Monday, July 13, 2009

July11th-12th Coming home

This morning we left for a tour of the wine country. We found yet another aspect of South Africa we had not seen before. The areas we traveled through were often times reminiscent of the Bavarian Alps region or even Vermont!

Our first tour was of the SimonsSig Winery and we tasted a number of delicious wines and were treated to a “sabage”. It is tradition for the cork of the wine to be removed with a sword in one swift movement. After an explanation, Jen volunteered. As expected, with one finely calculated stroke, off came the cork with the glass head of the bottle and the tasting began!

We stopped for lunch and exploring in a pretty little town called Stellenbosch. We wandered in and out of many little boutique-like shops and the informal market that contained much of what we had already seen in other towns and along the roads during our journey. But, we had to go explore anyway! (There was even a moment when Jane and Joyce were desperate to get into one of the shops that limited the number of people it allowed in the store at one time. Shopping can do that, you know! Check out the photo below!)

Even this little town reminded us of little shops in New England. Our next winery was located up in the hills overlooking the valley that reminded us of the alps, but with rounder mountains. The wine was not as good but the vista was unbeatable!

We then headed into town to take part in the annual Bastille Day, honoring the French Huguenot influence in the area. It was very crowded in town with everyone walking around wearing French berets and the French flag was flying everywhere. All of the shops were opened, French crepes were being prepared and, once again, the wine flowed freely! Our time did not permit us to stay very long as we headed off to the airport.

It will be a long overnight flight from Cape Town to London, about 12 hours. We are all pretty tired from our adventures of the past 10 days so our long flight from Cape Town to London will be a time for remembering, reflection, and restorative rest! Despite the unforgettable memories we have created, we are all anxious to get home to our own beds and families.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Friday, July 10, 2009 “Just pass your brains right over here!”

Our last full day in South Africa was not without its excitement and breath-taking vistas.... or without someone wandering off. Ken saw the police cars parked on the road and had to say hello. This made our guide just a bit nervous!

We started out the day headed for our boat trip to Duiker Island to see the seals. We got our tickets and with some time to explore, we found the old man who has lured a huge seal from the sea and has been feeding him for the past 27 years. This seal stays in a very small area of the wharf free from any restrictions but getting fed fish by tourists is the attraction for him. Why should he want to go anyplace? So we played the tourist game, took lots of photos, and touched and fed him. We straddled the seal and put our hands on the sides of his neck and found that the thickness of his skin and the fat layer seem to be impenetrable. Then the man offered some fish for us to hold to feed the seal! Very cool! BTW - this man feeds the seal with the fish between his teeth. None of us did that, though!

We boarded the boat for the trip to the island and arrived to find rocks covered with these sleek creatures. It was a bit cold and a little rainy on our trip out there but the scenery and experience superseded any discomfort! If the seals didn’t move, they would have looked like a soft, wet blanket covering huge rocks in the middle of the sea! But move they did! The seals were joined by lots of cormorants and other birds and our cameras were snapping away! We are up to @15,000 photographs among us!

Our driver, Julian, was always very accommodating, even when we insisted he stop the bus on the side of the road for us to see the baboons. They were everywhere! Again, we took lots of pictures!

Following a bit of shopping at the blankets of the local vendors, we were off again to the Cape of Good Hope, the place that marks the most southwestern point in Africa where Vasco DaGama first landed on the continent. There is kelp everywhere in the ocean here, huge kelp that is twice as thick as a standard watering hose you may have at home. On the end of that hose are mop-like tentacles that are between 2 and 6inches wide. It is a slimy, dark brownish green and is used in the production of cosmetics and is even eaten by the locals. The Cape of Good Hope is located along False Bay, so named because the misty fog prevented the explorers from correctly guessing the location of Cape Town, We took the funicular up to the top of the hill and hiked the rest of the steps to the old lighthouse. As the waves crashed onto the beach and rocks beneath us, the clear green-blue of the water and the white of the water’s foam once again reminded of nature‘s powerful beauty.

