Into Africa              Home

                     21 Days through

                      South Africa

                                                                                       

Larry raised his bidding paddle at the charity auction and - what do you know?  We're headed to Africa.  I never had a desire to go to Africa.  But here we were after spending two nights on airplanes and a nine-hour layover in London.  (Frequent flyer miles make the long trip from Seattle seem cheap but crazy connections are the price we paid.)  Since Africa is such a long way from home, we figured that we might as well stay for a couple more weeks after the safari week that we "won".  Other people insisted that it would be "a trip to remember."  Three weeks should definitely make it memorable - one way or another.  We knew nothing about what kind of safari week we were getting into; but, after doing some reading and spending a lot of time on the Internet, we had a plan that would also include the Garden Route, Capetown and the nearby Winelands.

Our plane connection in Johannesburg, known to be a big and somewhat crime infested city, was short and we landed in Durban on the northeast coast.  From there we rode for over 3 hours in the safari company's van to arrive at our destination, Zulu Nyala reserve.  We were glad to be sharing the ride with another couple also from Washington state.  They had already been down south in Capetown for several days gathering some wine for their safari adventure.  Things were looking up already.

          

We drove for miles on excellent, smooth highways through sugar cane farms stretching as far as the eye could see.  Then there were vast acres of tall, straight trees having been planted in neat rows.  Our driver informed us that they were eucalyptus trees grown for fence posts, paper and some structural uses.  It reminded me of the truck farms in our own Midwest.

 

 

 

By the time we reached the dirt road to the game lodge, it was getting dark, but our apprehension was quickly overcome by excitement as our headlights illuminated several beautiful zebras crossing the road before us.  We settled into our room, which overlooked a pool and the countryside.

7:30 seemed awfully early the next morning for our first safari drive, but it was worthwhile when we saw our first impalas and small nyalas, the plentiful deer-like animals for which this Zulu Nyala game reserve was named.  There is also a large warthog population.  Soon, we were referring to those fat little, fast-footed creatures as "bacon-bacon." 

Several of us wanted to drive into "town" (Hluhluwe - pronounced shu-shu-wee) for wine or sundries.  After that, it was lunchtime and then another safari drive.  We saw our first hippo, Tripod, who made a habit of resting in a particular pond.  He didn't appreciate our arrival, though, and climbed up the hill to glare at us.

            

Ken pointed out fresh elephant dung, then proceeded to climb down, scoop it up and show us the dung beetle which helps to compost this fibrous manure.

Next, it was two monitor lizards mating in the water and then one he sighted on the road so that we could get a closer look.

We stopped at a building that had been the movie set for "Dreaming of Africa."  We vowed to rent the video when we got home.  The building is no longer used and it was fun to see how much better it looked even in our own pictures than it really did in actuality.

Dinner included nyala stew, which was very good even though it was hard to think of those cute animals as stew meat.  In life's food chain, they supply us as well as the wild animals in the area.  The night ended with an energetic dance performance by some local Zulus and a nightcap of Bailey's produced a taste comparison with the local version called Amurula.  Everyone except the dancers were tired after this full day.

In the morning it was time to spot more animals such as the Cape Buffalo, giraffe, Black Rhino, zebras, guinea fowl and more nyalas.

Ranger Ken hopped out to catch a Golden Orb Spider for our closer examination and then to fetch some African milkweed.  He demonstrated how fire ants swarm over their nest up in the tree when disturbed and pointed out the blue tailed lizard on a rock.

We saw our first elephants in the afternoon.  With a little one between us and its mama, the mother raised her trunk to check us out and to consider if she needed to scare us away.  We moved away willingly.

Another such moment came when a rhino looked us square in the eye, but he decided to move on before we did.  I appreciated that.

Dinner featured roast leg of warthog, which proved to be fairly tough.  Another night later, however, it was slow cooked and tender.  The food was good and plentiful at the camp.  We did our best to try everything and gained a few pounds in the process.  The meaty bacon, which we very rarely eat at home, was too good to pass up each morning.  Broiled tomatoes seemed plentiful and were a staple each morning, also.  I liked the squash and we never passed up the desserts, of course.

Larry and I moved to another nearby compound owned by the same company so that we could experience staying at the Heritage Tent Camp as well as the Game Lodge.  Well, it turned out to be basically an upscale stucco bungalow with canvas roof and windows.  This is definitely my style of tent camping!  Hot showers and cool breezes through the screened windows with zebras walking across the front yard!

