Monday, July 26, 2010

Sunset Beach

Here are a few things that are making me love this place even more, after 20 years of coming here every summer.

-The salty crust on the top layer of sand at the point and the soft sand underneath: Crème Brûlée sand.

-Watching the thunderheads rolls in and the anticipation of a thunderstorm at the beach.

-The fascination of the young ones with seashells and other beachy objets trouvées

- The hotness of the sun mitigated by the breeze off the ocean, mixed with the smell of suntan lotion

-Morning runs down to the point, and then coming back to a cold hose shower outside

- License to eat unlimited quantities of ice cream

-Evening games of Scrabble, Cranium, and crosswords

- Watching my little cousins grow up

I have the love of my family in my soul, the ocean water in my veins, and the kiss of the sun on my skin. This week makes me so happy.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Home Again, Home Again

Just a few quick notes having already touched down in Atlanta and with a short layover until my final leg. Lots of Chacos every where. This gladdens my heart as I think that Chacos are God's gift to feet. But a surprising amount are popping up here in Atlanta and I guess it's just unexpected because of the locale. I would not be surprised if I were at, say, DEN or SLC.

I just purchased soft serve frozen yoghurt for breakfast. I couldn't resist the temptation. It was as creamy, cold, sweet and delicious as I hoped it would be.

It feels very strange to be coming back in the pinnacle of summer, as I have just left a country in winter. Granted, it was a milder winter, but it is strange to see people in shorts and sandals and feel the oppressive humidity everywhere. I am also excited for the extended daylight hours. The sun was setting at about 5:45 in SA and here I'll get a good three extra hours of daylight. To me, this is the best part about summer. It feels like the days go on forever.

I had to claim my baggage and re-check it here because it was my first stop in the US and I had to go through customs. It took probably one quarter of the time to get my baggage off the plane and into my hands as it did in Jo'burg or Cape Town. I hate checking bags anyway, but it was necessary for a 6 week trip. I have to give a certain amount of respect to the people at the Atlanta airport for how quickly they manage the enormous amount of stuff that goes in and out of their airport every day. Dulles too, of course.

I cannot WAIT to get back on Pandora and podcasts and find some new tunes and incorporate my new African bands with my current library. I am going to give the Genius function on my iTunes a run for its money. I want to see how it will interpret the new stuff and weave it in with the old.

I am so excited to go home and watch the final of the World Cup. I am not as excited to go back to work this week. But there is something nice about coming back to familiarity and life as I know it. It feels like I've been gone forever but it really hasn't been that long. But its always great to come back to the US.

Last Days in SA

I can see why most South Africans stay on the garden route for multiple weeks. Each town has its own feel and different things it offers. You could spend a few days in each town. Since we're trying to fit the whole country into three weeks, we haven't had that luxury. But we have seen quite a bit. I think we saw the best thing Plett has to offer this morning as well. We got to go to the Robberg Nature Preserve for a morning hike to the seal colony and surrounding beaches. We encountered about 4 other people in our three hour hike as well as pristine beaches with crashing waves, and some gorgeous landscapes. The hike was a bit challenging as well, we hike along a rock wall and had to pick along some difficult and steep terrain for a few parts. It was really enjoyable. The seals were fun to watch for a while too, but they smelled to high heaven and most of them were asleep in the sun. There were a few playing in the water and I kept replaying the Planet Earth footage of the Great White chomping down on one of them in slo-mo. Poor unsuspecting seals.

The garden route was well worth the two full days of driving it took to get there and back. We came across lots of charming seaside towns, did some fantastic eating, and had wonderful vistas the whole way. We went through a lot of farm land and saw ostriches, sheep and even some other game preserves. I would have wanted to spend more time out there though. It's a holiday destination, not a sightseeing destination. The whales and the Robberg hike were great though and I think our time on the Garden route was well spent.

Coming back to Cape Town we decided to live it up a little for the last two nights of the trip and stayed in Camps Bay. It's like the St. Tropez of Africa basically. Everything is expensive and chic, and it's all a bunch of high-priced real-estate crammed along the gorgeous coastline. Since we're still on the Atlantic the surf is a bit rough and there's lots of kelp so it's not really good swimming. Plus, it's winter here, so that doesn't help water temperatures. But other than that it's a very nice seaside town.

For our last full day in Africa, we checked off the last three things on the Cape Town to do list: Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope, and Boulders Beach (African penguin colony). Kirstenbosch was the first stop and it's an oasis of calming sights and aromas. Being winter, we didn't see all that much in bloom but we did have a lot of good views of Table Mountain. One of my favorite flowers blooms in SA in abundance, the Bird of Paradise flower. And they have tons of HUGE ones all over Kirstenbosch so that was very nice. I got very excited about the "Otter pond" thinking that they would have some real otters. But it's just a sculpture of an otter they say represents the rare otters that still inhabit the streams around Table Mountain.

