December 29, 2008

South Africa Travelogue - The Final Installment

We had made reservations for the next three nights at The White Elephant Lodge, a place that was recommended by a friend, Lizabeth Hayes, who had also recommended Chapungu (so we knew it would be fabulous). But it's in the Pongola Game Reserve and it would have taken us three or four hours to drive there so at the last minute we decided to see if we could find someplace closer.
With the help of Mariliesh and Brendan, lodge managers at Chapungu, we found several great-sounding options. We chose Simbambili which is in the Sabi Sands area and is a five star property. Mariliesh had worked there and said it is stunning. She was right. Here's our room, our bathroom and our private porch (complete with pool) overlooking the water hole where buffalo and rhino and elephants roam. Three of the Big Five right outside our door. Well, not RIGHT outside, but close enough.

Our drive to Sabi Sands was a little harrowing. Much of it was on very bumpy dirt roads where there were only cows and an occasional shack. The road was so bad in places that it sounded as if the wheels were going to come off, and I had visions of getting a flat tire with no one and nothing close by, and the two of us waiting for days, dehydrated and emaciated in the heat, for help to come (my overactive imagination). But we made it, safe and sound, all four tires intact.
We arrived in time for late lunch, just before the afternoon game drive. When we walked over to the restaurant area there were two couples listening to the guide, each sitting at their own table, (unlike at Chapungu where meals were always taken at one long table which would accommodate everyone) and only the guide said hello as we sat and were served our lunch. Very different atmosphere from what we were used to, more geared toward couples and romance, and I think at that moment we were both a little sorry we'd left Chapungu.
Another couple came just before the drive, so we were eight; Andy and Emma from
London (right), Winston and Dolores from Singapore, and Mete and Belkis from Istanbul, a very international group. Harry (below left) was our guide, Mamps (right) was our tracker.
The topography at Sabi Sands is completely different from Thornybush - much more vast with taller trees, making it harder to find animals. We saw a leopard on that first drive, and tracked some lions for a while but didn't find them. It was a fairly disappointing drive but we happily discovered that the group was very witty and fun, and when we got back that night for dinner we asked the staff to put the tables together so we could all chat. We had a very fun and interesting conversation (much of it about Barack Obama and George Bush, which everyone, the world over has an opinion on) until nearly midnight.
Up at 5 the next morning and back into the routine of game drive, eating, sleeping, game drive, eating, etc. It may seem as if this would get boring, to do the same thing every day, two game drives a day for six days, but it's not. Every day is different, what you see and how you see it, that you don't want to miss a minute of it. At least we didn't. There were days I considered sleeping in and not going on the morning drive but who knew what magic I might miss. There'd be plenty of time for sleeping when I got home.

Some game drive highlights of the next couple days: the elephant who pooped and then got an impressive erection. Here are some pictures, one of him pooping (!) but unfortunately not of the erection.

We saw a mother hyena with two pups, a wonderful giraffe family, zebra, wildebeests with babies, lots of birds, a leopard tortoise...and much more. It was all awesome and very beautiful.
Here's a picture of Mete in front of a termite mound. These mounds were everywhere and were sometimes even bigger than this one.
On Thursday morning we packed up and had breakfast before leaving to drive back to Johannesburg for our veeeeeerrry long trip home. As we were packing, monkeys came to play on our porch and look in at us.
When we checked into Simbambili we were told not to leave our door open because monkeys would come in and trash the room. We hadn't seen any all the while we were there until that last morning. Clearly they wanted in. There was a whole family playing around in the trees and on the furniture, even taking a drink from our pool. They kept looking at us, hoping, I think, that we'd open the door. It was very funny.
So then we drove to Johannesburg. Claire drove the first leg and, feeling very confident with her driving skills, passed a couple of cars that were going pretty slow. Lo and behold, she drove right into a speed trap and we were pulled over. The officer asked for her license and then told her she was doing 85 (kilometers) in a 65 and that the fine was 750 Rand (about $75.00). She was expected to pay it on the spot. She said, "I don't think I have 750 Rand," and the officer said, "How much do you have?" She told him 300 and he said, "Maybe your friend can help you." So I whipped out my wallet and we could come up with 750 but then we'd have no money left to put gas in the car. When we explained that to the officer he said ok and left us 100 Rand for gas. Could we have bargained more? Who knew. It was a very strange experience.