We were treated to a delicious lunch at the Two Oceans Restaurant. We had blue nose fish and prawns. The waiter told us how to extract the most meat from the prawn, which contained its brains. Jen decided that she would take as many brains as she could get from the group and proceeded to suck out the brains of about 10 of our prawns! The fun never ends!

Then, off we went to Simon’s Town to see the penguins! Simons Town is another one of those unique South African towns with little surprises. It is located on the coast of the False Bay and is a naval base.

We hiked down a steep roadway to get to the beach where the penguins could be seen and it was, of course, worth the effort. There is a beach where you can swim with the penguins, if they choose to accompany you, of course. Then there is another beach where you can observe them. After walking some distance along a board walk we got to the second beach. Along the way were plenty of penguins to see in the brush. Some were resting, others waddling around, and some tending to their young. The park has set up domed containers in the brush along the beach to provide the penguins with a safe nesting place. There were hundreds of these safe havens along the boardwalk and we even saw an egg. The babies are grey and fluffy with their new down and were determined to stay close to their moms. You could hear them constantly calling to each other in what can best be described as a guttural chittering…or the same sound you hear when you watch March of the Penguins! Either way, they were entertaining and we were pleased to have met them!

Joyce decided she was going to start back to the bus…a..l..l the way back up that steep, never ending, unrelenting hill. Of course, what she did not realize was that the bus was picking us up a short distance from the penguins! Poor Andre was all a dither with this development as he thought he had lost her, as we just adopted the “Hakuna matata” philosophy, and sent Bill and Casey to retrieve her. Meanwhile, Joyce did some research on her own and was on her way back down the trail where she ran into our scouts! All ended well and even Andre seemed to recover!

We stopped at a statue of a dog…yes…a dog. His name was “Just Nuisance” and was eventually given the title “Able Seamen Just Nuisance” through a series of important duties. It seems that he was the “designated driver/guide” for all of the human seamen when they became inebriated and could not find their way back to the ship. He obviously was an important part of their crew and he was treated with much respect and regard for the duties he performed. He was even given a full blown military funeral when he passed away and now has a statue in his honor. It’s a dog’s life!

Our last nights’ dinner was at the Quay Four at the Victoria Alfred Waterway. Another delicious meal together and a fine way to end our adventure. We did a little last minute shopping, as well…of course. Tomorrow, we pack up in preparation for our return flights, leave the hotel and are on our way for a wine tour!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Here's the video of the baby elephant yelling at us!

This morning we got to sleep in, with an 8 a.m. departure from our hotel, which is conveniently located near the center of Cape Town and not far from the waterfront. We then drove up to the base of Table Mountain, which is a large, flat topped mountain at the southern end of Cape Town. To get to the top, which is at 1067 m above sea level, or about 3500 ft, we had to take a large gondola, the floor of which rotated to give everybody a chance to take in the amazing vistas. Below the gondola, we could see a hiking trail that people can also take to get to the top. That would be quite a hike!

From the top, we had a spectacular view of Cape Town and the surrounding area, including a peak to the west named Lion's Head and another to the east name Devil's Peak. We could even see well out into the Atlantic Ocean! There was also a small shop at the top where we could get postcards and mail them so that we could get a special Table Mountain postmark.

After walking around the top and taking in the views, we rode the cable car back down and drove to the Castle of Good Hope. This castle, originally built by the Dutch in the 1660's, is the oldest standing building in South Africa. When it was built, it was right on the ocean front, but is now over a mile from the ocean due to Cape Town growing through the centuries.

We explored the castle, then went to the waterfront for lunch. Sitting at the cafe looking out over the busy harbor of Cape Town seemed very contrary to what some of us would have expected from Africa. Cape Town, so far, has seemed much busier and more European of a city than Johannesburg was.