After Kirstenbosch it was on to Boulders Beach to spot some penguins. We had a great drive down looking at all the 19th centure colonial architecture. It was very reminiscient of Martinique and New Orleans. I get the European feeling everywhere I look here. It's amazing the lasting influence it has over a continent that, from its origins, is so wholly different from Europe. Ah colonialism. The penguins are very accustomed to humans. They had a bunch of juvenile penguins who were molting their fuzzy coat for the glossy feathers of the adult penguin. The mom penguins were guarding the openings of the burrows from the humans who were all peering in to take photos, myself included. But sometimes the youngsters would waddle out for a stretch in the sun. The other penguins without young ones to guard were out and about on the rocks and paid no mind to the people around. They just went about their business. You could get within about three feet of the penguin before he would start to run from you or look at you funny. Penguins are such silly birds, we could have stayed for hours of entertainment.

Next it was the Cape of Good Hope. The most striking thing about this fabled nautical destination is the contrast between the calm of the Indian ocean and the chaos of the Atlantic. Looking on one side of the peninsula to the other you can see why sailors would dread the passage. The Indian ocean is like swimming pool compared to the cauldron of mischief the Atlantic has been throwing at navigators for centuries. It was interesting to see the exhibits about the different shipwrecks and the symbolism of the Cape of Good Hope of mariners and shipping companies alike. It's also a place of unparalelled beauty and dramatic cliffs with turquoise blues and greens at their feet. They have a huge nature preserve surrounding the areas which has a lot of indigenous shrubs and flowers. It's nice they preserved everything but it is pretty barren other than the view points. We were so tired from hiking and walking around a lot that we didn't do any of the optional hikes down to the various points and beaches, but there are a lot of options. It's uncharacteristic of us, but I'm starting to feel the effects of three weeks of non-stop travel.

Our last night in Africa consisted of a few loads of laundry, a beautiful sunset in the town just north of Camps Bay, Sea Point, and a delicious three course meal of fresh prawns, some fresh caught Cap Salmon ( a hearty white fish, not far off from the Petty family's beloved Chesapeake rockfish) and a delicious peppermint chocolate dessert which I'm still really not sure what it was other than a fabulous end to one of the best culinary weeks of my life.

We had to get a very early start for our Cape Town flight and when I woke up in the morning I heard a steady stream of water. It sounded like someone taking a shower, so I checked the oceanview balcony and was greeted by a solid wall of sideways rain. I was grateful for it otherwise I probably would not have been able to leave such a wonderful city.

We flew back from Cape Town, had an easy time at both airports other than it taking forever for our baggage to come off the plane, and met Amy who took us off to lunch with a pastor and his wife from her church in Johannesburg. They were such a lovely couple. 5 kids of their own and two adopted children, one with very special needs as he was severly abused as a child. I think that's been one of the reasons why I have loved Jo'burg so much is that Amy has shared her community and her work with me in a way that makes the town a lot more than just a really huge city or a place where I watched the world cup. Getting to know the children she shelters at Child Haven, and meeting the people behind the ministry (their home also doubles as Baby Haven where they house unwanted or discarded children) really made a difference in making the city more human and less just a stopover. I have been overwhelmed by the kindness, generosity and hospitality of the people I have met in Africa. Oddly enough, the rudest people I have encountered have been in the service industry. It doesn't make sense to me as an American, and also as a former service industry employee. You really do have to dig deep at times in your encounters with people. In my experience in Africa, people genuinely take an interest in you and they earnestly wanted you to love their country as much as they did. They would always provide good information about what to see, although they didn't usually know the specifics.

I felt very fortunate to see as much of Africa as I did end up seeing. Amy said that often, because of the economic situation of a lot of its residents, people in South Africa only end up seeing a very small percentage of the country where they live. And in my travels, I found it to be one of the most rich, diverse, and beautiful places on earth. It's not a well-oil machine of tourism either. I think my experience in the islands prepared me well for the inefficiencies and the quirks with a country less developed than the US. I have to love it for that too. It's wholly different but it's not a place where you feel alienated or so out of place that you could never be at ease. Sure, it's dangerous to walk around at night and you definitely have to be on the alert, but it's easy to get over the bad parts when you've seen as much good as I have.

I am so sad to be leaving this country. I will never forget my time here and perhaps my travels will lead me back eventually. I hope and pray that it will, and until then, I am very happy to be coming back to life in the US and excited to see what my last semester at GWU and beyond holds.


So you recognize the "T.I.A." I've been saying over and over (it's best known from the movie Blood Diamond). Well, today, after driving a part of the Garden Route on the Southeastern coast of South Africa, I have to say I feel more like I'm in California or Greece. I keep thinking to myself, This Is Not Africa. We had a great day on the way from Cape Town to Plettenberg Bay (Plett) today. We started out very early from Cape Town, and drove to Hermanus. We were hoping for a few whale spottings. We got there just as the town was waking up, and we saw not just one, but 5 southern right whales. They come right into the bay in Hermanus and it's mating season. We were fortunate enough to stumble on a Hermanus native who worked for one of the companies and she explained the scene unfolding before us. The first thing we saw was a lone female who was swimming on her back and slapping the water in the hopes of attracting males. It's a very effective strategy because within a half hour we saw at least three other males around her. Then we saw another lone blow closer in to the shore. Soon we saw several more around that single one. It was amazing. I could have stayed to watch them for hours. Plett is supposed to be an excellent place to watch whales as well, but we didn't see any this evening as we were driving in. Thank goodness for the Hermanus stop.

