Trains and cities and mild luxury are all nice, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy it. But now we’re back in my element. The true epicenter of my happiness: traveling the remote back roads with unknown adventures ahead, where other tourists are few and far between (and seldom from the U.S.).
I sit now writing of our last 2 days inside our private rondeval at the top of Sani Pass just inside the southern border of Lesotho. And, admittedly, the accommodation is awesome and pretty swanky. Also it’s the only thing around. And it has the claim to the highest pub in Africa. (yeah, yeah, a tourist trap phrase if you ever heard one; still, it’s fun) I have my feet next to the propane heater, and outside our cozy rondeval blows a full-on snowstorm. Snow coming down and down, the locals says they don’t know if it will stop by tomorrow. They are happy for the moisture. At this altitude it comes largely in the form of snow. So once again we have towed in the weather like a trailer on our truck.
Yesterday we came into Lesotho later than we planned because of the previous day being botched by the train delay. We had to curtail our itinerary slightly, but it’s been a fantastic 2 days. We crossed over at a tiny border post on a dirt road that wasn’t even signed from any highway or town; we found it eventually, after a couple wrong turns, by coordinating a map with some help from a Tom-Tom GPS unit that came with the truck. We didn’t leave SA and then enter Lesotho through 2 stations, just one lady took care of everything (in theory…. I guess we’ll see when we try to leave; I worry slightly considering our experience in Mozambique ...). After we got inside Lesotho and programmed into the GPS the next town on the map we intended to pass through, and then started driving, it kept telling us, “turn around as soon as possible.” Almost immediately upon entering Lesotho, everything changed – from the topography to the housing to the people. In the photo below we're coming up to the hard-to-find, only mentioned in half the maps/guidebooks, border crossing of Monontsha.
The landscape is completely spectacular. We wind our way up and down along endless curves and hairpins on narrow dirt roads through valleys and to mountain tops almost 10,000 feet high, many sheer cliffs surround us at any given time. Layers and layers of canyons and gullies, somewhat like a mini Grand Canyon. The first part after crossing the border, the mountain sides were all green with new spring grass. As we progressed further south, the green faded into rocky colors of red and gold.
The people live in very neatly-kept rondevals (round stone building with pointed thatch roofs). Though the people are unquestionably poor, they obviously take some civic pride in their homes and landscape; there is no litter lying about, the yards are neat, the houses well-kept and not run-down. Though many in South Africa live in the exact same type of home, they are very often in shambles and belie a certain squalor. Not so here. Second photo, see how dwarfed they are in the mountainous landscape.
The people are largely shepherds with sheep and cows and also farm terraced tracks of land along the hillsides. Horses are the main type of transport beyond walking, and donkeys are the beasts of burden. We got out of our truck once because we were driving with our windows rolled down and kept hearing noises outside. It turned out to be the tinkling of the cow and sheep bells, amplified by the valley. It was a mild cacophony. The little donkey alone on this huge hillside, below, I thought was so cute.
We very rarely saw any pack animals in South Africa and no one riding horses. This is a horse-oriented culture, and in fact the biggest tourist “attraction” besides hiking in this country is pony trekking. The indigenous form of dress involves heavy blankets wrapped around one’s body. We can see why…. it’s just plain nippy up here. It’s nice that the majority of people walk around with this style of dress rather than Westernized jackets and such.
Most people along the roadside wave at us. The adults are just friendly; the kids, unfortunately, have come to believe that white people are candy fairies and yell out at us with hands open, “Sweets! Sweets!” I dunno, I guess it’s better than saying, “money money!” Though the gesture is still annoying. Once, I got out of the car to take a photo of the scenery and didn’t notice a kid sitting there on a rock. He got up and asked me to take his picture, so I did and then showed it to him. Then he asked me for money; I said “no.” So he started telling me this story that his parents had died and he wanted to be able to go to school but he couldn’t afford it because he had no parents. He was telling me this while wearing a school uniform.
We stopped at this friendly looking store ... clearly is has a friendly indoor atmosphere if you notice the sign above the door asking patrons to disarm themselves before entering ... because we were enticed by the prospect of scones, as advertised on the big blue sign. I stayed in the car while Erik went inside to make the purchase; he came back rather dejected with a loaf of white bread. That was the "scone."