From the water front, which has been developed into quite a shopping area resembling Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, we took a boat ride out to Robben Island. Since the early Dutch settlements, this island, whose name in Dutch means Seal Isalnd, has gone through various uses, but at most times was a prison island of some kind. Nelson Mandela and many others who fought against Apartheid were imprisoned there during its more recent history. The prison was closed in the early 90's, and is now a museum and national park.

Sometimes the line for the toilets is just too long, and you can't wait!

We took a bus tour of the island where our guide pointed out the highlights and gave the history of the island. We also saw a few penguins, and many, many oversized rabbits. Our guide was absolutely amazing and quite a story teller. He's accompanied various dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela, Barrack Obama, and Bill Cosby around the island, and had many stories to tell. After the bus, we had a walking tour of the prison building itself, a very solemn place.

When our tour of the prison was complete, we took the boat back to the water front, where we had dinner and did some shopping. When we decided that we could not (or maybe should not is more appropriate) spend any more Rand, we caught a cab back to the hotel for the night.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

So we're back in civilization now, as we got back to Johannesburg last night and flew to Cape Town this afternoon. (We decided to sleep in this morning!) We had an amazing time out in the bush at Edeni! We saw so many animals! Here are the blog entries we would have posted if we had internet service out there! (Although, occasional cell service could be found if you laid perfectly still in the right spot in the tent and held your arm straight up!)

July 4, 2009 - Pachyderm Paradise

Happy Fourth of July! We are in tents…and we have keys! After a five hour coach ride, we arrived at Hoyo Hoyo Lodge in the Edeni Private Reserve for our four day safari! “Hoyo Hoyo” means “Welcome, Welcome” and we absolutely feel it here. Edeni is an 87 hectare park located in the northwest corner of South Africa and is part of famous Kruger National Park. “Edeni” means “paradise” and it truly is wonderful! Almost immediately upon entering Edeni property, we saw a giraffe followed by an elephant! Really…it’s true…they were right there! After checking into our raised platform tents, we were taken on our first game drive in open safari jeeps lead by a very knowledgeable driver and a very observant and accurate guide. The guide sat in a little chair in the front of the jeep directing the driver where to go based on footprints and the all-telling droppings! We saw too many giraffes to count, including babies, and, when you are up close and personal, I can tell you that they are gracefully tall and beautiful. Zebras were right in the middle of the dirt road and, because they all blended together, it was hard to tell how many of them there were. Billy says, “They looked like one big zebra to me!” The driver and tracker were able to find large groups of impalas, a couple of blue wildebeests or gnus, kudus, a nyala, blackbacked jackals, a couple of waterbucks, a giant eagle owl and a black headed oriole. We were also treated to seeing and touching a pangolin, an animal similar to an armadillo. It is so rare that Derrick, one of the guides, said that they have only seen a pangolin once before today in nine years! All of this was very exciting and almost hard to believe but, for some of us, the most dramatic sightings were of the white rhinoceros and their baby. These gigantic animals can weigh up to three tons and it appears that nothing really intimidates them! And then…there were the elephants…lots and lots of fantastic elephants! We spotted them in several places but then stopped the jeep when we heard them eating their way through the bush. One by one they emerged…and these gentle giants just kept coming until there were 20 of them! There were three little ones about 6-7 months old, a few estimated to be between 7 and 8 years old, a few aged about 10 years, and the largest of them is believed to be 30 years old. We simply sat and observed and photographed them for forty five minutes while they wandered around the bush eating and came within five feet of the jeep. Nature has a sobering effect on one’s perspective on life!

6:30 tomorrow morning is our next drive and we are confident that this one will be as rewarding as today’s.

Our tents are very comfortable and clean, complete with flushies, running water and electricity, mosquito netting around our beds, African print bedspreads and pillows, zippered windows, and table and chairs on each deck. Check out the pictures for yourself! The food is delicious and plentiful, the staff happy to have us here, and quite accommodating. We are all very happy.

July 5th Meal time…cheetah style!