The next leg of the trip took us to George. Again, I was on a quest for a unique lunch, unwilling to sully the memories of yesterday's masterpiece. Again the guide came up huge with a selection of a restaurant on a farm about 10km outside of George. It was called Leila's arms and we had a wonderful time there. You arrive and it's a small cottage with rustic furnishings and a friendly proprietor who greets you. They have a very small menu but most of their ingredients are made from scratch and come from their garden. We had a great cottage pie and baked sweet potato with tons of toppings and a gloriously fresh and deliciously spiced chicken salad. YUM. Since we were the only people there, we also got a tour of the main cottage house which we found out was made of mud and straw bales and had a bed that rolled out into the open so you could sleep under the stars. It was incredible.

We bade goodbye to our lovely lunch spot and pressed on to Plett. We got to our accommodations and headed out to go for a run on the beach and pick up stuff to make dinner. W ran this beautiful road full of palatial beach houses and stunning views. It was worth it just to see the rich real estate and feel the sea spray. We will be watching the Spain/Germany game tonight and looking forward to some hikes along the coast in the morning.

The Winelands

We are now at the point of the story of my trip in Africa that will take me a long time to write about because yesterday was one of the most delightful days of my adult life. I will have to roll the memories around in my head as I recall the delicious flavors, smells and sights of yesterday. The Winelands of South Africa are an epicurean smorgasbord. We made the decision to rent a car and pick our own wineries after much debate back and forth for pros and cons. It went something like this:

Tour Company pros - don't have to drive and worry about drinking too much at tastings, they have relationships with wineries and may get to places you wouldn't have though of, don't have to worry about directions.

Tour Company cons - could be stuck on a bus with loud and belligerently drunk people for hours, limited number of stops and time to spend at each stop, may only stop at big commercial wineries that have relationships with tour operators.

Self-designed pros- can go to as many as we can handle in one day, can pick out ones that were recommended to us by locals, can stay as long as we want, can eat wherever we pick, can do whatever kind of tasting we like.

Self-designed cons - have to worry about drinking too much, someone has to drive, we may miss some good wines because we don't really know what we're doing or have any relationships.

In the end, it was worth it to get the car because we were able to visit seven wineries. Since Mark is very nice and doesn't like wine quite as much as I do, I was the chief taster for most of the day and the chief organizer for which wineries to visit and where to eat. I had a good buzz going for most of the morning but it was the most delicious kind of buzz you could have. I started to wonder if i was really tasting the wines I drank or if I was only semi-drunk off of how fabulous the weather, the countryside, and the food were.

We started at Fairview winery in Paarl. Those who enjoy wine may have come across the "Goats do Roam" label. It's a (pretty great) pun on the famous Côtes du Rhône region in France and it's big burgundies and lovely sauvignon blancs. Fairview had a lot of goats and some of the best goat cheeses I have ever eaten to offer with their strong flight of wines. They offered a few of the Goats do Roam, some of the flagship wines, and some they have under another label as well. Mark was quite taken with the goats and their cheeses, and I was thoroughly pleased by a nice soft Chenin Blanc that I decided to take home with me. The next stop in Paarl was KWV. While the tasting was not the idyllic country side setting, the wines were very nice. They had a nice semi-dry sparkling wine that I took to, as well as a pinotage that they age in toasted oak for a few months and it has a distinctively mocha flavor and aroma. I can only dream of how it will taste with dark chocolate.... mmmm.

The next town on the list was Franschhoek which means French corner in Dutch. I instantly felt smitten with this region. It was the most picturesque of the three and it was also the most reminiscent of Provence. From the craggy landscapes to the gorgeous vistas and delicious food, it took me back to one of my favorite places on earth. It certainly didn't feel like Africa. We stopped at the Boschendal winery which was maybe the most beautiful we visited. All the estates are whitewashed stucco with thatched roofs, wrought iron gates, beautiful lawns, and these pine trees that grow in a very appealing and artistic way. I have to think they are trained to grow that way, but then, maybe pine trees are different in Africa. Boschendal also had nice wines, but I didn't buy any there. I loved all the sauvignons that I tasted and I thought if I kept buying everything I liked, I would never be able to get it all home. The next stop was Graham Beck winery where the tasting room looks like the sleekest of bistros with black marble and silver everywhere. They had the largest varieties of tasting menus, one of just champagne which was hard to turn down. Here they use the Méthode Cap Classique which is very nice and exactly like the traditional champagne method, but of course, the French won't allow anyone else to call it méthode champenoise. They had very nice champagne but I ended up going home with a merlot which I found to be very smooth and spicy. I actually can't wait to get home and start cooking to match these wines and have some nice dinners.