Passing through one village, a man with a police officer’s hat stepped into the road and vigorously flagged us down to stop. In South Africa, we likely wouldn’t have stopped, as car jacking and hijacking is too common and we have been warned repeatedly not to do so. There was no police car or anything, and no uniform but the hat. But we stopped. He wanted a ride to the next town. We decided to oblige; it’s Lesotho, not South Africa. He was terribly amused by the Tom-Tom GPS unit. He giggled incessantly over it. We dropped him off at his desired destination. Who knows if he was really a police officer, maybe he just found an officer’s hat somewhere, though we asked him several questions about his job which he seemed to answer legitimately enough.
The only vehicle ever to pass us was a police vehicle ... they are yellow vans. But it was a bit comical, as it was a slow-speed overtake, and because of the roads snaking so circuitously across the mountainsides skirting canyons and ravines, we could chart the progress of the van ahead of us for a long time -- illustrating the fact that it take 5 miles of driving or maybe more to travel one mile that the crow flies. I love this photo for showing the scale of the landscape ... can you pick out the tiny yellow van?
Eventually we hit a paved road and major (by Lesotho standards) town and stopped to get gas and buy beer. The people at the tavern seemed quite impressed that white people came into their store. They asked where we were from and when we said “United States,” they didn’t seem to understand, so we said, “America.” “Oh, America!” they all chorused. “Obama!” One guy asked how many times we’ve met Obama since he became president.
Darkness descended while driving through the splendid scenery. When I told Erik that my “aim” for this country was simply to drive around through the interior, Erik said “it certainly feels like we’re in the interior of something.” It is remote, rugged, sparsely populated, and beautiful. But once it was dark, the road was extremely hard to follow. The pavement was very black and there are no painted lines and it continuously twists and turns. There are reflector tabs on each edge of the road. On the rare straight-away, the orange reflectors on left and red reflectors on right outlining a black path in the black night made it look like we were on a runway at night at an airport. One of the couples we met on the train said the straightest patch of road in all of Lesotho was driving across the bridge at the Katse dam. I believe he’s right. It’s quite cold and though we did buy a few things to be able to subsist in the new truck, we ended up driving into the night to the only accommodation anywhere in the area, near the Katse dam. They charge an arm and leg, but at least we could eat cheap with the food we’d bought at the grocery store in the morning and put in our cooler. The guidebook said this place was like a hospital, and it totally is with the rooms lined up down cement hallways. We would have been miserably cold inside the car.
I was excited to wake up the next morning to see just exactly where we were, what our surroundings were, as it was so mysterious driving in, nothing but curve after curve and blackness... pretty much no electricity anywhere. We could have woken up on desert island for all I knew. When I looked out the hotel window, we were about 15 feet from a cliff at the bottom of which lay the reservoir backed up behind the Katse dam. Quite striking. One luxury about the hospital hotel was the hot buffet breakfast.
So we set off again, taking the smallest road the map showed which would still lead us to today’s destination. The dirt road was nearly deserted all day as we drove around. Once, we did get into a bit of traffic congestion when we encountered 2 cars in a row traveling the other direction. The Tom-Tom GPS went cuckoo and took a decided dislike of us, vowing our demise by continually trying to send us up cow trails and down cliffs, fording rivers, and breaking into peoples’ yards. How on earth they programmed in their road data, I don’t know. The directions were so ludicrous it wasn’t even like we got lost, it was utterly evident we weren’t supposed to go where it said to.
More breathtaking scenery filled our day. Great slices of life, passing women washing clothes in the river and men plowing fields with oxen and a single blade plow. I would very much like to learn this African skill of carrying every manner of thing on top of my head.
I love so many of the business names painted on the sides of buildings. Such as "public phone" (below), "beauty salon" (on the sides of the dumpiest cement cells), "car wash" in the middle of nowhere in a place where no individual owns a car (again, below). Will try to get one of a beauty salon if I see another one; I saw several in the Kosi Bay area; it's just funny because of the squalor of a building purporting to make one beautiful.
I have to admit, I was very curious about the doctor's office. It looks so improbably from the outside that the inside would be very conducive to having surgery performed. I imagine I may be too judgmental about the outside of the building, but that's precisely why I would have loved to see the inside of this surgery center.
