Sunday, March 16, 2014

The park opens at 4:30 am!

During my time here in South Africa I have become quite the "hanger-on." I rarely turn down an invitation, even if the invitation starts out with "I'll pick up you up at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday!" Saying yes in this case meant a weekend trip to the beautiful Mpumalanga Province in northeastern South Africa.The drive was five hours each way; with the rest of the time spent driving around in Kruger National Park.   

With only a brief coffee and re-fueling break on Saturday morning, we reached the north gate of the park around 11:00 and spent the entire day driving nearly deserted dirt roads. As usual, my photographs don't begin to due justice to the scenic beauty and the majesty of the animals.

We were a bit late to the waterhole! 

Kruger National Park is pretty rugged and wild.
The landscape was diverse and more untamed than the other reserves I have visited. We started on the grasslands, drove along the river, and roamed these rocky hills. There was a lot of rain, so I was very happy in be a large Land Rover. I was a bit worried when I saw a few small economy sized rental cars negotiating the flooded dirt roads.

 His mate and their baby were a bit too busy too come out for the photo shoot.

We were lucky enough to see a 1/2 dozen rhinos during the weekend.

The highlight was a "high noon" stand-off between a pack of wild dogs and a herd of zebras. Sightings of wild dogs are pretty rare, as there are only 120 wild dogs left in the park. The female in the foreground is wearing a tracking collar. 

We watched the ongoing negotiations and posturing for an hour. Eventually the zebras decided not to cross at this point.

As we rounded a curve in the road, we spotted a small group of elephants. The small group got larger and we decided it was in our best interests to reverse back out of their way. They decided we could have the road back after about 2 kilometers. 

We spent Saturday night in the park in a rondavel, think very cute round cabin with a reed roof.
Photo credit: Kruger National Park 

The kitchen was on the outside of the building; in locked cages to prevent the monkeys and badgers from carrying off our supplies and the kitchenware. 

When finishing dinner (which we cooked) my companion mentioned that the park opened at 4:30 a.m. Since we were three minutes from the gate, I negotiated getting up at 5:00 and leaving our room by 5:30. As a result I had to live down that our view of two rhinos was blocked by another car before the sun was even fully up.

The scenery on the drive back to Johannesburg was equally gorgeous.

Of the 38 hours that I was away from my Johannesburg apartment, I spent 26 hours in the car. Yet one more reason to be glad that it was a Land Rover!

Friday, February 28, 2014

somewhere there is a velvet monkey with 20/20 vision

On Friday, I headed off to the Eastern Cape. I had Monday-Tuesday meetings in the city of Grahamstown, so I tacked on a brief tourist weekend. 

I flew to Port Elizabeth on the eastern coast; collected my rental car and headed off. The GPS wound me through the central downtown of Port Elizabeth. Sadly, as many of South Africa's cities, the downtown was mainly cheap shops and fast food restaurants in decaying buildings. At one time, it must have been stunning. 

I headed north along the coast for a bit and got to see the ships coming into port. After passing through a number of townships and informal settlements, I reached open land. There were long periods of time during which I was the only car on the road; only to be suddenly shocked to look up and see a mining truck, taxi, or car bearing down on me at 100 km an hour. Thankfully there were lots of pull offs so I could get of the way.  

The road kept getting narrower and less traveled. The scenery was changing as I drove into the hills. I passed through hill-sides abundant with fruit bearing prickly pear cactus. The solitude of the road deterred me from pulling over and buying a few from the vendors selling them along the roadside. One of the downsides of being a solitary traveler is that you have to think cautiously. 

About 4:00 pm I passed through Addo, a place more an intersection than a town, and made the last turn towards my hotel. There was a slight drizzle which keep the dust down as I drove the last 20 km up a mountain road. I didn't think it was wise to stop and take photographs on a one-lane mountain road in the rain and oncoming twilight. Especially since there were no pull offs and no guard rails. The scenery is spectacular in that part of the country as shown in these photographs from the next morning.