When we got closer to Jo'burg we stopped at an oasis to change our clothes for dinner. Claire decided to get a little more cash to be sure we had enough for gas and when she was at the ATM she got her cash but no receipt. A man came up and said, "Is it working?" Claire said yes, but that she hadn't gotten her receipt. So he gets all involved and tells her how to get the receipt and takes her ATM card and jams it into the machine and she had to put in her PIN and now I see him watching her put in her PIN and we're both getting scared by this time. It's what they warn you about in all the guidebooks. Don't let anyone near you at an ATM. Don't accept help from anyone at an ATM. Well, some data prints on the screen, but now Claire's cancelling everything and just trying to get her card back and finally she does and we get the hell out of there, feeling immensely stupid and gullible. When she got home she found that there had been $2400 worth of fraud on her account. How he did that we have no idea - he didn't have the card, even if he had the PIN, but somehow he did it. She fortunately resolved the issue with her bank and didn't have to pay any of it. I know I, for one, always assume people are trying to be helpful. I always trust first. Big lesson learned.

In Jo'burg we had dinner at a restaurant called Brown's which was very lovely; good food, beautiful setting. And then we went to the airport and just barely made it to our gate on time (even tho we got to the airport a little more than two hours ahead of time). But...we did. Too much excitement for one day.

We flew from Jo'burg to Paris (10 hours), had a layover of an hour and a half and then flew from Paris to Chicago, another 10 hours. Whew! Very long flights. By the time we landed in Chicago we were both nearly beside ourselves with cabin fever. But it was all worth it. The trip was so amazingly wonderful, it wouldn't matter how long it took to get there. South Africa is a magical, beautiful, amazing place. We didn't even scratch the surface with all there is to do and see there and I hope someday to go back. If you have any desire to see that part of the world, do it. It's the experience of a lifetime.

So long for now...

December 21, 2008

South Africa Travelogue Part 5

Saturday, Dec. 6: 5:00 a.m. and someone comes and knocks on our door and calls, "Ladies, time to get up." Cool wake up call, very home-y, don't you think? But very early. How can you not want to get up, tho, to go on a game drive? It's not as if I can do that in Chicago.
After coffee/tea/hot chocolate and some biscuits that could break your teeth we went out on the morning game drive with Robin, Liz, Sondra and Daniel. We saw white-backed vultures,
impala, wildebeest, mongoose, warthog...and then we went around a curve in the road and there was a lion asleep on the road. A LION.
It was the most amazing sight. He was about five feet from us. Eugene, our guide, said he was old, about 14, but he was magnificent. He'd wash himself a little, then sleep, then look around, then lick his genitals,
then sleep. Just like my cat, Kobe, only bigger. Then he finally got up and walked away.
THEN...we saw a mama cheetah and three cubs. Oh, they were fabulous. Eugene followed them into the bush, knocking down trees with the land rover (something that's done a lot on game drives but never ceased to amaze me) and when we found them she'd just killed an impala and they were having breakfast. Incredible.
After the morning game drive we went back to the lodge for a huge breakfast and then we were free until a late lunch at 3:00 and then the afternoon game drive. This was our routine for the next few days.

Caroline and Luc from Paris arrived in the afternoon and were a great addition to the group. We had such lively conversations, lots of laughs, no one was obnoxious, no assholes (there's almost always at least one in every group), just lots of fun.
After Saturday night's game drive we had seen four of the Big Five (the Big Five are lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo but we hadn't seen elephants yet) so on Sunday morning Eugene was determined to find elephants. We drove way down to the southern part of the reserve and lo and behold, there were elephants, about five of them chowing down on a tree.
After lunch Robin and Liz left and so did Sondra and Daniel. We were so sorry to see them go. They were all delightful.
Two Indian couples (from Dubai) arrived in time for the afternoon drive. We were still grieving over the departure of our friends but sucked it up and welcomed Ravi, Bindhu,Kartik and Veena and found them all to be charming. Still no assholes - imagine!
Highlights of the evening game drive: 1. The mother cheetah with her three cubs. She looked around and ran off across the bush and the cubs stayed put and waited.
It was as if she'd said, "Ok, stay here. I'll give you a signal when I want you to follow me."
So they sat and looked around (ignoring us) and made little squeaking sounds, like little birds. And Mama must have given a signal because all of a sudden they got up and trotted across the bush to go to her. She must have gone after something but when we got to them she didn't have a kill.
Highlight 2. The dung beetle (this is a stock photo of a dung beetle - my camera just couldn't capture the little guy). I love this creature! Eugene told us that the males form these balls of dung (any old dung will do) and then they take them to the female by rolling them (the dung balls are sometimes 2.5 times their weight) and the one with the biggest dung ball wins the female. Kartik said, "Oh, kind of like the guy with the most money." Hah! Then the female lays her eggs in the dung ball. Amazing.
Highlight 3. The red-crested korhaan. He was just wandering around. Eugene said, "Watch this," and he gunned the engine until the bird started its mating call (what is it about the sound of an engine that sends a bird into a mating call?), then it started running, took off, flew up, and about 30 feet in the air he did a spin and then free-fell for 25 ft. and then finally opened his wings just before hitting the ground, and landed. It was the most incredible sight. We were all stunned, ooh'ing and aah'ing. Kartik caught some of it on video so if he sends it to me I'll post it. It's very funny.
This lovely routine continued (eat, game drive, eat, sleep, eat, game drive, eat..., oh, and drinking was in there as well) until Monday evening when we had to say goodbye to our new friends.