Then about mid-afternoon it started raining and not too much time had passed before it turned into snow. And not too long after that, the snow began sticking to the road. We had been following the tracks of a car who had gone before us through the snow. We reached a summit of sorts and those tracks circled round the way they came and disappeared. We forged on and very soon wondered whether the owner of the other tracks knew something we didn’t. We spent several hairy hairpins biting our nails in low-4 first gear trying not to slide off the road. Finally the road straightened and flattened out a bit. We continued, figuring we were nearing our destination – the pub/chalet at the top of Sani Pass – enough we could abandon the car and walk if necessary. We came across a man in the road flagging us down with immense pleas for us to stop. We obliged; he wanted a ride to another town across the border in South Africa. We told him we could take him to the pass. He was very grateful. We fed him bread and bananas and cookies and beer which again he was very grateful for. When we arrived at the border post, where our accommodation is, we realized he didn’t understand what we had told him about only going that far. It took awhile to explain but he finally got it. I’m sure he was dejected, but we sent him on his snowy way with a bag full of more food (he never asked for anything, but he looked so cold and miserable when we picked him up and all this food was literally sitting on the seat beside him… it seemed cruel not to offer)
And so we turned into our place at the highest pub in Africa and now I sit in our hut next to the propane heater sipping wine from a shot glass while the snows falls and falls, piling ever-dubiously higher. We have one spare day tomorrow… if we get stranded here tomorrow it’s OK, except we’ll have run out of Rand to pay for another night’s room. But the next day we must be able to get down if we want to be able to make our flight home. There are some other young people here who stayed last night, went hiking today and got caught in the snowstorm. Their 2WD car is at the bottom of the pass on the South African side and the locals who said they’d give them a ride there this afternoon left to go down before the snowstorm. They are worried they’re stranded for the night. Tomorrow, if we are able to leave, we’ll offer them a ride. But the prospect is looking bleak. We asked the proprietor if it could be a problem getting down the pass if it keeps snowing. He said, “yah, it could be a problem.” Worse coming up, apparently, and we’ll be going down; but still, the few hairpins we took downhill today were nerve-racking and at this rate, there is going to be significant accumulation of snow tomorrow. What an adventure.
Left Cape Town under another blanket of gray cloud and threat of rain. The first few hours out of Cape Town on the train were beautiful with dramatic scenery of steep stark mountains rising straight up from fertile valleys of bright green vineyards and golden wheat fields. The occasional shanty town, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, appeared. Once I saw several ostriches running across the fields.
After traveling through the longest mountain tunnel in southern Africa, a 13-minute ride, we emerged into a completely different ecosystem of scrubby proto-desert. Very dry, mostly flat land. At one point a high mountain range rose up far in the distance. But mostly sparse desert land. The train itself is lovely. We have our own private compartment. All meals plus high tea are included in the train fare. Nice food so far. I feel a bit chilly, so I’m sitting in my compartment typing with the thick robe they provided (there are showers available) on as a coat.
The scenery isn’t so interesting at the moment. Erik’s reading Bryce Courtney’s “Tandia,” a sequel to “The Power of One,” which we found in a used bookstore in Joburg. We both got so much out of The Power of One, not just as a great novel, but many informative things about South Africa…. we are often pointing out “oh, just like in Power of One.” Highly recommended book. The boarding school social system described is apparently still in place; when NCM told about his school days, I would have had no idea what he was talking about if I hadn’t read the book.
And you won’t believe this, but our fellow South African train passengers are very friendly. Who could have guessed? (p.s. if you have just joined us, we have been overwhelmed by South African kindness so far) Probably the majority of passengers are retired folks in the wealthier tier. At lunch, an older couple sitting across from us invited us to sit at their table in the dining car, since the views at that time were better on their side. (With that exception, the views have mostly been best from the side that we look out of in our private compartment.) Had nice interesting conversation and they told us many informative things about the country. At high tea, a group of 4 retired folks (2 couples) invited us to sit at their table, just because it seemed to them it would be more comfortable than the bar stools we had started to sit at. Again, brilliant folks who have given us some valuable advice for our upcoming travels through Lesotho and led us through nostalgic ruminations of days past on the premier trains as both regular passengers and the men rode the trains when they were in the military service. One of the men was particularly upset to hear of our truck rental woes and took down the name of the company to give to his friend at the equivalent of the SA BBB.