I woke up to the screaming of the vervet monkeys right outside the cabin. It was raining so our game drive was postponed for an hour or so but it was all well worth the wait. We left the compound in our safari jeep with jackets and scarves, hats and raingear…in addition to our camera equipment, of course. We estimate that since we have been in Edeni our group has taken over 10,000 photographs…maybe more! We will be posting some, of course, and I can tell you that it will be quite difficult choosing the ones to share.

The animals were a little sleepy this morning so we got off to a slow start but we were rewarded in the end. We saw lots of impalas, zebras, some jackals and nyala, and a number of blue wildebeest. While waiting to cross a dry riverbed, Jameson spotted a little cerval in the road ahead of us. The cerval quickly scooted into the brush so our photo op was short-lived. These beautiful blue birds filled some of the trees and woodpeckers and yellow-billed birds known as “flying bananas” could be spotted, as well. Then our driver announced that there were three cheetahs surrounding a fresh kill and that, as soon as the researchers left the area, we were going in to see them. Naturally, we were delighted to add another of the Big 5 to our adventure but had no idea how close we would actually get. When we arrived at the site, the guide told us to get out of the truck. Keep in mind that this was the same guide who told us never to get out of the truck and he was now telling us to get out to hike into the bush where three of the most dangerous animals in the park were feasting on an antelope! So, with blind faith, out we jumped with cameras ready. It is hard to describe the feelings that emerge when faced with this incredible display of the circle of life. The three cheetahs seemed oblivious to us as their teeth ripped at the carcass, dragged one of the legs to the side for a personal meal, while another one licked and tore are what can best be described as a fetal sack. These cats can run faster than any other animal in the park so we were very careful to stay quiet and to move slowly. We were standing less than 10 feet from them. Another amazingly fortuitous opportunity for us as we explore this animal rich park!

As we drove back to the lodge, we happened upon a brood of baboons. These primates are very quick so as soon as they knew we were watching them, they started to run. The large male was about the size of Jameson! While Claire was on her way to breakfast, after our drive, she saw a baboon right in our camp!

A mother giraffe and her 4 week old baby were spotted on our way back, too, and finished off our morning excursion with very happy adventurers!

After lunchtime, we were able to photograph lots of vervet monkeys off of Sharon’s deck, the same ones I heard screaming this morning, no doubt! There were adults and babies, alike, and they were peeking out of the bush and chasing each other while making lots of monkey noises! We also saw an elephant passing our camp right on the other side of the electric fence. Earlier in the morning, the giraffes were there, as well.

Before dinner, we set out on another game drive with our drivers and guides. Each time we venture out into the bush we never know what we will encounter. We were not disappointed. In addition to numerous impalas, some wildebeest and kudus, we saw giraffe, as well. One particularly poignant encounter was when we found a young female giraffe guarding over the amniotic sack containing her baby. We were told she had probably given birth to a stillborn earlier in the day but, naturally, she did not want to leave it. She kept careful watch over us as she frequently licked the sack trying to rouse her young. She would stay there all day and into the night, as well. Her soulful eyes told the story - a grieving mother refusing to abandon her baby and accept the course of nature. Animal mothers are not any different than us, in this respect. Upon returning to the park for our night drive, we found this young mother laying down in the bush determined to protect her baby from the marauding jackals and hyenas who would ultimately prevail. This experience had a profound effect on us all.

In addition to some of the bigger life here in Edeni, we watched a troop of Montebello ants marching to work on the dirt road we were traveling. These ants are so dangerous that even the snakes are afraid of them! One group spotted bush babies, too, tiny little monkeys who jump from tree to tree in movements similar to a squirrel. And birds…so many birds, one more beautiful and interesting than the next, and filling the position of sentry over the bush letting the animal population know when and where there may be large animals, a fresh kill or to announce approaching danger. Cleaning the large mammals of ticks and other pests, keeping down the insect population, and, of course, carrying seeds throughout the park are all part of the birds duty.

