Monthly Archives: February 2014

Saving Giraffes

We were feeling somewhat wistful about our last game drive but a young couple had arrived the previous evening and this was their first game drive.  It’s always fun to see the excitement of new guests and it was incumbent on us to orient them to the game drive routine as others had done previously for us.  All of the experienced guests were leaving that day so we told Chad and Sarah they would be the new ranking members.

We saw the usual plentiful impala, warthogs, and wildebeest.  When we saw the first giraffes, Sarah took a lot of pictures as we all do when we first sight them.

A little later, we encountered two giraffes near a small pond and we watched for awhile hoping they would show us how they spread their legs wide to get low enough to drink.  Sarah turned to me in the rear seat and said, “What’s that on the back leg of that giraffe?”  I called up to Jesse, our ranger, “Sarah wants to know what’s on the giraffe’s back leg.”  Jim, sitting up front with Jesse, handed him his binoculars and Jesse announced, “That’s a snare.  Poachers sneak into the reserve to snare game for food.”  He got on his radio immediately then told us he’d called the reserve manager to report the finding.  He said they would come out and dart the giraffe to remove the snare.  Without Sarah’s sharp eyes, the snare would have eventually caused the leg to get infected and the giraffe would likely die.  Sarah, on her very first game drive, saved the life of a giraffe.  How cool is that?

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I didn’t get a photo of the snared giraffe so here’s another.

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Chasing the Elusive Leopard

Leopards are not easily seen due to their elusive nature, their nocturnal habits, and their excellent camouflage.  It’s also difficult to know how many are in the area because they roam a wide territory and are not contained by fences.  Not deterred by these facts, we were determined to view the least seen of the Big 5.  We actually caught a glimpse of one when another guest, Andrew, spotted it from our safari vehicle one day around 4:00 in the afternoon lying in the sand near the road.  It disappeared quickly and none of us captured the event on film.

When we embarked on our last evening game drive, our ranger, JD, announced, “Hold on, we’re not stopping for pictures of warthogs or giraffes.  A leopard was spotted on the other side of the reserve and we’re going to find it!”  We took off at a wild pace, bouncing over the dirt road, literally holding onto our hats.  In fact, at one point our tracker, Uyai, lost his hat. ( More on that later.)  We combed the area for hours with no luck.

Then, after dark, on our way back, JD got a call on his radio telling him a leopard had been spotted in an area closer to the lodge.  JD barked to the group, “If you want to see this leopard, when I say quiet, you have to be quiet!”  No easy task for 10 excited tourists.  To be sure everyone got the message, Rashi, another of our group, even called on her distant past French skills to say to our French family, “Fermez la bouche!”

This is the result of Uyai and JD’s efforts and our silence.

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We also have lots of video footage but I admit this was the moment I wished I’d brought a better camera.  The experience was so incredible, however, I’ll never forget our excitement.

The end of the story for Jim was icing on the cake.  Because Uyai lost his Vuyani hat on the wild ride, Jim offered him the Cabela’s hat he was wearing.  Uyai had worked in the past for Cabela’s, tracking and skinning animals for their mounts in the stores.  He was delighted with the gift.

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Up, Up, and Away

The only thing I’ve ever heard Jim mention that he would like to do that we haven’t already done is take a hot air balloon ride.  This opportunity was offered at Vuyani and I was determined that Jim would have this experience.  I, however, have NEVER wanted to go up in a hot air balloon.  The policy was that at least 2 people had to book the trip so I said I would do it, only if I was needed to make it possible for Jim.  When we arrived that morning, I was delighted to see 7 other people had booked the flight so I expected I was off the hook.  When I found out, however, that we would have to pay for 2 unless we canceled a day in advance, I wasn’t going to pay for something I didn’t do.  So, in spite of great anxiety, I went along.  It was AWESOME and I’m glad that we had this experience together.    

