings. However, wads and wads simply translated to just a few bucks. The government wouldn’t let folks withdraw more than a certain amount at a time. Meanwhile, the boys swam in the terrific swimming pool while we had poolside drinks. Two drinks totalled $7,500,000 Zimbabwe dollars! It was even difficult for Peter to calculate the conversions and, to complicate things, there were at least three different conversion rates – the official, the market and the street. You never knew which one to use. One of the tricks that the locals play is to sway you to buy something and when you give them currency that`s more than the price of the goods, they claim to not have any change. Then they try to convince you to buy more such as 6 bottles of water instead of 4. This happened to us a few times but we never backed down which forced the seller to hunt around to all of his buddies looking for change. The boys were understanding either through osmosis or from our explanations how everyone wants you to buy their stuff and they try lots of different schemes to get you to buy as much as they can. Marketing 101. One scheme often used is that the sellers will put things in the boys hands for them to touch, play with and, hopefully, beg us to buy them. We had never encountered this in America but it was common on our trip. Helium balloons, stuffed toys, handmade cars, games, and souvenirs. The boys were so shocked in Egypt when a man offered each boy a free bronze pyramid and each adult a free turban. The man insisted it was because we were Americans and he loved America. We offered a few dollars but he flatly refused to accept it. We said, “Thank you” and started to walk away. Uh Oh. We apparently didn’t know how to play the game because now he pursued us asking for various amounts of money. We did not want to buy these things so we took them out of the boys hands and gave them back. He refused to take them back and asked for money. Because he would not leave us alone, we resorted to threatening to call the police. The boys found this most exciting. The man retreated with his pack of cheap souvenirs awaiting his next prey. Oliver wanted to hear the story over and over again and wanted to understand why this man would pretend to give us gifts but then demand money. Advanced Marketing. From then on, without our saying so, Oliver would never let a seller put anything in his or Henry’s hand as he wanted to foil the marketers before they foiled him.

Botswana/Namibia.

We arrived in Kasane, Botswana at the Chobe Safari Lodge which overlooks the Chobe River. The river is a main drinking spot for the local animal and bird populations. We were pleasantly surprised that for not a lot of money, we secured a nice place with two bedrooms, overlooking the river with ethereal mosquito netting draped across our bed. The boys were once again excited to have bunk beds. The entire place was covered in thatched roofs and was authentic African. We immediately signed up for the game drive that evening and 2 more after that. We also went on a water safari. We spent four nights at Chobe. The staff was very friendly. The sumptuous buffet was something to look forward to each night. This is where the boys tried impala, warthog, kudu, springbok, ostrich, crocodile and guinea fowl. Nothing tasted too strange and it was fun to try it. Henry usually had seconds and particularly liked the impala. Peter was always on the lookout for Malva Pudding – an African dessert closely resembling his favorite dessert, Sticky Toffee Pudding. We saw many animals and birds. Botswana was proud of the fact that there are no fences surrounding their wildlife parks so the animals can truly roam wherever they want to. The lilac-breasted roller is the country’s national bird and it is beautiful with 7 brilliant colors covering its feathers. We saw a lot of animals but it was now wet season which meant that the animals did not frequent the river as often because they could get water inland. We saw vultures, lions, crocodiles, hippos, impala, kudu, eagles and the endangered puku. We were warned not to go to the banks of the river where the crocodiles could be lurking nor should we roam the premises at night in case a hippo decided to walk the grounds to snack on grass. The boys never left our sight with all of these foreign dangers in the wings. Chobe is known for its hippo populations and we kept hoping to see one with their mouth wide open as we had only seen them being shy and mostly submerged up until now. A wide open mouth is not a yawn but a sign of aggression – hippos are very territorial and defensive.

Next day, we were excited to learn that one of Chobe’s offerings is a daytrip to a Namibian village. Our guide took us in his boat. We first had to stop at the tiny border crossing to get our passports checked and then to Namibia which was right down the river. We walked the muddy track with our guide who hailed from one of the villages. On the way, he pointed out certain bushes and trees that were used for medicinal purposes. He took a few leaves from one and put them in his mouth and chewed on them the same way you would stick a piece of gum in your mouth. We got to the village and a handful of children scurried ahead so they could be first in line for the candy our guide had brought along to hand out. What was very noticeable was the huge baobab tree – one that Mom was especially keen on seeing. Our guide advised us that this specimen was thought to be 200,000 years old. The seed pods on it are so large and elongated that the Namibians make flipflops out of them since the seed pod is shaped like one’s foot. When you split open the pod, you end up with a perfectly formed pair. Our boys passed out the candy which helped solidify in their minds that this was a big treat for these children. We walked around the village which consisted of about 10 mud and stick dwellings and a chicken coop built on stilts to keep predators away. Nature served as their outhouses. Some ladies were weaving baskets or studying the Bible while the children helped their mothers sweep and the boys rolled giant spare tires across the dirt courtyard. Most of the men were on an island fishing until the waters recede again. We were told that a nearby resort bought their land from this village and as an act of good faith, the resort installed a couple of wells in the village so the children wouldn’t have to go collect water from the river anymore because 3 children had been killed by crocodiles while doing so. As though life wasn’t hard enough. We bought several baskets and took a last look at the giant baobab tree and the people who lived within its shade.

Our last night at Chobe was highlighted with an unforgettable sunset that changed the celestial skies into a different palette every 5 minutes. We were entertained by a local group of Namibian men and women singing and dancing to traditional songs while wearing traditional fashion. They wore woven anklets and bracelets with seed pods dangling from each one and the seedpods would shake like mini rattles and when they stomped their feet in unison, it made an exciting impact. The night creatures provided the background music and it was bittersweet for us as we prepared for our next adventure.

(click photo for slideshow)

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.

Holidays

December 23, 2007 at 10:01 pm | Posted in Morocco | Leave a comment

Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year to all of our friends and family!

Morocco Part 3

December 23, 2007 at 9:51 pm | Posted in Morocco | Leave a comment

(This is a sequel to Morocco Part 1 and 2)

We left Tamtatouche with sadness the next morning despite their urges that we stay for the next day of the wedding celebration. We paid them handsomely for the accommodations which consisted of two mattresses and a squat toilet. Their kind spirit was priceless. The boys were sad to leave Abdou who had taught them African board games and played Uno with them neither of which required language. Laura treasured the scarf given to her at the wedding as a gift which still had the aroma of the previous night’s fires. A sort of melancholy set in as we tried to silently make sense of how we live our life compared to how they live theirs.

We spent the next few days enjoying what remained of Morocco as we made our way towards Marrakesh. We are ashamed to say that we went running back to our creature comforts and stayed in a fancy suite at the next stop and enjoyed some Moroccan craft shopping and R&R with wireless internet access galore. We still hope that our inner axis permanently shifted a bit from our earlier experience and hope our worldview is changed for the better. The landscape to Marrakesh was beautiful as we passed kasbahs the size of palaces and serpentine roads that made our stomachs ache but our eyes dance. After such a peaceful and tranquil journey around Morocco, chaotic Marrakesh was jarring and difficult for us to navigate and we decided one evening on the town was sufficient. We left as quick as we came and settled for a few days in an oasis in the suburbs among the olive groves where we continued in our solitude. During the day we explored the valley and ventured into local huts to negotiate the price of carpets and went out at night to fabulous restaurants complete with traditional music, belly dancers and horse shows. We all fell in love with Morocco and felt very welcome there and hope to return someday. We are also learning that travelling without many plans and some of the stress, faith and hope that goes along with that often leads to sweeter surprises and unexpected delights.

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