We have seen quite a number of elephants but none quite so dramatic as today’s encounter. We were searching for wildlife when suddenly there was a bull elephant crashing through the bush - literally! He was moving at a fast pace with no regard for the trees and vegetation that would have prevented success to a lesser strength. Had our driver not been so alert, this elephant may have actually rammed our jeep. As it turned out, he simply provided us with yet another opportunity to witness the power of nature. We followed the elephant down the trail while he continued to mark his territory and we proceeded to the lake.

Our guides and drivers always seem to have a surprise for us! When we arrived at this large lake we saw #3 of the Big 5. There were 5 or 6 hippopotamus in the lake slowly floating around with just their eyes and ears visible, occasionally surfacing a little higher but never completely emerging. Hippos are very efficient grazers with lips that are almost 70 cm wide! They make these grunting sort of sounds and even some that sounded as if they were mocking us with laughter. The staff then set up these little tables with drinks and light refreshments on the beach as we observed the hippos and the setting sun. Then we heard the roaring.

We quickly piled into the jeeps to search for the source of that powerful sound. Our drivers have such control of their vehicles on these rough trails that serve as roads and while “off road” that I have to say I have never been concerned for our safety, although we do hold on! In this pursuit, they again proved themselves up to the challenge. Spreading out and communicating by radio we were able to find the male lion, the head of the pride. He exuded dignity and was truly majestic while the mane that surrounded his head confirmed his position of domination. A lion’s roar can be heard up to 8 km away. And they can weigh up to 250 kg. We watched as he walked confidently to the little pond for a drink. These animals only drink every 3-4 days so he was quite thirsty. Our drivers kept jockeying the jeeps into position to allow us the best possible views of this “King of the Jungle”, even going off road for us (something they asked us to keep amongst ourselves!) getting within 10 feet of the lion while he rested. We were quite content returning to camp where we shared stories and photographs of what we saw and would never forget.

We also wandered down to the lake to enjoy the scenery and to see animals, of course! There were zebra, impala, and warthogs…… and beautiful scenery. This place is truly a paradise!

Happy 27th Birthday, Jorie!

During dinner, I saw two honey badgers fighting off the deck of the lodge. They looked like flounder skunks! They are wide and lie low to the ground with a wide white streak down the middle of its back surrounded by black fur. It was short, but noisy, confrontation and the two of them walked off together!

dition to the very friendly and helpful staff , our platform tents are just the right amount of rustic and the animal life is outstanding. We are very happy and are creating memories that we will treasure forever.

Edeni is perfect for us!

July 6, 2009 Blyde = Joy

After a morning game drive, we headed out to the Blyde River Canyon, the 3rd largest and greenest canyon in the world. We boarded a barge-type boat that was covered with a tarp to protect the passengers from rain or sun and we set sail. This leisurely hour and a half excursion showed us once again the power of nature. The rusty rock formations were stunning and the wildlife outstanding! We saw baboons playfully running amongst the bush and cormorants nesting in a bleached dead tree in the water. We also saw the white rhinoceros! Actually, we saw six of them as they appeared on the beach when suddenly they decided to crash into the water! It’s amazing how fast these behemoth animals can move! They can leave quite a wake!

Upon our return we went on our final night time game drive. We were in pursuit of the leopard because we haven’t seen the final member of the Big 5. The Big 5 consist of the five most dangerous animals on the African continent. They are the most difficult to hunt and kill and the most dangerous animals to ….. According to the hunters that comprised this list. We have seen 3 of them thus far. Stay tuned!

We set out and immediately saw a number of giraffe, even the dark colored one that could be seen from the camp yesterday. They were busy eating the tops of trees and usually moved slowly away from us, unless the tree was more inviting than we were threatening! They watched us very carefully as they ripped the leaves from the top of the trees. These giraffes are amazing in their elegance and agility and we never tire of seeing them.