I stayed at the Zurrberg Mountain Inn Village, a lodge at the top of the mountain and at the end of the road. I had an adorable cottage that had both an indoor and an outdoor shower. It also came with complementary sherry! I wasted no time, in pouring a bit and sitting on the back veranda to listen to the quiet and look at the mountains. 

The main lodge was equally lovely. The weather turned cool enough, as measured by South African standards, to put up a large fire in the fireplace. 

Oddly, despite the tropical feel, there was also a lovely rose garden.

Tansy on guard duty by the front door.

The lodge also came with two very personable dogs, Tansy and Belmont. The minute the fire place was lit, both moved in and plopped down. The only time I saw them move fast during the entire weekend was when a velvet monkey snuck in and stole fruit off the large back veranda by the pool. When I walked in the first time they were both lying on their backs with their feet in the air sleeping. They were so still that I thought perhaps some bizarre taxidermy had tipped over -- it is South Africa after all. 

Belmont felt right at home in the pool with the guests.
View from front veranda.

Road ends at hotel.
The real reason for the trip (besides work) started at 5:30 am the next morning. It was a drive through the Addo Elephant National Park. The benefit of going with a driver is that they are very knowledgeable -- I know more about dung beetles than I ever thought possible -- and they get you very close to the animals. 

The Addo Elephant National Park is a no intervention park, with one exception. The park does enhance some of the natural springs to form water holes due to the dry climate.

Although there was lots of different game, the stars of the adventure were indeed the elephants. The first guy we saw had no reluctance in expressing his impression of the paparazzi. 

An older guy hanging out by himself and on the way to the water hole.

I enjoy the scenery as much as the animals.

The start of the gang.

Although often referred to as "cattle" -- I like them! 

Afternoon gathering.
Sometime during all the excitement I lost my sunglasses and a camera lenses cap. I suppose I could say that the velvet monkeys had something to do with the loss. After all I had witnessed prior bad acts with fruit at the hotel. 

I did leave my glasses on the seat of the jeep during a quick pit stop at a rest area in the presence of these guys. But even though the tall tales are tall here, it might be just a bit much to envision a velvet monkey wearing a pair of trendy bifocal prescription sunglasses in the bush!

On Sunday I headed off to Grahamstown, home of Rhodes University. After settling in with a cup of coffee at the 137 High Street Guest House, I finished reading Rosemary Smith's incredible account of the work of the Black Sash organization in the Grahamstown and eastern cape area during apartheid. Her memoir, Swimming with Cobras, is a fascinating personal account.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

I brake for deserted beaches...

Cape Town may be a mere two-hour flight from Johannesburg, but it is a different world. I took advantage of Monday-Tuesday meetings at the LRC Cape Town office, and headed for Cape Town on Friday afternoon for a long tourist weekend. 

Upon arrival, I immediately started my drive south along the coast on the eastern side of the Cape Peninsula. The coast road runs right along the water's edge; and the scenery is gorgeous! My destination was Boulders Beach. The beach is located just outside of Simon's Town and is home to a colony of African Penguins

Simon's Town

Boulders Beach
African Penguins
The African Penguins are an endangered species. In the early 1980s, a few pairs started nesting at Boulders Beach. The penguins are now a major tourist attraction. Despite what some might think, I voiced my intentions to visit the penguins long before Bruce Springsteen paid them a visit between his concerts in Cape Town and Johannesburg. 

They are quite clever; some have started waddling up to the B&B to nest in the garden during the night. They hop from ledge to ledge to get over the garden wall and settle in for the night. 

My B&B, Boulders Beach Lodge, was right on the beach. This gave me the opportunity to spend the evening on the balcony watching the moon rise and listening to the surf.The wind is pretty fierce and the temperature drops into the low 60s. Basically I was in heaven (just $75 US a night, full English breakfast included)!

I was so taken with the scenery, I didn't notice there wasn't television in the room until the next morning. 
On Saturday morning I hung out with the penguins until the crowds starting arriving. 

Beach parking is at a premium and the regulations ruthlessly enforced. Anyone else think the national park logo looks like a bikini top?