Watched the stars shining bright in the deep darkness of the interior of the country outside the window. Orion is on his side here, it’s strange to see him, either sleepy or slain. Then in the middle of the night the train came to a standstill in the middle of nowhere, and stayed that way for many hours. Another train had broken the power lines and we had to wait for a diesel engine to come fetch us and tow us onward. We are now at least 6 hours behind schedule. This will have implications for our continuing itinerary.
And here's another shocker in light our experiences to date with the vehicular gods who for some reason loathe us: when we got to the Joburg airport to pick up our new rental truck from a different company, the battery was dead as a doornail. So another hour’s delay as we had to insist on getting a different vehicle despite them jumping the car and claiming it was good to go. So our plans for the day were shot. But we decided to drive as far south as we could before stopping for the night. Found a room in a family hostel – was essentially a garden shed turned into a bedroom. I actually thought it was pretty cute. And we brought with us the rain. Apparently the first rain they’ve had since April (similar to Pretoria). So we seem to be very good luck for the folks here, towing the rain on our bumper.
Spent a couple days in Pretoria, the administrative capital city of South Africa. Not a very exciting city tourist-wise but right now it is gorgeous with all of the sidewalks lined with purple flowering jacaranda trees. It rained last night, the first rain of the spring. A guy said it hadn’t rained since April. So people were excited. And it refreshed the air and it was fragrant with all the flowers rather than with the surrounding industry.
We stayed at a very pleasant guest house to carry out the unpleasant task of exchanging vehicles once again. We refuse to travel any further with El Diablo Blanco. (Once when we were in Guatemala, we rented a little blue paddle boat to go out into the ocean for the afternoon, but its rudder wasn’t quite right and we paddled in circles trying to get back to shore and it was completely maddening…. and we dubbed it El Diablo Azul… henceforth devilish transports are dubbed with the appropriate Diablo color..) Yesterday we almost ran out of gas (diesel) twice as El Diablo Blanco was sucking it down like a Shara sucks beer. We couldn’t even manage highway speeds at times, it struggled and lurched so badly. Then we got a flat tire. Thank goodness we’d taken the initiative to pay for the 2 spares to be fixed after we used the one spare in Kruger. Again, a nice passerby who saw us taking the jack down off the vehicle offered to help, so the job was done quickly.
The truck was still performing horribly and now we were stressing about the integrity of the spare tire. So we were left driving a totally unreliable car at night down a stretch of highway that says, “Do Not Stop. Hijacking Area.” Chatting with the B&B proprietor, we told him it would have been OK for them to steal our car, and he said, “Yeah, if you could get them to leave you alive and just take the car, that’d be alright.” Apparently a lot of hijackers and robbers don’t bother leaving their victims alive any more, easier just to shoot them. It’s very strange in the city: there are multiple strands of electric wire atop metal fences around all the private houses and the B&B, just like at the game parks. Literally, each residence is fenced in exactly like a game park. The B&B guy says he can’t get insurance unless he has the electric wire. The B&B is a stone’s throw away from the soccer stadium in Pretoria. He said during the soccer World Cup, it was great because security was so high, it was perfectly safe to walk around the streets at night and everyone was out and having a good time. “It was like we were living in a First World country instead of a Third World country,” he said. “It was great.” Where we are now in Johannesburg (have moved since I started typing post), all the properties are gated with infrared security beams and everything. The man who is letting us park our camper in his driveway told us simply when we asked about all the heightened security precautions everywhere, “This is Africa!” Hard to know precisely what that implies.
We are couch surfing in Joburg and we’ve got an entire little apartment to ourselves with a full kitchen and everything, so we’ve been able to cook up our camping food. Camping the last few nights was fun, but it's also nice to be back in a civilized room. It’s a completely unreasonable accommodation for a free room and the lady is also providing food and drinks; she fixed us fruit salad for breakfast this morning. Amazing. (couch surfing if you don’t know = stay with people for free in their homes) For those who know that I collect Daphne DuMaurier books, a fun totally random find at a goofy little “antique” (note quotes) shop in Pilgrim’s Rest outside Blyde Canyon. While we were in the shop a group of guys started washing our car, and Erik had to yell to them that the car was a rental and we didn’t care if it was dirty, didn’t want it cleaned and we’re not paying them if they continue washing it. Later, Erik said, “We should have dirted it up again just to void their efforts as we drove out of town.” You have to watch people here just doing things for you which you don’t ask them to and then demanding money of you for their unsolicited efforts.