The next stop was all the way across town but it was perhaps the best stop of the day. I had been searching for the perfect place to have lunch on the wine day. I wanted a place that wouldn't break the bank but would provide a certain charm and fit with the rustic elegance of the day. I have to say that the last two days, the guide that I brought over with me has come up huge with two recommendations. Yesterday it was La Petite Ferme. Nestled into a hillside overlooking the Franschhoek valley with a garden and a view to kill for, a small dining room that was full of sunlight, and gorgeous smells from their herb garden, as soon as you pull up you know you're in for a treat. All the tables are right by the floor to ceiling windows giving on to the view of the mountains and the valley and the garden in the back. We started with a cheese platter. They make all the cheeses on the farm. It was maybe the best decision we made all day. They served brie, pecorino, gorgonzola, and a peppered havarti with garnishes of raw almonds, strawberries, preserved figs and a melon preserve which I would have hated had it not been so absolutely phenomenal against the creaminess of the brie and balanced out the strong flavors in the gorgozola so well. I had never tasted anything like it and I will remember that lunch for as long as I live. The dishes that came after it were equally delicious but the simplicity and beauty of the tray of farm cheeses that began our meal will stay with me for a long time. I also had a lovely pumpking creme brulee afterwards which had the most perfect brulee crust on the top I have ever seen. I hope that someday I can create meals that are this lovely and simple.

After lunch it felt like nothing could get any better than that right there. We pressed on to the Lanzerac estate which I wanted to visit because of it's beautiful locale. We got there and they were closing so we were a bit rushed but because of that, the tasting was complimentary. I got a pinotage. In the afternoons I felt like I needed to buy more reds since I had found more whites that I had liked in the morning. Lanzerac is probably a place you would want to savor more than we were able to. They had all different kinds of pairing tastings, with chocolate and cheeses, but we were only able to do the wine. Next we were sort of racing the clock to get in a few more before they all closed. We heard one close was open until 5, and it was 4:30pm. We raced over to Overgaauw and met its lovely and kind proprietor and chatted with her about our day. I enjoyed their table red wine and felt obligated to purchase one since we were the only ones there and we stretched their opening hours a little bit. (Can I add here that I didn't pay more than $10 for a bottle all day? I bought a LOT of wine and spent no more than $50 on all of it.) Then it was on to Neethlingshof. They had a huge complex with a restaurant and the most beautiful boulevard of trees that served as its entrance. The huge pine trees bent over each other to form a sort of natural pine cathedral ceiling as you are driving in. It's gorgeous. We loved the wines as well. They had some amazing reds and I bought a few bottles there as well.

I was so sad to leave the gorgeous wine country of South Africa. I was ready to drop everything, leave my degree unfinished and just stay. Franschhoek is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and I will never forget it. I will have trouble drinking the wine I brought back with me because those tastes and flavors will be the souvenirs and I will want to cherish them forever. We watched the Dutch take on Uruguay at the hostel and called it a night after Robben put in the go-ahead. It was a day for the books.

The Sunrise Kids

The next day, we woke up early, as per usual, and only had a few interruptions during the night. That's the other thing about hostels: they tend to attract partiers. So we had people just coming in as we were getting up. The other clue was that they serve breakfast until 1pm at the hostel. Anyway, we were up and on the road to table mountain by 8am. The guidebooks and hostel employees said it would take 2-3 hours to hike up. We got to the foot of the mountain and started hiking by about 8:45 and one hour later, we had run out of mounain. It was one of the hardest hikes I've done because it's basically just thousands of steps straight up, but at least it was short. And it was incredibly rewarding. The views from the top are incredible. And there's lots of other trails you can take when you get to the top as well. We added another hour and a half to our hike by hiking out to the very eastern border of the table to a beacon and then we hiked back RIGHT along the edge. It got so close in parts that we could look over and see straight down at least 100-200 yards. It's a great hike because it's right in the middle of this great city but it's incredibly beautiful and doesn't feel affected by the urbanization around it at all.

So after we finished the hike up plus the bonus hike, we walked over to the other side of the mountain where the cable car ride is. Once we got there, we saw tons more people. The cable car ride down was great because we descended through the layer of clouds that had formed at the bottom of the mountain and came floating back to civilization. It was a great way to start the first full day in Cape Town.

After finishing the mountain, we got cleaned up and then headed down to the waterfront. I had booked the Robben Island tour for the afternoon and I thought we'd probably be cutting it close to get there since we had planned to hike the mountain in the morning. Instead, we had so much extra time, we were able to squeeze in the Two Oceans Aquarium in between the hike and the tour, as well as a leisurely lunch. The aquarium was amazing even though it didn't take too much time to get through that either. It appropriately focuses on the Atlantic and Indian oceans with a special exhibit for African penguins. We saw a ton of great species that I had never seen before: giant spider crabs, giant spotted eel, ragged tooth sharks, giant bullfrog, poison dart frogs, and abalone, which I have eaten and worn, but never seen alive. They are not very pretty, nice shells though. So the aquarium is certainly worth a trip for people traveling to Cape Town and it doesn't take long unless you have kids. The only other thing that might waylay you is the gigantic tanks they have full of different species of fish, turtles and sharks. It gets pretty real inside those tanks as well because we saw some fish who had bite marks on their backs that looked fresh, and we saw many with scars from the same types of injuries. I'm thinking those ragged tooth sharks don't play well with things they normally eat. Perhaps that's part of the draw for the tanks. But these tanks are hypnotic. They have 25 ft floor to ceiling viewing windows all the way around them and they have kelp that sways back with the fake current inside the tank. They also play calming music and I was pretty sure I was in a trance after standing in front of one for a few minutes watching the gigantic fish swim around in circles with the swaying kelp.