As I continued driving south along the coast I kept pulling over to look at the scenery. My destination was the Cape Point nature reserve which is at the southern end of the Cape Peninsula. 

I spent the day hiking the Cape Point lighthouse trail and Cape of Good Hope Scenic Walk and driving all the roads of the nature reserve. 

The "flora" was incredibly diverse.

Unlike Skellig Michael, these trails did not require clinging to the side of a cliff. I hiked (walked) up to the Cape Point lighthouse as a warm up. 

At the top, I popped into the shop for an ice cream. As usual, there was evidence of South Africa's broad view of copyright and trademark infringement.

Next I took on the Cape of Good Hope scenic walk. This was more of a scrabble than a walk; although I don't suppose "Cape of Good Hope Scenic Scrabble" would be considered appropriate signage.  

Selfie proof that I made it to the top!

The cheesy tourist photo opt! I jumped in the photo queue just as a tourist bus pulled up! Personally I don't think you should get your picture taken if you don't do the walk/scrabble.
I spent the rest of the afternoon driving the roads of the nature reserve. Along the way I discovered I have a great need for a bumper sticker that reads "I brake for deserted beaches." Since the Atlantic Ocean was a tad cool, I just touched my toes in and kept walking these endless gorgeous beaches.  

As the day passed, I learned I also braked for ostriches,


This baboon stopped two lanes of traffic when he strolled into the road, sat down, lifted a bit of pavement, and partook of his bug and grub buffet. He eventually put the lid back on the buffet and strolled on.
turtles, scorpions, chameleons, bicyclists, and tourists driving on the wrong side of road. I note proudly that for once it wasn't me!

On Sunday I continued my drive around the peninsula; heading back up the west side. There were more gorgeous beaches. 

At Scarborough, I turned to cross back over the mountain to return to Simon's Town. When you are lulled by all this natural beauty, South Africa has a way of slapping you with its reality. Just as I made a turn in a switchback, I passed the Red Hill Township. I don't engage in poverty tourism so I don't take photographs. There are some videos taken of Red Hill on YouTube if you want to see the poverty and hardship of township life

I spent Saturday evening much as I had spent Friday evening--watching the moon and the surf. On Sunday, I spent a lovely day with a family that has a home on the beach in False Bay. In False Bay the Atlantic Ocean is buffeted by the warm currents of the Indian Ocean and for the first time since arriving here in South Africa I went swimming! 

I made the return trip up the coast road to Cape Town and easily found my hotel in Green Market Square. As a major tourist destination, Cape Town is kept swept and cleaned and on-the-ground security is highly visible. 

On Monday evening, I had a a chance to take in my one and only tourist attraction in the city of Cape Town itself. I headed off to Table Mountain; since I didn't have the time to walk/hike the 2 hour climb, I road the cable car. There is a magnificent reserve on the top of the mountain that I wandered around in for 2 hours.  

Walking path. 

A not-so-shy little furry friend.
A new take on grafitti

Every view was spectacular. I loved the clouds rolling in.
On Tuesday, I dropped off "Boris" at Avis and headed home to Jo-Berg. 

Boris challenged my love of all things Italian. Although he had comfortable seating, good visibility, lots of zip, and didn't slow down with the air on, he had one major downside. The top of the steering wheel blocked my view of the speedometer. 
I hope to get back to explore the city of Cape Town. Despite its hyper-tourism feel, there are some gems I have read about that I would enjoy visiting. As Paul Theroux writes in his book, The Last Train to Zona Verde,

"Reading can also be a powerful stimulus to travel. That was the case for me from the beginning. Reading and restlessness -- dissatisfaction at home; a sourness at being indoors, and a notion that the real world was elsewhere -- made me a traveler. If the Internet were everything it is cracked up to be, we would all stay home and be brilliantly witty and insightful. Yet with so much contradictory information available, there is more reason to travel than ever before: to look closer, to dig deeper, to sort the authentic from the fake; to verify, to smell, to touch, to taste, to hear, and sometimes -- importantly -- to suffer the consequences of this curiosity."