Tuesday a.m. we were leaving early to drive to our next game reserve in Sabi Sands.
Stay tuned...more to come.

December 19, 2008

South Africa Travelogue Part 4

The weather was so beautiful on Thursday, December 4th. Actually it was great the whole time we were in South Africa - only two days of a little rain - but it was particularly nice on Thursday, and a great day for a drive. So after a lavish breakfast at our guest house (The Trevoyan) we drove the scenic Cape route which was spectacularly gorgeous and goes down to the Cape of Good Hope.The scenery along the way was breathtaking, and we stopped at Boulders Beach which is a haven for penguins, hundreds of them sunning themselves on the rocks.

Such cute little creatures, waddling around and flopping on their bellies. When we got down to Cape Point we climbed up to the lighthouse for an amazing view of the southernmost tip of the continent.
Later, back in Cape Town, we had dinner at a restaurant called Miller's Thumb which was walking distance from our guest house. It was a little funky and very cute with great good.
On Friday we got up at 3:30 a.m. to catch a 6:00 a.m. flight to Johannesburg. Got into Jo'burg at 8:00 a.m., got our car, GPS and cell phone, and headed out for Chapungu Lodge in the Thorny Bush Game Reserve, adjacent to Kruger National Park, a little less than 500 km away. I don't mind that we drove, altho it was very long and most of it was pretty boring (looking much like Iowa), but if someone asked I'd say, fly. The drive took us about seven hours. Lots of people (travel agents, friends, people on the Fodor's website) said it wasn't safe for us to drive but we never had a safety issue, just a boredom issue.
When we finally got to Thorny Bush and were driving into the game reserve toward Chapungu Lodge we saw giraffes, zebra and buffalo, just off the road. Amazing. We arrived at the lodge about 4:00 and were personally greeted by Mariliesh and Brendan, the lodge managers, who warmly welcomed us, and turned out to be so helpful and accommodating. They showed us to our luxury tent which was FABULOUS (see my previous post titled "Luxury Tent is Not an Oxymoron")
where we dropped our bags, they gave us some lunch, then drove us (and Daniel and Sondra from Switzerland (right) who had come in just after us) out to hook up with the afternoon game drive. Robin and Liz (below), from Johannesburg, were already on the Land Rover.

We saw wildebeest and impala, and then we came across a leopard, sleeping by a tree. We got within 10 feet of it. Amazing.
The first time you see animals like that, in the wild, up close and personal, it takes your breath away.
We continued on through the bush, then we stopped in a clearing where Eugene, our guide, and Service, our tracker (pronounced Ser veese), brought out snacks and cocktails. Very civilized.
We got back to the lodge about 7:30, freshened up and met for cocktails and dinner at 8:00. Everyone eats together, which is really great and encourages people to get to know each other and talk about the day's events. And we had a fablulous group who were all friendly and witty and much fun. A lovely dinner was served outside (on fine china with cloth napkins) on the patio under a thatched roof.

And then we fell into bed in our luxury tent with the sounds of the bush all around us, and slept like the dead. In spite of getting up at an ungodly hour and driving an ungodly distance, it was a heavenly day.
Stay tuned...more to come.