But really, I just don’t even know what to make of these South Africans. The lady we’re couch surfing with in Johannesburg and her sister and brother-in-law are so nice and chatty; when we returned from an outing into the city yesterday, they invited us to sit outside with them and share some beer and wine. Then they said they couldn’t send us off without cooking us a braai. (South African barbecue…. a national pastime…. generally just a metal grate over charcoal). So at noon the next day they fixed us an entire feast with bap (maize… similar to cream of rice) with tomato/onion sauce and fresh tomatoes and garden greens, rolls, and beef sausage and chicken on the braai. It was completely delicious, and just so nice for these people to fix an entire meal for us!
Then when we asked for directions to the airport, the couple decided to just drive their car to the airport and have us follow them. It was about a 45-minute drive, so 1.5 hours roundtrip for them just to see us safely to the airport.
Once at the airport where we planned to drop off El Diablo Blanco and pick up a new truck (no camper) from a different rental company, as we came to the rental drop-off gate where we’d arranged to dump the Diablo, we found our vehicle was too tall (owing to the camper on top) to fit into the parking lot. We couldn’t turn around but there was a parking lot next to it for temporary bus/shuttle parking so we pulled in there and Erik went in to find the rental company. The rental supervisor bent over 8 ways from backwards to make things as convenient as possible for us; I won’t even list the things he did. But the funniest one was sneaking us out of the bus lot so we wouldn’t have to pay a lot of money for having parked there; he told the lot attendant our plight and he had us run through the gate right behind another vehicle when they left. I don’t know how much more good will we can take. Perhaps something horrendous is about to happen to us to offset it all.
Because of all the hassles we had to deal with exchanging the vehicle, we didn’t have time to do much in Joburg itself. We did go to the SAB “World of Beer” tour. They have a monopoly, basically, on the beer industry in S.A. They brew all the beers here, including the “imports,” that is to say they don’t import beers like Miller, Heineken and Amstel but rather are licensed to brew them themselves here. They had a stat that they bottle something like 40,000 cans of beer a minute in each of several rooms in each of 7 brewery sites in the country. That’s rather nuts. We’ve asked some people about microbrewing and they say it just hasn’t taken off. Apparently everyone is perfectly happy with the SAB line-up. Did a little shopping in stalls in what appeared to be a Muslim quarter of town. Women’s clothing was ridiculously cheap. Good thing the stores were all just starting to close or I might have come home with an entirely new wardrobe.
Went into the rough equivalent of a Chinese medicine pharmacy, but for traditional African medicines, with lots of strange roots and animal parts. It's essentially like a witch doctor's supply store. There was an entire taxidermy baboon, which was quite creepy. Also a wide variety of spears.
We are now friends with Tim the taxi driver, and have his direct number to call when we arrive back in Joburg at the train station and need transport to the airport. Tim seems an unlikely name for a somewhat brash and easily-irate black guy with a healthy afro… perhaps he has some difficult-to-pronounce name in his tribal language and chose Tim (like a lot of Chinese people choose American names for themselves). It made me think of Monty Python’s Holy Grail: Tim the Enchanter.
Cape Town was a bit of a bust due to the unpleasant weather, with clouds, rain, and excessive winds. We had a pleasant enough time but did not get to see the scenery for which the city is so famous. The cableway to Table Mountain was closed both days due to the high winds. We drove along the coast, but could not see very far past the shoreline, though that had its own beauty with the fog and the foaming, frothy waves hitting the shore.
But the one thing I most wanted to see here, I did get to see as planned: the penguin colony. And it was so fun. Penguins for some strange reason have huge personality ... which is weird because they have no real facial expression whatsoever, and yet they just ooze personality and you can put words in their mouths so easily. I like this first photo because of how the penguins were acting. There were about 5 of them who were like a secret club, with very serious business to take care of today. They’d waddle back and forth between an open rock face and the club house. At the rock they’d stand a little apart and be socializing like it was cocktail hour. Then several would go over to the clubhouse and huddle together, heads bent in secret plotting. Each penguin going back and forth between happy hour and clubhouse. I would have liked to stick around to see their mischievous plot put into action.The club house, below:
Back and forth, back and forth, to and from the club house and happy hour, below. Tell me the two guys on the far left in the first photo aren't having a fascinating discussion in a distinguished British accent.