 

 

 

 

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Kruger National Park

Visiting Kruger National Park is like going to Yellowstone National Park in the US without all the bumper to bumper traffic.  Other vehicles were on the roads but we definitely saw more animals than vehicles.  The animals were in larger herds in Kruger than what we saw on the private reserve but you can’t leave the roads and track the animals at Kruger like we did at Vuyani.  Kruger is also more open bush because they do controlled burns periodically so the animals are more visible whereas Vuyani is thicker bush.  So, both offer valuable but different experiences.

Here are some of the sights for your enjoyment.

Jesse and Stuart making our breakfast.

Jesse and Stuart making our breakfast.

With 12,000 elephants in the park, it would be unusual not to see them on the road.

With 12,000 elephants in the park, it would be unusual not to see them on the road.

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We saw lots of babies with their mothers.

We saw lots of babies with their mothers.

Elephants will easily tip over a car if provoked.

Elephants will easily tip over a car if provoked.

Wildebeest, also called gnu, travel with zebra because the zebra eat the top of the grass and the wildebeest can then get to the lower grass which they prefer.  Zebras, however, will sacrifice the wildebeest to a predator by chasing them into harms way.

Wildebeest, also called gnu, travel with zebra because the zebra eat the top of the grass and the wildebeest can then get to the lower grass which they prefer. Zebras, however, will sacrifice the wildebeest to a predator by chasing them into harms way.

Zebras will stand neck to neck to present a larger silhouette to predators making them appear less vulnerable. They run single file for the same reason.

Zebras will stand neck to neck to present a larger silhouette to predators making them appear less vulnerable. They run single file for the same reason.

There are 3500 white rhino like this in Kruger but only 300 black rhino. White rhino are grazers eating grass and have larger heads.  Black are browsers eating bushes.

There are 3500 white rhino like this in Kruger but only 300 black rhino. White rhino are grazers eating grass and have larger heads. Black are browsers eating bushes.

There are 130,000 impala in Kruger, kind of like seeing deer in Iowa.

There are 130,000 impala in Kruger, kind of like seeing deer in Iowa.

 

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Vuyani Safari Lodge

Loading up for game drive

Loading up for game drive

All of the staff at Vuyani have been outstanding.  The guides and trackers work hard to find the animals for us to see (this isn’t a zoo, after all!) and in addition, they are educational and entertaining.  They speak British English rather than American English, of course, and sometimes I can’t understand them so I say, “Speak American English, please,” and then they can imitate us quite well and humorously.

The rest of the staff are very accommodating and friendly, too.  The chefs and cooks prepare delicious fare that even our French food blogger guest told me is very good.  I mean, come on, the French know good food, but a French foodie?  She must really know her stuff!

We’ve also enjoyed our fellow guests enormously.  Because Vuyani is small– 7 rooms–it’s very intimate and friendships develop quickly.  Up to 10 people fit in each safari truck but typically, some guests will do an excursion to Kruger, Blyde River Canyon, etc., so we usually have 7-8 on a game drive.  We all eat together, so conversation never lags.  It’s a lively bunch, more on the youngish side but some older folks like us, as well.

So, here are some photos for your enjoyment.

Antelope

Impala

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Wildebeast

Nyala

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Lions

Lions

Black back jackal

Black back jackal

Zebras

Zebras

Male lion

Male lion

lioness

lioness

Lioness

Lioness

Lioness

Lioness

Safari Six at Sundowner

Safari Six with guide, Jesse, at Sundowner

Sundowner: a stop on the evening game drive

Sundowner: a stop on the evening game drive

Hippo in the water at sunset

Hippo in the water at sunset

Chameleon

Chameleon

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Safari!

The stuff you’ve all been waiting for!  I know you just want to see the animals.

