Thursday, October 08, 2009

My Trip to South Africa

Late last year, my husband and I attended a charity event for Disability Services of Colorado. While there, we bid on a silent auction item for six nights at the Zulu Nyala Game Lodge, in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa, including meals and two photo safari drives a day. That became the foundation on which we built a two-week trip to the country, adding a timeshare exchange for week at the Strand Pavilion near Cape Town, frequent flier tickets on United Airlines, and stitching together the pieces with a few single-night stays in Johannesburg, Durban, and downtown Cape Town. We returned very late in the evening on October 4th after a 38 hour journey home still enthralled with our amazing adventure. I'll try to share some of it with my blog readers with words tonight, followed soon by some of the thousands of photos we took.

We left home Tuesday, September 15th to spend the night at a hotel near the Denver airport before boarding a flight to DC the next morning. After a long, long flight from there to Johannesburg, with a refueling stop in Dakar, Senegal, an overnight stay in Johannesburg and a morning flight to Richard's Bay, we picked up our rental car at the airport on Friday, the 18th. Neil got reacquainted with driving on the left side of the road on the way to the lodge, which sits on a hill overlooking the 1400 hectare (about 3500 acres) private game reserve.

That afternoon, we met our other eight safari companions for the week, who would sit with us at dinners and share the safari jeep with us: two couples from Louisiana, a young couple from Wisconsin, and two women from Paris, France. We also met our Zulu ranger, Philemon, who took us on our first game drive in cool, wet weather. We saw impala, nyala, kudu, giraffe, vervet monkees and more. Then he got a call from another ranger who was observing their small elephant herd of two females and a 4-year old baby. Soon after our safari jeep arrived, one of the females charged us with ears flapping, while Philemon drove rapidly in reverse. We learned she was in heat, which made her ornery, and wanted the two jeeps to give them more space. We observed the three elephants eating and playing, saw a herd of cape buffalo, then dined at the lodge while being entertained by a group of Zulu dancers. What a first day!

On our morning game drive Saturday, we saw baboons, zebra, warthogs, a Nile monitor, a white rhino, a gray & red duiker, the elephants again, and the ever-present impala and nyala. Back at the lodge, the resident ostrich held court for admirers in the parking lot. On the afternoon drive, we saw lots of giraffe and, at one of the watering holes, some young crocodiles. Then we stopped at a river, climbed out of the jeep, and walked quietly and carefully behind Philemon until we spied their six hippos in the water warily observing us observing them. On the way back to the lodge, we passed the movie set for "I Dream of Africa," which is on the reserve. One of the dinner buffet choices that night was kudu, and it was delicious, as were other game dishes they fixed us other nights, including stir-fried impala and warthog stew.

Sunday morning we drove to the nearby 100,000 hectare national park Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, the second largest in South Africa after Kruger, and spotted lots of game, though not the elephants and lions we were looking for. That afternoon, though, we took a game drive through the nearby 25,000 hectare Phinda private game reserve, which specializes in big cats, with one of their rangers. We observed a mama cheetah and three almost-grown cubs playing, found three young male lions having a good snooze after a large meal, and toasted the sunset with gin & tonics. On all the game drives, I was amazed at how close we could get to the animals, within a few yards even for the big cats, because the smell of fuel and the shape of the vehicle (as long as we didn't stand up and remained inside) hid the fact that we were humans from them.

Monday Neil and I drove our own car through Hluhluwe-Imfolozi and encountered lots of game and got some great close-up shots, including of a herd of giraffe crossing the road ahead and behind our parked car. Back at the lodge, we joined the rest of the group for an evening drive scouting for a mama leopard and her 2-week old cub that had been spotted by another guide. We never saw the leopard, but Philemon's spotlight found other game, including steenbok and large spotted genet (a small cat).