While I packed and moved our things, Larry went with our fellow compatriots to the St. Lucia Estuary on the coast.  It is a huge (656 sq. miles) nature preserve where he toured a small part of the lagoon, seeing a number of hippos lounging in the water with only their eyes and noses visible.  There were lots of birds also and a number of crocodiles.  I was happy to have some time to rest and do a bit of reading beside the pool.  It had been very quiet at the other lodge, but this day was interrupted by the constant mooing of cattle that were being rounded up on the neighboring cattle ranch.  Previously, all of this land had been used as cattle range until tourism became an alternate profit center.  Now, a number of private photo safari camps have sprung up after the government starting seeing the advantage of protecting the native wildlife for tourism dollars.  Entrepreneurs are regulated as to the minimum land area required for certain animal populations and private reserves are encircled by electric fences to maintain their wild animal populations.  The leopard is one species that does not respect the fence lines, though, because of its ability to climb trees and jump high boundaries.  We failed to see the one leopard that is supposed to reside on this reserve that is bordered by many miles of fence.  We saw lots of other wonderful animals, though.  Larry and I both took tons of pictures and it is hard to pick just a few to share.

I particularly loved the giraffes.  Their size and majesty was always breathtaking.

We caught sight of the single and elusive blesbok hiding amongst a herd of impalas and wilderbeasts were occasionally seen grazing with the zebras.

Next to the last night, our group gathered for a "sundowner" atop a scenic bluff.  A bit of wine, beer and snacks combined with the sunset view to create a fitting celebration for an eventful week spent with wonderful company.

Our last challenge was to spot a lion and we succeeded beyond our hopes on the last day.  We saw another vehicle stopped off the road and joined it to find that they were watching a lion that they had seen come across the field.  The male lion was crouched behind tall grass eyeing a nearby zebra.  Expectantly, we waited for quite some time, hoping to see him leap out into the field.  Thankfully, we soon decided to move on, because we learned later that the other vehicle waited for four hours but the lion stayed put behind the grass.

Larry and I couldn't bear to miss the last dinner with our group back at the Game Lodge, so Ranger Ken was kind enough to provide transportation for us between camps.  It had truly been a memorable and enjoyable six days and we wondered how the next two weeks could possibly be as much fun.

thus our safari ended…

Durban-

Another three-hour ride found us back in Durban and settled into the Beach Hotel at the heart of the "Golden Mile".  In the summertime the Golden Mile might look a bit more golden with more amusement centers in operation and the beachfront pools filled with water.  This Fall it looked a bit dowdy and in need of paint.  Crafts vendors had stalls set up along the sidewalk, so there was a lot of stuff to look at as we strolled past all the hotels that face the long beach. 

Our hotel room was adequate but nothing outstanding.  There were many other hotels nearby - some fancier, some not so.  We checked out several and decided to have a nice dinner next door at the Balmoral Hotel where all the waiters wore formal black attire and the tables were set with white linens and fine stemmed glasses.  We had a very lovely dinner complete with wine for a total of only $53.  This was the case throughout our visit.  We ate very well (and too much) for very little money.  South Africa is indeed one of the few vacation spots which remains a bargain for Americans with our depreciated dollar. 

Before dinner, we happened to run into Ranger Ken and his wife relaxing with a beer and a bite to eat near our hotel.  They were visiting friends nearby during a few days of time away from work.  They insisted on picking us up the next day to take us to a couple places we had decided that we wanted to see.  Ken had previously repeatedly warned all of us Americans about the possibility of being crime victims and I think that they wanted to make sure that our visit was a safe and pleasant one.  We gratefully accepted their invitation and the next day they drove us to the Victoria Street Market.  We would have had a hard time finding it ourselves, because it's entrance was almost unrecognizable amongst the crowd of signs and people in downtown Durban.  Inside were over 100 stalls with goods that appeal specifically to Durban's vast Indian population.  Upstairs, we found some of the best quality stone and woodcarvings that we would see in South Africa.  I was sorely tempted to buy a four-foot tall giraffe, but we settled for several bags of curry and other Indian spices instead.  The Workshop, housed in a huge renovated railway building and touted as Durban's premier shopping experience, was our next stop.  In just a few hours, we covered a range of shopping from street vendors to upscale boutiques. 