Well, we left JoBerg at 8:00 am on Feb 15 and drove 450 km northeast through varied terrain to arrive at Vuyani Safari Lodge.  First, it looked much like Iowa, flat and agricultural with a few more trees.  Next we saw savannah – like terrain, pine forest, then we got into the foothills of the Drakensburg Mountains, and finally to the bushveld outside Kruger National Park at the Moditlo Preserve.

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waterfall

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rhinos seen from a gas station!

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cows wandering on the road

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We had lunch when we arrived, then by 4:30 we went out on our first game drive.  Talking to our fellow passengers in the open air safari truck, we learned that one of the young couples with us is Jacob Jantsch, grandson of Mason City residents, Carlyle and Averil Merritt, and his wife, Heather, who are on R&R from Afghanistan with the US Army.  Small world, huh?  This is why I always say Jim and I don’t fool around.  Everywhere we go we know someone!

A few photos from our first game drive:

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warthogs

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hippos

hippos

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JoBurg from the Bus, Soweto, and on to Vuyani

Let me explain.  I haven’t been blogging for the past several days due to technical difficulties and time constraints.  I’m going to try to condense a lot of great material in order to catch up.

On Feb. 13, after our visit to the Apartheid Museum, we stopped at Constitution Hill for a look around.  There’s an old British fort and it’s the location of the infamous old “Number Four” Prison.  All but four stairwells from the “awaiting trial” buildings have been torn down and replaced with a memorial site.  Reclaimed bricks from the prison were used to pave the Great African Steps that run between the site of the prison and the new Constitutional Court to symbolize “a bridge from the oppression of the past to the hope of the future. ”

Preserved stairwell from Number 4 Prison

Preserved stairwell from Number 4 Prison

Bill of Rights carved into the doors of the Constitutional Court

Bill of Rights carved into the doors of the Constitutional Court

African Steps

African Steps

Flame of Democracy

Flame of Democracy

Constitutional Court entrance named in 11 official languages of S.A.

Constitutional Court entrance named in 11 official languages of S.A.

The next day, Feb. 14, we toured Soweto.  Soweto is an acronym for SOuth WEstern TOwnships, the location that blacks were moved to in the 30’s to separate them from whites.  There are very affluent areas such as Vilakazi St., the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, lived.  In contrast there are areas of such extreme poverty where there is no plumbing or electricity, to this day.

It is also the site of the 1976 student uprising where Hector Pieterson was killed by police precipitating the disintegration of apartheid.

Finally, we had lunch at a local restaurant for authentic African food, including tripe (don’t try it!) and oxtail stew (awesome).  Then we stopped off at a Shebeen to try the local home brew, a beer made from sorghum.

It was an amazing day with our wonderful guide, Sipho, from Themba Tours.

Our outstanding tour guide for Soweto, Sipho.

Our outstanding tour guide for Soweto, Sipho.

Nelson Mandela House

Nelson Mandela House

Home where Winnie Mandela lives today

Home where Winnie Mandela lives today

Desmond Tutu home

Desmond Tutu home

Poorest area of Soweto

Poorest area of Soweto

Women getting water

Women getting water

cardboard and tin home in Soweto

cardboard and tin home in Soweto

Hector Pieterson Museum

Hector Pieterson Museum

Iconic image of dying Hector Pieterson carried by another student with his sister alongside

Iconic image of dying Hector Pieterson carried by another student with his sister alongside

The restaurant where we enjoyed authentic African cuisine

The restaurant where we enjoyed authentic African cuisine

Shebeen

Shebeen

Home brew at a Shebeen

Home brew at a Shebeen

Now that I’m caught up with our time in JoBurg, on to Vuyani Safari Lodge!

 

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JoBurg From The Big Red Bus

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Starting with breakfast outside.

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Amazing garden foliage at our hotel in the middle of the city.

After breakfast, we walked to Mandela Square.  What a tribute to an amazing human being.

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Our plan for the day was to see the JoBurg from the Big Red Bus.  These sightseeing buses operate in large cities all over the world and we’ve found it’s a great way to orient yourself to the city.  You can hop on and off all day long so it also gets you to the main tourist attractions with a running commentary throughout the ride.

