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...


Sam said...

Hey Sam
Welcome back! Sounds like you had a great time in Africa. I love the photos especially of the elephant (thankfully, without the erection).
Hope you had a wonderful NYE and the best to you and Bill in 2009!

Muzzlet said...

WOW!WOW!WOW! TOTALLY AWESOME!!That's what I love about you, completely fearless and willing to try anything!! Sounds like an amazing trip of a lifetime. No wonder you didn't want to be in Detroit in December after that!! I've said it before and I'll say it again: I WANT YOUR LIFE!!! (except for my Mikey, I'd never give him up)

Love ya!!