December 18, 2008

South Africa Travelogue Part 3

On Monday, Dec. 1st, we went on a whale watching boat tour with 15-20 other people and our guide, Christopher, who was quite a character who had six children, he told us.
We saw 8 or 10 whales, pretty close up, and it was amazing but we never did see one breech. Too bad they don't perform on command.
Afterwards we went into town (Hermanus) for a gelato and then bought a couple bottles of wine (about $5.00 each) and sat on our patio at the dreaded Hermanus Beach Club and drank with our neighbors Paddy and Sandra from Cape Town. They were there on holiday and couldn't believe we were going back and forth to Cape Town as if it were down the street.
Had dinner at the Fisherman's Cottage Restaurant. We had an avocado, feta and tomato salad, a fried camembert appetizer with an ugly, snotty-looking sauce, and a seafood curry dish that was spicy and delicious.
Tuesday we had our favorite breakfast at The Zebra Crossing and then drove back to Cape Town to Stellenbosch which is wine country and where all the wineries are. They call them wine farms. I love that. The town of Stellenbosch is very charming, lots of beautiful shops and restaurants.
We went to the Spier Winery and had a lovely lunch on the patio - I had a smoked salmon trout salad (yum) and Claire had a cheese platter, and of course we had wine. Afterwards we did some tasting. And then we went to Ernie Els' wine farm which was just gorgeous. The grounds, the was spectacular. We did a little tasting there too, but mostly we spit because we had to drive home from there. It's a shame, isn't it, to spit out wine?
Back in Hermanus that evening we went to dinner at Season, a very new and lovely restaurant that someone had told us about. It was beautiful with delicious food and a warm and welcoming atmosphere. I know you want to know what we ate, don't you? We shared the poached pear salad with blue cheese, walnuts and pancetta. Claire had tuna loin for her entree, I had chicken on couscous with apricots (lovely), and we shared a trio of chocolates for dessert. Also I had a double shot of vodka, Claire had wine and for dessert an Irish coffee. This meal cost us $36 including tip. Not per person. For both of us. In the states, what? $125, minimum.
On Wednesday we packed up (Tuesday was our last night at The Hermanus Beach Club - yippee!) and drove to Cape Town after breakfast to spend two nights before heading to Kruger. On the drive there was a family of monkeys just wandering by the side of the highway - about six or eight of them. Very funny to see.
We stayed at The Trevoyan Guest House which is incredibly lovely. We had a beautiful room with all the amenities. The grounds and common areas were gorgeous, with a beautiful pool and a lovely screened porch where we ate breakfast. $120 U.S. per night.
Here's the entry to our room:
It was on Gilmoure Hill Road off of Kloof Nek and was right down the street from The Chocolate House which had an amazing selection guessed it...chocolate.
We wandered around Cape Town, had a sandwich at a bakery, and just explored.
Later we went to Camps Bay, an upscale beach community with white sand beaches and rows of restaurants and shops. We ate at a restaurant called Tuscany which was ok, not great, and cost $60 for both of us, the most expensive meal so far.
Stay tuned...more to come.

December 16, 2008

South Africa Travelogue Part 2

So on Sunday I was so happy because I finally had my mousse and hairspray which had been in my lost baggage, and now I could finally do my hair which is essential because otherwise it just looks like a limp dishrag on my head. So Sunday morning I excitedly plugged the hair dryer into the adapter I had to buy (which never occurred to me before I left) and the dryer blows. And I don't mean it blows hot air, although it did, for about 7-1/2 seconds, and then it blew up, completely useless, kaput. Great. So you can imagine what my hair looked like all day (whatever pictures were taken of me that day have already been deleted).
So we went to Pick 'n Pay which is a disgusting place, like K-Mart gone wild, with mobs of people and long lines where cashiers sitting on chairs check you out, and I buy a new hair dryer which I happily take back to our place, pull it out of the box and the damn plug doesn't fit into the socket. What's up with that? How is it you can buy an appliance that doesn't fit into an electrical outlet??? It's the never-ending saga of my hair. Fascinating, I know.
So back to Pick 'n Pay we go to buy ANOTHER adapter, a big honking thing that I never used again. I kept trying to leave it in the next three places we stayed but people are so nice that they went out of their way to return it to me. It was very funny. I finally left it in the rental car the day we left.
Ok, relax, I'm through with stories about my hair.
On Sunday we had breakfast at an outdoor cafe on the water's edge in Hermanus and then drove to Cape Town to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens which is about 1300 acres of indigenous South African plants and is amazingly gorgeous.

We wandered around for a few hours, shopped in the lovely gift shop and then had a fabulous snack at the Garden Restaurant. We sat outside - it was a gorgeous day - and had a glass of wine and shared a spring roll stuffed with butternut squash and Danish feta. Heavenly.
After that we went to Victoria Wharf at Cape Town and wandered around a bit before driving back to Hermanus.
Later we had dinner at a restaurant called Annie se Kombuis (Annie's Kitchen) which was fabulous South African cuisine. We had a tasting platter of six different things which I can't remember and couldn't pronounce anyway but it was mouth-wateringly delicious, and the place was lovely, like a French bistro. was a lovely day.
Stay tuned for part 3.