Most of the penguins were actually molting and so were particularly fluffy and feathery ... different than how we're used to seeing them. This guy looks a little embarrassed at his condition.
I can't tell if this guy is giving me the stink eye, or what.
Penguins penguins everywhere! And I've been spotted by this one! Uh-oh. He's looking like he may have sinister intentions.
These are my two favorite penguin shots. The one guy just trundling along the beach, and the other one looking up with her precious little penguin face.
But there are most than just penguins on Boulder Beach. A pair of a pair of birds. :)
Believe it or not there is a “Cape of Good Hope Castle.” Actually it’s just a fort, first established in the mid-1600s. But had a castle-like feel and the visitor can roam about quite freely. And it killed a couple hours during the bleak day. We also checked out some market squares and drove up Signal Hill, which would have had astounding views, but had merely lovely views owing to the low clouds and fog. The wind the last couple days has been Nederland-caliber. We have been taken aback by it, and regrettably left most of our warm clothes back in Joburg because everyone said how lovely the weather would be in Cape Town. D’oh.
Staying now at our second couch surfing pad. This is more like what I was expecting… just a bed in a spare room. But it’s quite hospitable of our hosts, for it is just a tiny 2-bedroom flat with the 2 bedrooms, a bathroom and then one living space with kitchen and living/dining, quite small. So we all sit here together sharing space to both chat and drink and to do our own things (like type up blog reports, while host does internet business and Erik reads a book and the co-host watches TV). So we’re off tomorrow on the train; the primary reason we flew here to Cape Town was in order to take the train back to Joburg, a 26-hour ride. We hear it's the best way to see the interior of the country.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
LOVE the bush. Love nice people, especially when they’re strangers. Hate our truck rental company.
My love of nice people is the result of the diabolically crappy vehicle the truck rental company saddled us with…. they finally showed up with a replacement camper truck that is literally an antiquated POS. However, the one thing we’ve gotten out of all of our troubles with the vehicles, is the opportunity to receive an endless train of kindness and help from strangers. Everyone except the rental company has bent over backward to help us in whatever way their power allows, depending on our current situation. Let me provide some examples:
While in Graskop, the proprietor of our hotel where our battery went dead provided us his jumper cables, external battery charger, made toll phone calls for us on his phone, left his reception desk for extended periods of time to help us, and eventually drove Erik into town in his own vehicle to buy some take-out food for us to eat (there was no eating at the hotel premises and by noon we’d had nothing to eat) and to buy a new battery for the vehicle. We made it to our next campsite inside Kruger and couldn’t get the gas cooking burner to work and had to ask our camping neighbor if he could help, as the tools in the car were so cheap we broke them trying to work on the cooker. An extremely nice fellow helped us.
The following night, one of our tires began leaking at an alarming rate – the pressure valve was broken. So we looked around the car at the tires, to find that the spare tire underneath the car had a nail in it and zero pressure. There was one other spare on the back. Just then a man walked up to us and asked us if we were having any problems. We explained the situation and said we’d probably have to put the one good spare on in the morning. The man just jumped up and started taking down the spare tire and said, “Let’s get this changed!” The car jack on the outside of our vehicle was stuck and we couldn’t unbolt it from the car (again the cheap tools were inadequate), so the guy ran back to his truck and got his equipment. Jacked up the car and pretty much changed the tire by himself. Though Erik tried to help, he pretty much just took over. We offered him and his companions some beer for their kindness and he said, “Why don’t you just bring the beer over and have a seat with us.” So we did, and then his wife set down 2 hot bowls of freshly-made minestrone soup in front of us. So with zero solicitation, they changed our tire and fed us. They were German and told us some great travel tales from their time in Botswana and Zimbabwe. After we finally parted ways and we went back to our truck, I realized we never even exchanged names. So he’s the nameless awesome stranger. I can’t even believe the karmic debt I’ll have to pay back -- if you are a stranger, beware I will have to be excessively nice to you!
Here we are smiling, though Erik looks pretty exasperated.
So anyway, we took another 4x4 route, not quite as adventurous as the last one, but saw some good stuff. We had an amazing experience getting stuck right in the middle of an elephant herd crossing the road on both sides of our truck. We didn’t mean to get caught in the middle, we just stopped to watch some elephants cross in front of us, and before we could continue on, tens of elephants started streaming over the hillside and crossing behind us as well. We’ve had many excellent elephant sightings. Today, for example, as we were exiting the park, we saw a tiny little baby coming to a pond to drink with his family. So darn cute.