After a morning game drive on Tuesday, Neil and I lunched at Zulu Nyala's other lodge, the Heritage Lodge, outside the reserve, and saw their crocodile pond and resident zebra. We toured the Zulu Historical Village, where we were given demonstrations of shield and spear-making, beading and pot making, a witch doctor & seer. Then I shopped for Zulu baskets and souvenirs at Illala Weavers, while Neil chatted with a British tourist whose wife was also shopping. On Wednesday, Neil and I drove to the St. Lucia Wetlands, where we took a boat tour up the estuary and spotted lots of hippos, crocodiles and various water birds. After lunch we drove to the beach so we could dip our hands in the Indian Ocean, though we didn't go swimming since it was another damp, cool day.

We capped off our stay at the lodge the next morning with a very special early morning bush walk with Philemon, his loaded rifle and just the two of us. Soon after we got out of the jeep to approach a grazing white rhino he'd spotted, we saw the elephants up on the hill beside us making their way down to a waterhole on the other side of us. On the way, they flushed out a cape buffalo and skirted the rhino (they don't get along). Philemon said he couldn't believe that in the space of twenty minutes on one hillside we saw three of the "Big Five" game animals (elephant, rhino, cape buffalo, lion, leopard). We circled the rhino on our walk, looked at lots of tracks and lots of kinds of dung, including leopard scat, the closest we got to seeing that animal. We spent a lot of time scraping mud and dung off our shoes afterward, packed up and headed south to Durban. We stopped at Mtunzini to see their Raphia Palm National Monument and lunch on calamari at the Fat Cat restaurant. After arriving at the Quarters Hotel in Durban, we dined at their restaurant and ended up talking to the chef about her training and our son's training to be a pastry chef.

Friday, the 25th, on the advice of the Quarters Hotel staff, we parked in the Royal Hotel's garage downtown (to avoid the high crime area) and walked to the waterfront. We toured the Maritime Museum and took a harbor cruise that went out briefly into the ocean to give passengers a thrill ride on large rolling swells. Durban is the largest and busiest harbor in South Africa, with lots of cargo ships, tankers, tugboats, etc. Then we flew to Cape Town and met Zyad Burrows, our tour guide for the next day, at the airport. He drove us to the Pavilion, saving Neil from navigating busy highways, rotaries, and city streets in the dark.

Zyad took us on a fascinating tour of Cape Town Saturday, with commentary on local history and politics. We stopped at Signal Hill, a Cape Malay open market where we bought pastries, the Company's Gardens, and at Vicki's B&B in the Khayelitsha township, the largest township in South Africa. 1.2 million people live there in shacks made out of corrugated metal sheets that are slowly being replaced by small concrete-block homes, with community water taps and port-a-potties or latrines, and only some shacks having part-time electricity. Vicki is one of the enterprising black residents trying to provide businesses and jobs within the townships. We toured the District Six Museum with Zyad, that honors the residents of the last neighborhood where black and colored residents were forced out and their homes and businesses bulldozed because it was to become a "whites only" neighborhood. These two stops gave us a brief glimpse of the devastating effects of apartheid.

Sunday after doing some laundry and taking delivery of a rental car, we lunched at the Constantia Uitsig winery's River Cafe and toured the Groot Constantia winery estate and museum. On Monday, we drove along the edge of False Bay to Simon's Town to tour their museum and see the African penguin colony at Boulders Beach. Then we drove on toward the Cape of Good Hope Reserve at the end of the peninsula on which Cape Town sits. We spotted a pull-out with tourists in cars in it and on the other side of the road, a few folks standing outside their cars taking photos, and a troop of baboons in the brush nearby. Neil pulled in, and after rolling up the car windows and checking for baboons nearby, he got out to take photos, thinking I was safe in the closed-up car. Well, the dominant male baboon of the group ran across the road behind Neil's back, promptly OPENED the car door Neil had just gotten out of, and climbed in the car with me. Yikes!