After the aquarium we went down to a bookstore to research a little for the wine tour we planned for the next day, and then we headed out for our Robben Island tour. This tour is pretty special. It includes a boat ride to and from the island, a bus tour on the island and the tours are all conducted by former inmates on the island. It's really interesting to hear their experience. The tour and museum proved to be similar to the majority of ones I have visited in Africa though. They don't have a very logical flow for their narration or interpretation of what you are seeing. The bus tour guide I appreciated though because he did mention and incorporate how important the World Cup has been for Africa and what it means for South Africa to be hosting. I thought they could have used some focus and some common threads in all aspects of the tour though. The tidbits they give you are interesting, but they don't really fit together in the order they were presented. I still really liked the tour and would definitely recommend it. It's an important part of African history and something that everyone in South Africa has a strong connection to. I also found out that the Netherlands were the only team to take the time to come and visit Robben Island. That impressed me a lot. They were who I wanted to go to the final anyway, but that was a class move and they went up quite a few notches in my book because of it. After the tour, we took the ferry back and had a good dinner at a thai place then headed back to the hostel again. It was a full day but I was really happy with it. I grow to love this country and everything it has to offer with every additional square mile I discover.

Changer de l'Air: Cape Town

Normal 0 0 1 441 2515 20 5 3088 11.1287 Greetings from the beautiful seaside metropolis of Cape Town. We are staying at the very popular Cape Town Backpackers and I have decided that now in my late 20's it's a little strange to stay in hostel. It's still the most economical and fun if you're by yourself. I also will say that's it's very centrally located and has lots of tours that pick you up directly from here. But spending the night with 8 strangers in the same room and being subject to their behaviors no longer has the same adventurous feel that it did when I traveled through Europe. Anyway, Cape Town is amazing. A total contrast from Jo'burg although it is still a very urban area. Everything here is a little more stylish, a little glitzier. It's not to say I like it better; it still has the same crime problems and safety concerns that Jo'burg does, but maybe it's just better at hiding them. Regardless, Cape Town has been really good to us. We heard lots about the weather mood swings and how it would be rainy and cold during our time here. It has been windy, but we've had warm temps during the day and nothing but sunshine. Our first afternoon in Cape Town we were greeting at the airport by the man we presume is the proprietor of the backpackers hostel. An ex-Californian who moved to SA for a girl. He proudly tells this tale under the guise of being ashamed at following a girl, but you can tell he thinks it's the best decision he ever made. He's also very upfront with the information as we found out this story within 5 minutes of meeting him. But he gravitates towards Americans and clearly enjoys some of having his ex-countrymen in tow. So after a sunny and friendly American greeting at Cape Town International, we were transferred to the backpackers where we dropped stuff off and met another very gregarious staff member. He was from Zaire and we got to speak a little French to one another.

Once we got settled, we found out we could walk down to the waterfront. It was a sunday so there wasn't a whole lot open, but once we got down to the waterfront it was completely packed with tourists from all over the world. We came across the FIFA fan zone, and the two-story tall Coke man, a sculpture made entirely of cases of coke in the shape of a fan holding up his arms. He looks a lot like a man made of red Legos. So we jostled our way around the waterfront being hustled by restaurant employees to eat in their establishments. It was earlier in the afternoon so we decided to take a lap around the waterfont, which is strikingly similar to Pier 39 in San Fransisco. In fact, ALL of Cape Town is strikingly similar to San Fransisco. But we ended up having a nice glass of wine on the waterfront and then eating at a South African restaurant for dinner. The picture I have posted here is me trying to make sense of the 700 bottle wine list at Balthazar where we stopped for drinks. I was like a kid in a candy store. Dinner was a buffet and my favorite thing on it was the pumpkin fritter and the vegetable masala with haloumi cheese. Yum. We were pretty tired after walking down there and all the travel of the day, so we took a cab back to the hostel and called it in shortly afterward.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Bye Bye Kruger