Both of the campsites we’ve stayed in during our second stint in Kruger have had hyenas patrolling the perimeter. The first night, in Satara, the hyena seemed to have a particular affinity for us. We were parked right against the fence. He kept lying down right across from us, looking at us like some kind of docile puppy dog. The hyenas at the next camp were much more “hyena-ish” -- large, menacing creatures pacing back and forth, snorting and sniveling.
Our big score was spotting a pair of saddle-billed storks. There was a poster up inside one of the camp reception buildings about them, soliciting help for you to send in any pictures you took and GPS coordinates. There are fewer than 100 inside Kruger park (a very large area) and not many more than that in the whole of South Africa. So it was a fabulous rare sighting. Erik saw them standing on the edge of a small dam and started yelling at me, “It’s them! It’s those saddle-billed birds! It’s them!” He was amusingly excited.
Some other kinds of common birds ... some in focus, some not so much. :-)
Black-backed jackal and wildebeest:
Finally saw a pride of lions yesterday. I was really going to feel disappointed that I hadn’t seen more, but that was a good score. Nearly at the end of the day, so they slipped in at the last minute into my experience here. You can see from the pictures below how incredibly camouflaged the lions are in the late winter/early spring weeds and bushes which haven't yet turned green and are almost the same color as their coats. Due to terrible maps and inadequate signage, we somehow didn’t take the right turn to get back to the road that would take us most expediently to our next camp. All camp gates close promptly at 6pm (dusk). We ended up driving at totally inadvisable speeds, risky to both us and the animals, to make it to camp at precisely 6:00pm. Then found out we were supposed to register at a different camp. This is just a satellite bush camp with no reception or anything. No one had told us this, but the gate keeper (gates had actually already been closed), after a few minutes of skepticism, finally welcomed us in. I mean, what were they going to do? Listen to us getting devoured by lions right outside the camp fence?
In addition to wanting to see lions, I also really wanted to hear them at night. My friend (and excellent writer) who’s traveled a lot in Africa has described her experiences at night listening to the lions and I’ve coveted those experiences ever since I read her accounts. Finally, our last night in the park, at the bush camp, very small and isolated with no electricity, lions bellowed nearby throughout the night and hyenas yipped and yoweled all night also, and an elephant passed by browsing the tree branches just outside the camp’s fence (a very modest affair, this fence, hardly more than the one we had at North Camp on the EW project). It was a warm night and the stars were out; Erik crashed around 10pm but I stayed up until well past midnight sitting on the roof of the truck watching the stars and listening to the lions and hyenas. (and drinking a beer, naturally ….). It was fabulous.
I’ve spent a lot of time in isolation and immersion in the mountains during my life. I’ve always presumed that the feeling and emotional state one gets in these remote places is the same around the world. But being out beneath the stars in the African bush is very different than being beneath the stars at some high altitude lake in Colorado. In the high altitude I realize it’s more about isolation… that you are contending primarily with inanimate forces of nature such as geology, weather, astronomy, things that show you the vastness of space and time. There are few critters around and only the people you are camping with. In the bush, it’s about sharing your space with “life,” with an abundance of animals. It’s not about isolation, rather a kind of communion. Listening to all those powerful animals prowling through the night is a feeling I’ve found nowhere else. In this case, the world doesn’t seem vast at all. You lie there in the middle of all this activity and instinct and evolution, and it’s almost paralyzing, feeling all that perpetual movement – the running of prey and the chasing of predator, the scavenging, the serenading, the sleeping, the stalking.
When I awoke the next morning (today) about 5:45am and realized that I was about to leave the park and the African bush, and who knows when/if I might return, I felt sick to my stomach.
Nelspruit, South Africa
Now we’re at Chimp Eden! This is one of the things I’ve been most looking forward to, as we are big fans of the Animal Planet TV show, Chimp Eden, chronicling the chimps and how they were rescued and brought to the rehabilitation center, a center sponsored by the Jane Goodall Institute. I can’t wait for the tour tomorrow.