We learned some things such as the real population of Johannesburg is unknown but the metro area is over 10 million.  The streets in the city are relatively narrow and the blocks are short because the town wasn’t expected to last. It was established when gold was discovered in 1886 and expected to become a ghost town after the gold rush but within 10 years it was the largest city in South Africa.

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Apartheid Museum

Apartheid Museum

The highlight of the day was undoubtedly the temporary exhibit on Nelson Mandela at the Apartheid Museum.  Madiba, the clan name of Mandela, means reconciler.  His extraordinary life and work are documented in this exhibit that shows above all, what one man with courage and integrity can accomplish.

Amazing sculpture made from metal strips that when viewed from the right angle reveal a bust of Mandela.  Can you see it?

Amazing sculpture made from metal strips that when viewed from the right angle reveal a bust of Mandela. Can you see it?

The Apartheid Museum is a disturbing reminder of the results of oppression and social injustice.  Ultimately, however, it is also a story of hope for the future.

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Visitors are randomly assigned to be white or black and enter through separate doors.

Exhibit of political executions

Exhibit of political executions

Casspir like those seen on a daily basis during the student uprisings in 1975

Casspir like those seen on a daily basis during the student uprisings in 1975

Hope for the future

Hope for the future

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The Adventure

We got out of Atlanta by the skin of our teeth.  The flight to Johannesburg on the following day was canceled and Delta texted passengers to advise them that they could fly on the 11th if they could get there.  Many appeared to have made the effort.

Meanwhile, I had selected our seats with one goal in mind…to have enough room to lay down and sleep during the 16 hour flight.

Tip:  In a 3 seat row, a couple can book the aisle seat and the window seat with an empty seat between you.  Normally, no one wants to book that seat between two people.  Unless it’s a full flight, often that seat will remain vacant giving you extra space.

I’ve tried this before in the middle section with four seats and just before the doors closed, two people got on with those seats in our row.  This time, I was sure that someone would have the seat between us because of the next day flight cancellation so imagine my surprise when the doors closed and NO ONE claimed that seat!  YES!!!

Well, the result was I actually laid down and slept great and Jim even took a turn laying down to sleep as well.  This 16 hour flight was less exhausting than an 8 hour flight to Europe.

Passport control and customs at Tambo, the airport in JoBurg, was quick and easy.  We took Gautrain into the city and walked to our hotel which is a short distance from the train station in Sandton.

Protea Hotel Balalaika Sandton is lovely.   Pictures from the lobby.

 

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Travel, like life, is full of surprises

I had not planned on blogging today because it’s the day we leave and really, THERE IS NO TIME for that.  Except, have you seen the weather report?  We are scheduled to fly from Des Moines to Atlanta.  Seriously, I booked through Atlanta for 2 reasons.  1. It was a direct flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, albeit 16 hours.  2. It was a sure bet that flights through Atlanta wouldn’t be canceled in February unlike Chicago or Detroit, Washington, DC or New York.  Who knew?  Do you remember the mess 2 weeks ago in Atlanta?  Hundreds of flights canceled?  Winter storm Pax is expected to hit Atlanta sometime Tuesday.  Our flight leaves Atlanta on Tuesday at 6:30 pm.  Fingers crossed.

So, this brings up an important travel tip.  We are scheduled to arrive at Vuyani Lodge on Saturday.  In winter, ALWAYS give yourself extra time for travel delays.  We planned to leave Des Moines on Tuesday and arrive in Johannesburg on Wednesday.  That would give us two days to recover from jet lag and see JoBurg before we leave for Vuyani on Saturday morning.  If we can’t get out of Atlanta until Wednesday or Thursday, we still can make our connection to The Safari Lodge.  We’ll miss seeing JoBurg but the major part of the trip will be preserved.            

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