For our last few hours in Kruger, we decided to do our own sunrise game drive. We got out on the road by 6:15 am and the sun was not yet up. Once we were on the road we were taking the same route as the previous day, but the whole valley and the rivers were covered in this gorgeous fog and the morning light coming over the horizon made it a spectacular drive just for the scenery alone. However, about 20 minutes into our drive south, we saw something in the middle of the road and as we got closer, we saw that it was a huge hyena. We hadn't seen one yet and it was kind of eerie with all the fog. Even though they're related to dogs, hyenas scare me. Once again, The Lion King shows its pervasive hold over my perceptions of Africa. then, just a minute or two after that, we saw something large run out onto the road. It was still very misty so we didn't know exactly what it was. But we got a bit closer and saw that it was a male lion, fully grown, and he was roaring. He laid down on the asphalt and rolled around for a minute then he got up and started trotting towards our car. Still roaring. He passed RIGHT by the driver side door (it's on the right here) and it was completely incredible. We didn't expect to see a leopard but we had really hoped for a lion. The night before, I had been fervently praying that we would see a lion and I had a dream about seeing one and it was waving goodbye to me when I was leaving the park. This was about as close to my dream as it could get. I was so thankful and awed by it. We really did have an amazing time in Kruger and we got some incredible sightings. I'll post a few of the pictures here but will post the bulk of them on Flickr.

After we said goodbye to Kruger while leaving through the Orpen gate, we headed west to the Panorama route through gorgeous forests and over rolling hills. We got to a town called Grasklop and bought a small map guiding us to some of the different sights. Then we got to the first stop, the Pinnacle. There were some really interesting terrain changes on this trip and I am really struck by the geographic and botanical diversity in Africa. Today alone we have been in a rainforest, a savannah, and a mountainous deciduous forest. We got to see some lovely outcroppings and, you guessed it, panoramas. Well worth the detour for the diversity and the small hikes. We also stopped for a while at a lovely waterfall called Lisbon Falls. There was a lot more in the region we could have done, some more small towns to explore but Jo'burg and Cape Town are calling. The Experts told us we'd need to book a guest house on the route because there was so much to see and do. We were happy with our small portion of it, but there were lots of motorcyclists and cyclists out presumably doing the route themselves at a leisurely pace. It's something like Skyline drive in Shenandoah.

Now we're back in Jo'burg and ready to leave for Cape Town tomorrow. Hard to believe I'm only a week from being back in the states! See you all soon.

Kruger Day 3

The day started off gray and rainy. There was one highlight though, as we were running around the camp, a group of South Africans having breakfast at the campsite stopped us and asked if we were the ones who were on the radio yesterday. See? Radio star. Told ya. Though the rain made the morning slightly warmer than the previous two, it was not really good for game viewing because our Kruger experts from the previous morning said that all the animals hide. No lion sightings yet but today more than made up for that with all the great stuff we saw. Lots of very close encounters today. While our drive from Shingwedzi to Letaba, our final rest camp in Kruger, was gray and cold, we got within four feet of a huge herd of Cape Buffalo. The experts that we didn't really need to be afraid of lions and leopards but we really needed to watch out for buffalo and elephants. Today we learned this lesson, but I'll get to that. So while driving by the Cape Buffalo, we were hoping they would not ram the rental car and we made it through the herd unscathed. I actually could have reached out the window and touched one, that's how close we were.

Once we made it to Letaba, we started to really see the changing landscape. The brush got more sparse and we started to see a little bit more savannah and open areas. We also finally got to see two of the big rivers that go through Kruger, the Olifants and Letaba river. I get excited about water in Kruger because water means animals. Our guide on the Sunset drive last night told us that it had been an unusually wet season in Kruger and they had gotten more than 200cm over the average rainfall. Normally around this time the plants would be dry and the leaves would be down, but as it was, the leaves were turning, just like in fall. Also, the northern part of Kruger is in the Tropic of Capricorn, which I found it hard to believe because of how far south I perceive the country as being. Anyway, it has made for excellent weather during the day (save for that one rainy morning) and also cool nights where you can enjoy the trillions of stars that come out to say goodnight to you. I would say that the further south we got, the easier it was to see game because of the landscape. But the north was gorgeous, just harder to see things.

So after we stopped at Letaba, we checked out the map of the animal sightings for the day and planned to follow a long back road to the south where there were some purported lion sightings. We as we crossed a bridge just south of Letaba we saw a huge expansive river open up beneath us. It was this river we would drive right along on the back road. Once we got off the main road, the sightings really started. We followed one side road and got a great view of the Saddle-billed stork which Kruger is running a viewing contest for. We noted the location, time and got a few pictures of it and we're going to submit the photos to the contest as soon as we get internet. After that we were driving along the road and we got right next to a huge giraffe. But the real thrill of the day came just a few kilometers later when we encountered a herd of elephants crossing the road. We had seen on just to the right, and then further up the road we saw another one crossing the road. So we went up to get a closer look and we saw that the one elephant was going to stay in the middle of the road and walk for a while. What I didn't know is that this was the patriarch of the herd and he was scouting the route to make sure that it was clear and safe for the 12 elephants that came after him. We followed him at a good distance, keeping in mind that they could sit on our car and crush us easily. Then when it looked like he had gone off to the side of the road, we went up closer. We had seen that his ears were flapping though, and this is a warning not to mess with the elephants. The Experts told us that this also usually means they are being protective and have babies with them. So I think we got a little too close. We had stopped for a second, then the elephant saw us and stopped. Then we crept forward a bit, the elephant turned a bit and started flapping his ears. He had seen us and identified us as a threat. Then he looked away, we crept up a bit more and this put Papa Elephant over the edge. He turned to face us and started running at us, flapping his ears. Fortunately, Mark was quick on the reverse pedal and we backed up quickly enough so that he didn't feel the need to trample us. We stayed well away from him after that. But we did stay in a spot with a good view of the road so that we could see Papa stand in the way of all comers to let all the rest of his extended family pass safely. We saw a long train of elephants, walking in a line down to the river to get an afternoon drink. There were two very small babies in tow as well, which put the elephant's aggression into perspective. It was an amazing, albeit a little scary, encounter. When they had all gotten down to the river we were finally able to proceed down the road and we saw the whole family squirting each other with water and the young ones taking a drink with their trunks. It was pretty amazing.