This morning we went for a hike in pretty country, still in Swaziland. Part of the area looked like a well-designed rock garden, really amazing. Then drove all the way to a northern exit in Swaziland. From Pigg’s Peak all the way to Bulembu, an area basically deserted, on beautiful road. Some of it rough but the whole way from the border post to Barberton, 40 km, was pristine pavement, gorgeous twisties, and zero traffic. Literally we never encountered another passenger vehicle in either direction. We had crooned over the minimal traffic in Slovakia last year, but traffic in South Africa is an all-together different story. Our experience so far, outside the major urban areas, is no traffic. Traffic isn’t even a meaningful term; better to say simply there are no cars, very very few. Anyway, Erik and I were wiping away the drool from the corners of our mouths thinking about having a sport bike right now to ride the road from Bulembu to Barberton over and over…. What a thing of motorcycling beauty.
The border post there was such a relief from the ones we went through to cross Mozambique and to cross into Swaziland in the south. It was 2 tiny buildings and 3 guys who were bored stiff and were thrilled at the prospect of being able to search someone’s vehicle … though the search didn’t last long at all. On the Swazi side, the immigration officer wrote a note on a piece of paper and asked us to give it to the officer on the South African side. I couldn’t help but read the note while it was in my possession. It said: “The electricity will be off tomorrow between 9:00 and 16:00. You can come over here for more information.” I just found this amusing. I meant to take a picture of the quaint little border post but forgot. We were the only people there, it was so refreshing and simple. Below, the buttery mountains at Bulembu. (Erik said they're so rolling and smooth like butter)
We’ve met very interesting people here at Chimp Eden. One is the proprietor of the hotel (swank and lovely…. we feel very upper class tonight) and one is the bell boy/errand man/waiter. The proprietor was kicked off his family’s game reserve in Zimbabwe, land they had lived on for over 150 years, when the chaos broke out there in the mid-2000s. (If you’re unfamiliar with the events under Mugabe, “When a Croccodile Eats the Sun” is a good book to read.) He and his family darted and loaded up the animals in trucks and drove to a lake on the Zambia border where a friend owned lakefront property. In the middle of the night, they loaded animals on a boat and secretly ferried them across. Now they’ve got a nice reserve in Zambia. But his tale of the trials his family went through in Zimbabwe during the recent Mugabe years and the Wovits campaign, plus the adventure of moving all the animals, and his personal take on animal conservation based on his experiences was all very interesting. It’s great to have conversations with people like that.
The next extended interview came with Robert, the man of all trades of the hotel. A black man of 63 who doesn’t look that old. He comes from a family of 8; his youngest sibling has 11 children, he himself has 10 children. A religious man who seems to be looking forward to moving on into the next life. There was only one other group staying at the hotel, 3 women traveling together, and he entertained the five of us during dinner with some little magic tricks. He obviously relished our confusion. Somehow I doubt the proprietor was aware of his sideline entertaining, but he was pretty tickled to show us his tricks, which he ultimately explained to us how he did them.
Then we saw Cozy! Our favorite chimp. And just exactly like the TV show, he runs around along the fence grunting and clapping his hands together with arms extended.
He and another chimp were throwing nut shells over the fence at us. I got hit twice by the flying objects. Several other chimps we recognized from the TV show also. Unfortunately Animal Planet seems to have canceled the show. Losers. Poor Cozy was an experimental chimp in a medical lab and has obvious brain damage, which makes him a bit wacky and not quite “all there,” but utterly lovable; he seems to be a favorite of pretty much everyone who works with him. He was also castrated. So despite his size and prowess, he will never be an alpha male nor will he ever get any action from the ladies; neither sex of his mates sees him as a male. Sad. Though we know many of the stories of the chimps, the desperate situations from which they were rescued, from having watched the TV show, hearing them again while the chimp is right there in front of you in person doubles the impact. So sad, it’s almost unbearable. Sweet, beautiful, intelligent creatures.
The hotel was amazing. Best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages and the food, particularly dinner, was divine ... with, of course, the entertainment of Robert.The manager was accommodating to no end, as all of the hotel/hostel proprietors have been to date. It’s just a pleasure to stay anywhere so far. Below, some of the other precious chimps at Chimp Eden, so playful, you just want to scoop them up and cuddle them. Look at how in the last chimp pic, he's resting his arm on his foot in the crook between his big toe and the other toes. And finally, the lovely sunset ... another consistent pleasure here in South Africa.