That afternoon, we set out on our own (using our hotel's own taxi and keeping his cell number for the return trip) to the Umgeni River Bird Park.  The 3,000 birds housed there were fun to see but perhaps not the best choice for our limited time in Durban.  We were left with only time enough for one more elegant, inexpensive and memorable dinner, this time at the Protea Edward Hotel just a few steps from our own hotel. 

The next morning, I felt it impossible to leave town without walking the renowned beach of Durban and enjoying the warm water of the Indian Ocean.  However, since May is past Africa's summer season, I settled for sticking my toe in the water before leaving for the airport.  Perhaps a longer visit and a formal tour of Durban would have impressed us with more admirable aspects of Durban, but we found (as usual) the smaller towns and friendly people such as Ken and his wife to be what we remember most fondly. 

Now we were truly on our own!  We picked up the Hertz car we had reserved as well as a rental cell phone at the airport.  The cell phone was not very expensive and came in handy for calling to inquire or confirm lodging.  It also gave us a comforting (perhaps false sense of) security in case we ran into any trouble. 

Larry rose to the challenge of driving on the left side of the street while I silently cringed for the first few moments (days??).  We managed to find the Victoria and Albert B&B that I had reserved via the Internet and it turned out to be just as charming as pictured.  Between looking for a good restaurant, remembering to "keep left" and trying to follow a poor map, it took us a while to finally decide where to eat dinner.  We drove into what turned out to be a complex that reminded us of Disneyland.  There were several restaurants and lots of shops surrounding a pond as well as a casino and the "34 South" restaurant where we ate.  Their special was "34 for 34".  I had my doubts about that shrimp dinner, whose cost was less than $5, but I decided to try it anyway.  I was amazed as I devoured all the medium sized, perfectly grilled shrimps - all 34 of them.  They were delicious!  We decided to search out the only other "34 South" restaurant, conveniently located for us in Knysna, a town we would be visiting on the Garden Route.

After a lovely breakfast, we wished that we could stay longer at the charming B&B, but we headed out along N2, the scenic highway that runs along the southeast coast.  Along the way, we just had to check out the Bloukrans Bridge bungy jump.  At over 216 meters, it is the highest bungy jump in the world and, no, we didn't have the nerve to try it.  I was tempted to try the sling ride to the middle of the bridge, but we maintained our spectator image and took pictures of someone else jumping instead.  Larry's zoom lens came in handy.  They offer participants a video showing their whole experience from getting strapped up, to jumping, to getting hauled back up to the platform beneath the bridge deck.  We congratulated the last jumper after watching his feat and shared in his excitement.

Enjoying the scenery and lunch at the tiny, unassuming Pearl restaurant in Plettenburg Bay was all the excitement we needed.  Larry ordered the bibote, a traditional African dish; I had a simple quiche.  Both were served with style and graciousness.

We arrived in Knysna in time to book a sunset cruise on the lagoon after using our rented phone to call around for lodging.  We decided on the Hideaway B&B.  Once again, we found a clean, charming establishment run by congenial hosts.  We had been told that B&B's are plentiful in South Africa and we found this to be the case.  It's always a good way to find out about an area by talking with the proprietors.  Knysna is indeed a delightfully lovely town populated by many retirees.  The huge lagoon experiences strong tidal flushing through a dangerous and narrow channel between two tall bluffs called The Heads.  Because of the strong tidal action, the lagoon is very clean and is a renowned location for farming oysters.  It is also a scenic location for the many boats people enjoy sailing on the large lagoon.  Neat restaurants and shops line the charming marina.

Of course, I couldn't leave Knysna without trying their oysters!  We went to the local hangout, The Oyster Catcher, to compare their wild oysters with the farmed ones.  Their wild ones have cupped shells; the farmed Pacifics are the same flatter ones as we farm here in the Puget Sound.  They serve them with fresh lemon and the waitress had trouble understanding why I would want cocktail sauce.  But she didn't happen to like oysters anyway; she said she just worked there.

I heartily recommend visiting Oudtshoorn, even though you may never figure out how to pronounce the name.  A visit to one of the many ostrich farms is worthwhile.  You'll find out more than you can imagine about these beguiling animals with a brain less than the size of its eye.  Its eggs, which measure over 5 inches and weigh 24 times as much as a chicken's egg are hard enough for the 300-pound mother bird to sit on (See me standing on them?) but the hatching baby bird still manages to break through.  Curio shops display the many artistic things that Africans have done with the eggs.  You can even ride an ostrich, which we did.  We passed on competing with the racing jockeys, though.