Further on down the road we saw a rhino, tons of zebra, no shortage of impalas or Steenboks, and we were hoping for a lion. We came across a safari vehicle full of people staring at nothing. We pulled up next to the guide and asked him what was happening and he said he could see the ear of a lion in the bush. We strained and strained but we couldn't see the "flicking ear" all the rest of the people said they saw. Fortunately, we didn't have to settle for just a flicking ear. But we had to wait until the next morning for that. Don't worry, it's coming.

We saw loads more elephants, zebra and impala. The elephant charge was the real coup of the day, and the rhino was also pretty interesting since we hadn't seen one yet. That night, after about 7 hours in the car and with neck strains all around from turning to see stuff and leaning out the window to take photos, we hit the restaurant at Letaba. It is owned by the same company that owns the restaurants at the other camps we stayed at and thus,we have had the same thing for dinner all three nights. It's okay but the real story is the wine. I've gotten house red or whatever they are selling by the glass and it's been amazing every night. I'm not really sure if it's the same stuff every night, it always tastes a little different, but it's been so so good. I can't wait to visit the winelands in Cape Town this week! Pinotage, here I come. We watched the second half of the Ghana/Uruguay game but I was falling asleep and so I couldn't stay up for the extra time. The entire camp was gathered in the lodge watching the game so that was fun anyway. Everyone was cheering for Ghana. We are finding that there are not many black families here on vacation. It's almost all white Afrikaans families, which I found kind of interesting. There are almost no white people on staff unless they are the rangers though.

So our day ended with a great story and total exhaustion. But the best sighting was yet to come.

Kruger NP Day 2 - SA Radio Star

This morning we got a late start because of the late-night game drive and just loving being in Kruger. We got going around 9am when I got the call from Jacaranda FM's radio personality A-rod to schedule my interview. He was quite a character on the night drive, we're pretty sure he was drunk. So this morning we sat in the little restuarant with A-rod and two South Africans (who I will henceforth call "The Experts") who had also been on the game drive with us and who had also lived and worked at one of the camps here in Kruger for two years. Needless to say, they had a lot of advice to share. It was fantastic, they gave us some great advice about everything to see and do, and where to go, where we maybe could skip, tons of great insider information. They just couldn't wait to share it all with us. It made me feel like we needed at least 1 week here and not just three days. So after our chat with them, it was time for the radio interview. I was set up, because I told A-rod that we had wanted to go running in the morning, but that it's not allowed. This translated to "stupid american trying to run with the wild animals" on the radio. So when he introduced me, his colleages on the air were like, "I don't know if you know this, but in South Africa, we have dangerous animals and the gates are up there for a reason". So it was fun. The South Africans were listening to it on their car radio while I was giving the interview ten feet away. I really enjoyed it and I got to say how much I loved South Africa, so that's good. You can see pictures/proof of my celebrity status on A-rod's twitter feed, JacarandaARod. You have to scroll down to the July 1st feed to see the picture of us with the SA radio star.

Then it was on to Shingwedzi rest camp, our second stop for our time in Kruger. The speed limit in the park is 40-50kmph which is roughy 25-30mph. You go slow but it's really amazing all the stuff you see. Today alone we've been stopped from crossing a road by an elephant and a pack of zebras. We were about 30 feet away from a huge herd of Cape Buffalo. We saw three crocodiles sun bathing on a rock with 4 turtles. We've seen lots of beautiful birds and tons of impalas. I think the best part of this park is the role reversal of a zoo. The animals rule in Kruger, and the humans are welcome, but at their own risk. That's why the park and rest camp gates close at sundown, and we can only go out after that on guided game drives. No electric fences or penned in habitats here. I'm excited for the sunset game drive we have tonight. I'm told the animals are most active early in the morning and at sunset. So hopefully we'll see the remaining two of the big five we have left, the leopard and the lion.

Update: Our Afrikaans guide on the sunset drive on Friday night was incredible. He knew everything about every species we saw. He found a chameleon in the dark of night on the side of the road while he was driving. He also spotted two owls, a stick bug and a snake, all on the road, without killing them and he knew tons about each one.