I scrambled out of my seat belt and the car, then the baboon exited--carrying my purse! After quickly locking the car doors so no more baboons got in, we pursued the one with my purse, but all we could do was stand nearby and take photos while he went through the whole purse, fighting off any other baboons who showed interest and unzipping all the pockets until he'd found everything remotely edible, including lip balm and gum. After he finally lost interest and left, we were able to retrieve my wallet, cell phone and the purse itself (which needed a thorough cleaning afterward), but we left the rest of the contents to the returning baboon troop. Shaken, we let our adrenaline subside over a late lunch at the Cape Point restaurant, then rode the funicular to the top. We spotted a couple of whales in the water below from one of the lookout points, walked back down to the bottom, and saw a couple of ostrich there.

On Tuesday, September 29th, we rode the tramway to the top of Table Mountain, lunched there then toured the beautiful Kirstenbosch Gardens, with its displays of flora, including cycads and the Giant Protea national flower, from the unique fynbos ecosystem found only in southern South Africa. On Wednesday, we drove southeast along the other side of False Bay to Betty's Bay and saw the African penguin colony and rock hyrax (small mammals) there. We continued on to Hermanus, the whale watching capital of South Africa, and watched a few whales playing in the distance before lunching at Bientang's Cave restaurant, built into the rock cliff facing the harbor. After returning to the Pavilion, we took a short walk along the beach in the howling wind (one thing I'll remember about Cape Town is the wind!). That evening we had wine & cheese with a South African couple Neil met in the hallway who were also vacationing at the Pavilion.

Thursday we toured the wine country. First stop was the Blaauwklippen winery and a tour of their carriage museum. Second was the nine wine and three chocolates tasting at the Waterford winery. Yummy! Third stop was Stellenbosch for lunch, the Village Museum, the Dutch Reform church, and the Om Samie se Winkel general store. Fourth was the Delaire winery with their gorgeous hilltop view and the last stop was Franshoek. We drove back through the rugged mountainous terrain of the Hottentots-Holland Nature Reserve. On Friday we toured the Victoria and Albert Waterfront area of Cape Town and the Gateway Museum to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Unfortunately we couldn't get on a tour boat to the island, because wind had prevented them from going the last three days and the next three days were booked with make-up tours. We toured the Aquarium instead, with its shark tank and kelp forest and watched sea turtles, rays, and penguins being fed. We checked into the Fountains Hotel, in front of a huge fountain of course, and dined there.

On Saturday, October 3rd, we visited The Castle, the oldest building in Cape Town, and its museums, watched a cannon firing demo, and took the tour. Then we went to the Gold of Africa museum to see some amazingly intricate African gold jewelry, artwork, and regalia for chiefs and chiefs' wives. Then it was off to the airport to start our long journey home, arriving late on the night of the 4th.


Lisa Bork said...

Wow, Beth, what a great adventure that I'm sure you'll remember and treasure always, except maybe for the baboon. Yikes! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

DANG that's quite the trip (and write-up)! I'm glad you had such a great time!

Terry Odell said...

Fantastic. I had a week-long job in Cape Town about 18 months ago, so we tacked on three more weeks and toured the countryside. It's definitely one of those things I'll never forget, and never regret doing. Even with one airfare and one week's lodging covered, it's still an investment. But a worthwhile one all the way.

I've got just a sprinkling of photos on my website.

Sheila Deeth said...

Wow! It all sounds so wonderful. I should love to do that sometime.

And will it go into the next mystery?

antgirl said...

It really sounds fantastic. What great fodder for your imagination! :)

Kaye George said...

What a trip! I'm glad the baboon liked your purse better than you, Beth! Looking forward to the pictures.

Pat Smith said...

Beth, it's so funny that you ate at the Fat Cat restaurant. My blogger name is Fat Cat!

I so enjoyed reading about your trip and the funny baboon that ate Hank's lip balm.

Pat Smith

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Nubian said...

Born and raised Capetonian, so I was happy to read that you loved it as much as I do. We go 'home' every two years. It sounds as though your trip was pretty intense and on the go, go, go! Thanks for sharing.

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