The nearby Cango Caves are another worthwhile stop.  Evidence shows that they were inhabited by early stone age people over 15,000 years ago but rediscovered only in 1760.  The Cango Caves have been at the forefront of tourism in South Africa since that time, but it was only in the late 1990's that a new entrance and interpretive center made a part of this 4 mile complex readily accessible. 

I have to mention the B&B that we chose in Oudtshoorn.  It is, without a doubt, the most funky that I have ever seen.  Bright yellow walls with ostrich boas and vintage gowns decorating the reception area, bedrooms of antique furniture and a fireside breakfast with silver service and old 78 rpm records for placemats make it definitely unique!  It was right downtown, just next door to the best craft shop we found and appropriately named "Nostaglia".  What a hoot!

We were in a hurry to make the 4 ½ hour drive to Capetown, so we grabbed the South African version of McDonald's and had a burger, fries and milkshake at the Steers chain.  Route 62 wound up being absolutely lovely, reminding us of home with the mountains and evergreens and lush valleys.  This route is also called "The Brandy Route," but we unfortunately lacked time to explore that aspect.

Capetown and the Winelands-

                                                                                            

The next day was clear and we took off for Table Mountain.  Unfortunately, we took a wrong turn and wound up near the huge Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, which we had wanted to visit anyway.  While there, we saw good examples of the King Protea, the national flower of South Africa.

We got so carried away enjoying the tour guided by a sweet, retired gentleman who truly loved this rambling garden that the clouds came over Table Mountain.  Our change of plans took us down the peninsula south of town to see the penguin colony I had read about.  Can you believe there are penguins in Africa?!  They reside and nest in Boulders (you can see the reason for the place name) just past the picturesque eastside Simon's Town.  Well, the penguins were even more beguiling than the ostriches!  Lots more clicks of the camera!

Finally, it looked like a clear day, but as we drove toward Table Mountain, the clouds drifted by.  Nevertheless, by the time we climbed the curvy road up to the gondola station, the weather looked promising and we spent the whole day treking around this unusual high altitude habitat of over 1,400 plant species.  From there, one can overlook Capetown on one side and the Atlantic coast on the other side.  Our congenial guides pointed out geological oddities and relayed tales of suicides and accidents as I stumbled over boulders near chasms of rock. 

We drove home past the affluent suburbs of Capetown on the peninsula's west coast, stopping in Camps Bay for a delectable feast of grilled fish, shrimp and the best tiny calamari I had ever had.

Baboons are one of the few animals that thrive at Cape Point and signs warn visitors not to feed them because they can get very aggressive.  We witnessed that when we entered the parking lot located at the base of the funicular railway which takes you to the lookout point.  Workmen wandered around with long sticks just as the waiters did when we entered the restaurant at the top of the railway.  As we were eating on the fenced terrace, we heard a shriek from a nearby table when a customer's fish fillet was snatched from her plate by a sneaky and lightening-fast baboon.  Obviously, the baboons think that human food is worth the risk of jumping over fences and getting hit with a long stick!  The birds enjoyed the terrace dining also.

We managed to squeeze in a few more wineries - Graham Beck, Backsberg, Fairview, Seidlberg, Eikendal, Kaapzicht and Simonsig.  To get more information about the individual wineries, you'll just have to get it from Larry.  Many of the winery buildings were outstanding architecturally.  Landscape settings were always impressive, the staff people were always pleasant.  Quite often, they charged for tastings, but the cost varied from only 50 cents to $7 and the pours were generous.  Many wineries also had lovely restaurants.  Fairview produces a number of excellent cheeses as well as fine wines.  Unfortunately, only their cheapest wine is seen widely in the U.S. with the tongue-in-cheek title of "Goats Do Roam".  They do indeed have goats as indicated by their cheese production as well as by the tower which sits in the middle of their lawn.

We found a lot of good wine.  In fact, we got a couple boxes with Styrofoam packing for bottles and brought a number of samples back with us.  We even found some good pinotage to go with the South African dinners we plan to serve.  This is yet another area of South Africa which would be fun to explore for a longer period of time.

Needless to say, we enjoyed the food and wine in South Africa.  The safari was a wonderful experience and we enjoyed the people we met and the sights and scenery that we saw.  We touched upon many places that we would like to have explored in more depth.  Since we now know of many places that we did not even get to, we have created a desire to see more. 

It truly was a "trip to remember."

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