Kruger NP Day 1

I have been excited about this part of the trip for a long time, but I really understand how excited I should be now, being here and seeing the park for the first time. It was a very long drive today but we had good highways for the bulk of the trip. We have been enjoying South African road signs, particularly one with a possessed-looking deer in the midst of flames that is supposed to advise you not to have fires on the side of the road. The first part of the drive was not very pretty and full of toll roads. The second part was much more scenic and full of lots of local color. We are spending the first night in Kruger at Punda Maria rest camp which is in the way north of the park. Our reservations said that we had tent accomodations for the night, so I was prepared for a very rustic experience. If this is rustic, then I'll take it. The "tent" is a lovely log structure covered with canvas and mosquito nets that has electricity, this awesome open-air shower and the most idyllic deck overlooking the park with an outdoor kitchen. I sort of never want to leave. I am blogging underneath more stars in a night sky than I have ever seen in my life and soaking in the peace and quiet of a night spent far away from my normal life in many ways.

On the drive here we drove past many more townships and lots more shacks. We had to keep an eye out for monkeys and goats, two things that are pretty different from the common roadkill we see in the US. Once we had to stop for a herd of cows to cross the road. There were lots of banana tree fields as well as other agriculture that I couldn't really identify just from driving by, but it seems like a fertile area, lots of agriculture. Arriving at the Punda Maria gate was somewhat anti-climactic. We had been in the car for almost 7 hours straight and were very happy to arrive but it was unceremonious and quiet. However, not two kilometers into the park, we looked to our right and there, directly by the roadside, was an elephant, happily munching on his dinner of the better part of a tree. A very nice welcome to Kruger if you ask me.

I thought the park would be much busier and we'd have problems with overcrowding. Not so, at least in the Northern reaches of the park. It's very quiet, (save for some crazy Germans who seem to be rehearsing a play of some sort...) and it feels like there is no one here, although that's certainly not the case. We had availability trouble in the park even as far out as 6 months ago when we were booking, so I am very thankful to be here and in this awesome tent.

As we were registering for the accomodations and checking in at the camp, the reception lady gestured to a gentleman behind us and said "Hey A-rod, here you go." Looking at the register, we are the only Americans in the camp. There is a guy from a big radio station in SA, Jacaranda 94.2 FM, who was looking for foreigners to interview on his morning show about the world cup and travels. He is keeping a twitter and facebook page up about all his travels. The reason I know this is because he wants to interview us tomorrow morning for his show. So at 9:30am local time, we are supposed to get a call from A-Rod of Jacaranda radio FM and we are going to be called-in to his show. Crazy!

After checking in, getting a radio interview, and falling in love with tent-style bush living, we had a pretty good dinner with a glass of wine, a pinotage from SA, that made my entire day 10x better. After that we went on a nighttime game drive where we saw lots of impala, one striped Genet, a few steenboks and about 7,000 spring hares. Spring hares are a cross between a bunny, a squirrel and a kangaroo. They have the cuteness of a bunny in the body, the tail of a squirrel, and the legs and hop of a kangaroo. These were everywhere. Other than those sightings and a few Nyala we had seen before getting into the camp, it was a pretty uneventful game drive. We are hoping for good luck in the morning. Talking to a few people who live in Kruger who were on the drive with us, we have a good chance to see leopards and elephants in this area. Gotta get an early start though, that's the best time to see the animals we're told.

All the Little Children

Tuesday we had invited all the people in our group over to the orpanage in Roodepoort to meet the kids and have breakfast with us. They had had a late night before so only half of them made it, but the kids loved them so much for coming. They may have loved the breakfast tacos that we had for breakfast more, but they love meeting new people and they really love giving them tours and singing for new people. They are used to me a little bit now since I've been staying there for about a week. But in the mornings when I come in from my run, they still wonder who I am and why I'm out of breath. "Auntie Karla... what were you doing? Were you racing?? did you WIN??" So Tuesday morning and into the afternoon we all just played and spent time with the kids. Then they went down for a nap and we headed up to Pretoria.

Two of us dropped the other four off to the Paraguay v Japan game. Then I headed out to the Pretoria zoo which is supposed to be one of the top 10 in the world. While the actual grounds of the zoo are not that impressive, it did have a cable car ride to the top of a large ridge and as you walk down, you see most of the animals. They also have a ton of different species. Lemurs, lots of birds, lions, tigers, about 6 different kids of deer and bok, lots of different kinds of monkeys, and hyenas, which were so close to me I was really uncomfortable (they are much bigger than I remembered them to be in The Lion King, the source of most of my knowledge of Africa). I really like zoos in general and this was a great one. Lots of the animals were active, there was nobody there, and I got to see way beyond what I would normally see in a zoo in the States. After the zoo we got to experience rush hour in Pretoria which was not awesome, but I am glad I got to see the captial city and all it's hustle and bustle. Those are the two words I could use to describe Jo'burg as a city as well. It's very go go go. Today we are heading out to the bush and Kruger National Park to go on safari for a few days. Hopefully there will be more good wildlife photos coming your way soon. But there's no internet in the bush so I'll see you all in a few days.

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