Our guides then managed to find two female rhinos and a baby. We actually drove right through the bush to allow us an up close and personal interaction - about 5-7 feet away from them. One of them started to dance around as if to say we were getting too close and so we left. Of course, the truck had to grind and spin its wheels to extract us from the vegetation but as every time before this one, our guides were up to the task. Rhinoceros are ancient-looking creatures that are able to move quickly despite their bulk and can be quite threatening so retreating as we did was a good idea.

Some group returned to the site where we saw the mother giraffe and her stillborn. She had managed to remove the placenta from her baby and was not immediately seen. However, in a few moments she appeared when our jeep stopped. We were really not surprised that she had still not left her baby. The next day, the baby was gone.

We stopped in a clearing to enjoy some refreshments that were brought along and took pictures of the group with our guides and trackers until it became dark. We also did the “Wave” as a group…I won’t attempt to describe it! You’ll have to see for yourself!

We spent a good 45 - 60 minutes looking for the leopard and despite the fact that fresh tracks could be found, the leopard could not. I know that Derrick and Evans were disappointed but we have been incredibly fortunate to have seen as much as we have .

Derrick stopped to show us how to identify the Southern Cross which can only be seen in the southern hemisphere. He also explained how to find true south by using the stars. Overall, our guides are incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Edeni and South Africa.

July 7, 2009 - One last look

Our early morning drive was done with hats and scarves as it was quite cold and damp. But, once again enduring a little cold was well worth it! We were so fortunate to see a mother lioness with her cubs and were shocked to also see the male lion peering at us through the bush with just his face and mane visible…a little intimidating! We also saw the elephants again and were chastised by the baby as they crossed the road. He turned to us, raised his trunk, and trumpeted at us as if to tell us that we were intruding on their territory and that he was going to tell his mommy! We were, actually! But we were careful to follow directions and not stand up in the jeep and to just look at the animals We had to take a short drive on our last day because we were headed back to Johannesburg, via the Panoramic Route. It was with regret that we all said goodbye to our guides, trackers, and staff at Edeni, who worked so hard to make our stay so comfortable and unforgettable. Every day, at each meal and upon returning from a drive we were greeted with smiling faces and welcomes making us all feel right at home. Each and every one of us would have spent the remainder of the trip here! But off we went with Louie as our driver and Johan our director whose day would end up with our group being called the “deaf Americans”, mainly because we didn’t stick to the time frame very well causing us to be to late to the bus after our stops. We didn’t really care, which was evident because it continued!

The Panoramic Route offered us a glimpse of the beautiful Blyde River Canyon from the top, where we took lots of photographs, of course. We also hiked down a path to what is known as Bourke’s Luck Potholes to see what time and the forces of nature have created. There were the almost perfectly circular pools that had been formed as a result of the meeting of the two rivers, the Blyde (joy) and the Treur (sorrow). When the two rivers met, a whirlpool was formed resulting in the circular formation of the rocks. Really beautiful…I cannot use that word enough. It seems so simple but not meant to trivialize an aspect of nature we have never seen before.

We also stopped in a few spots where there were many local artisans selling their wares. There were wooden and stone bowls, batiks, wooden carvings of animals and people, scarves, and an array of jewelry and curios. We were a shopping machine! One of the spots we stopped was called Pilgrim’s Rest. It’s history includes gold mining and the acquisition and loss of several fortunes. At this point, it is a little village with the Royal Hotel and its famous bar, lots of locals inviting you to part with your money…“I give a special price today for you.”…and boutique-type shops. Patti says it reminds her of an “African Sugar Loaf“ !

We passed acre after acre of pine trees, as far as the eye could see. It is a big industry in South Africa for the production of paper. There were many vistas that reminded us of New Hampshire or Flagstaff or part of the northwest of the United States.

We then settled in for a long ride back to Jo’Burg arriving at least two hours later than Johan and Louie had planned. Hakuna matata!

Stay tuned…we are flying to Cape Town tomorrow!

Look how much we bought!