Monday, November 23, 2009

South Africa

My first visit to the African continent (not counting a week in the Sinai 25 years ago) was completed with the accompanyment of my 3 sisters. For those of you without sisters, you don't know what you're missing! My sister Lois flew to Toronto from Columbus, Ohio, and met up with myself and my older sister Kathy. We repacked together and got us all down to one carry-on bag each. No small feat for a 19 day journey!

After a 30 hour trip with a layover in the Amsterdam airport, we arrived safely in Johannesburg, or Jo'burg as it's affectionately called. We were greeted by our hotel taxi and safely escorted back to the hotel at midnight on a Saturday night. We were led through the gated community that surrounds the hotel compound, and past the high, barbed wire fences. Persons clearly are afraid for their personal security in this highly urbanized and affluent neighbourhood.

Despite our sleeping challenges, we awoke early and spent a jam-packed day on a tour of Soweto. We became immersed in the history and the stories of this township as we accompanied our guide to the Hector Pearson Museum to commemorate the student protest, Nelson Mandella's matchbox house his family was given post-apartheid, Winnie Mandella's house, and eventually the Apartheid Museum. The whole tour focused mostly on the work of Nelson Mandella and his role in bringing down the apartheid laws. We learned that many of these laws were really in effect only for a couple of decades, but were set up to give British and Africaans a leg up in the tight financial times post World World I.

The last thing we did was tour a Soweto shantytown. The one we visited was quite clean, organized, and safe, and had a volunteer guide show us around and inside one family's house. Donations given to him were handed over to the group's education and health fund. Basically, it was a community of shacks for persons waiting for the ANC to come through on their promise to give every black family in South Africa their own small house. They have already given 700,000, but many of the families we met have been waiting for up to 8 years for theirs. And there are even more illegal immigrants from Mozambique and Zimbabwe coming over every year hoping to also get houses, so the wait is endless. In the meantime, the children are going to school and the community is trying to keep the drugs and violence out, but it's tough. It's hard to imagine all shantytowns disappearing.

Early the next day, we were picked up by charter bus and delivered to Marc's Treehouse, a rustic safari experience for adventurers. We stayed just outside of the famous Kruger National Park in a private Big 3 (no cats) game reserve. Our first afternoon, we met our game drive guide, an engaging and experienced South Africa guy, who drove us around close to home and showed us lots of impala and interesting trees and plants. We socialized with the other adventurers over a family-style South Africa chicken "poike" (meat stew) and ended the evening around a campfire drinking cider. We reflected that the persons on the charter bus that we really liked all came to the treehouse, whereas the annoying tourists all went to the 5 star hotels. Like a self-selecting process of finding like-mided folks. We got the youngest, crowd mostly from Europe.

We slept that night in thatched huts (similar to the cabanas in Mexico), but off the ground to protect us from the wild beasts that like to wander around the reserve. The next morning we rose early and headed out in a large, open 4x4, with 6 other guests. By noon, we had already seen all 5 of the big 5 animals (lion, leopard, elephant, cape buffalo, rhino). Our guide, Toullie, told us this doesn't even happen once a year, so it was an extremely lucky morning for us. We got to watch 3 adolescent lion brothers relax in the sun not far away from us. We almost got to see a leopard take down an impala lunch, except that some noise tourists scared it back into the dense woods for the few minutes it took to kill it. Fortunately, he then dragged the slain impala out into the opening for us to watch him eat it, just feet ahead of us. The elephants and buffalo, and rhinos all schlumped around us, totally oblivious of us.

We also really enjoyed viewing the many smaller animals, like the giraffes, zebras, wildebeasts, kudoos, wart hogs, and many other birds and deer-like creatures that abounded everywhere. I imagined a barren wasteland, and was surprised to see so many animals in such a lush, treed setting, as well as the highly vegetated grasslands. I really appreciated the excellent telephoto lens on my camera, and was able to take some fantastic photos, which made it look like I was feeling the breath of these animals on me! I also really enjoyed taking the rear views of many animals that have exceptional hind markings, and am contemplating making some kind of "Asses of Africa" compilation.

We spent an entire day in the park, driving around from one recommendating citing spot to another. There's lots of comradary amongst the various guides and everyone tries to help each other get good spottings. It's surprising how low key touristy the park feels, given how well known it is and and the number of tourists travelling through. Another evening of poike, this time beef, and more campfire, and we all headed off early to bed. Searching for animals is hard work and exhausting!

The next morning, we woke up early for a 6am game walk. This time, we only joined Toullie and another couple, to keep it small and safe. We planned to drive for 10 minutes to a more populated area, but within 100 feet of the lodge, we had to stop, as there were 3 rhinos walking down the path towards our vehicle. We got out and walked slowly towards them. They were clearly interested in us, but didn't seem to be interested in attacking anything. We got within about 50 of them, and got good photos. Of course, we felt better knowing that not only was Toullie with us, but he had also brought his rifle with him and was prepared to shoot it, if necessary. Not sooner had the rhinos passed by when a herd of 8 cape buffalo strolled past us. The were almost close enough to touch, but again were determined to stay on the path, and so they just walked merrily by us.

In hind sight, we wished we had booked an extra couple of days at Kruger, as there was so much to see. The one animal we hadn't seen was hippos, and I could have watched zebras and giraffes all day. The feeling of wildness was so pervasive, and yet the natural order was in place and humans were just part of it.

With reluctance and joy combined, we boarded another charter bus and rode off. They attempted to show us the Blyde River Canyon, a deep canyon that rivals the Grand Canyon, but it was raining and all we could see was white clouds. As we drove out of the district, the sky started to clear and we could imagine what was behind the clouds. The layers of rock in the landscape were almost visible and the canyon walls rose up high on the horizon.