South Africa

No Hooting, Save the Rhino, and Dung Beetles Have the Right of Way

We particularly enjoyed the language in South Africa.  I’m so impressed that everyone is multi-lingual.  I think virtually everyone speaks English and Africaans but most speak at least one native dialect as well.

Even in English, we sometimes needed a translation to understand the meaning of a word or phrase.  Here are just a few that we particularly enjoyed.

BOMA:  enclosure for protection, where we had a braii

Braii:  barbeque

Robot:  traffic light

Garage:  gas station… and they still fill your tank with gas; no self service here

Holding thumbs:  Thumbs tucked inside fist for good luck, like crossing your fingers

Bottle store:  liquor store

Boot:  trunk

Hooter:  car horn.  I loved the signs that say “No hooting.”

Lekker:  nice, delicious, good

Biltong:  lekker meat jerky that was taken away from us by US Customs when we entered the US

Pap:  South African dish very similar to American grits or Italian polenta

Bunny chow:  South African dish of curry in a hollowed out bread loaf

Melktert:  lekker South African milk tart—yum!

Bobotie:  South African dish of minced meat with fruit, covered in an egg custard topping – similar to moussaka

Amarula:  a liqueur made from marula, a citrusy fruit enjoyed by elephants and baboons. Liqueur enjoyed by humans.

Nandos:  well known (by everyone but me) chain in South Africa for chicken

Phacochere:  French word for warthog which I learned from our delightful French family at the lodge.  Not South African at all but I love the word and how it sounds.

Thanks to Kim at Vuyani for the South African terms and equivalents and to Anne for French.


Save the Rhino

83% of Africa’s rhinos and 73% of all wild rhinos worldwide are found in South Africa. These beautiful creatures are increasingly threatened due to poachers killing them for their horns to use in traditional Asian medicines.  Although China banned the use of rhino horn in traditional medicine, black market sales continue and fuel the poaching crisis.  Today, on the black market, the price per gram for rhino horn is higher than the price of gold.  In 2007, there were 13 rhino deaths in South Africa due to poaching.  Each year that number has increased until 2013 when the number of deaths was 1004.  At the current rate of increase, deaths will exceed births by 2018 and the animals will likely become extinct unless we act.  When we left South Africa on February 22, we saw the sign below showing 118 deaths to date.  For more information and to help, check out Save the Rhino at

Uyai, in the tracker seat on the front of the safari vehicle.

A Brief Account of the Dung Beetle


Really?  Seriously?  Yes.

The dung beetle eats elephant dung and the fresher, the better because it’s full of highly nutritious plant material.  The beetle also feeds its young with dung.  It rolls the dung into a ball and then pushes it using the Milky Way to navigate (I can’t make this stuff up!) to a hole where it lays eggs on top of the dung ball.  When the larvae hatch, the young feeds on dung through the larval stage.  Obviously, this action benefits the soil by distributing and burying the dung in addition to the benefit to the beetle.

Dung beetle pushing dung ball

Dung beetle pushing dung ball


This trip to South Africa was definitely what you call “the trip of a lifetime.”  For my husband, Jim, it ranks number 1 of all trips to date.  We watched the movie, Invictus, again soon after our return.  While it was inspiring the first time, it is so much more meaningful after our visit.  President Mandela was truly a visionary with a plan to lead his people to a post-apartheid world.  The country today has many problems:  25% unemployment, rampant corruption, low wages, and a small tax base to name but a few.  But they also have many assets including a beautiful country with many natural resources and great potential, and a diverse culture with warm friendly people who will welcome you to South Africa.


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Black Mamba

The bite of a black mamba snake will kill a human in as little as 20 minutes.  In fact, they are so deadly that the chances of getting anti-venom in time to prevent death are virtually nil in the bushveld, according to our rangers.  Now, I’m not ordinarily afraid of snakes but this startling information definitely got my attention.  I went to Africa worried about malaria and spiders but honestly, I hadn’t given snakes a single thought.  The stories that followed raised my anxiety even further.

Several weeks earlier, Uyai, our tracker, was looking at tracks on the left side of the vehicle and our ranger, JD, was watching along the right.  Neither noticed the black mamba in the middle of the road in front of them.  When Uyai did see it, he jumped out of the tracker seat on the front of the vehicle and the black mamba struck the middle of the hood.  JD referred to that story as “the time I almost got Uyai killed.”  Another story involved a self-important ranger from another lodge who, bragging about his prowess with snakes,  picked up a black mamba to show off his skill and was promptly bitten.  The ranger died a horrific death within 20 minutes while the guests watched.

After hearing these stories a day or two earlier, imagine our reaction when Uyai nimbly jumped from the tracker seat as JD abruptly halted the safari truck.  The birds in the tree about 25 feet ahead of us were letting loose a cacophony of chatter.  JD explained, “There’s a black mamba somewhere nearby.  The birds are telling us.  We’ll move ahead slowly and carefully.  Everyone be still and quiet.”  I sat frozen in wide-eyed terror as we crept forward under the tree that I was sure held a coiled black mamba, ready to strike as we passed underneath.  I think we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the tree was safely behind us and our guides indicated the danger had passed.

This experience served as an important reminder that we were truly in a wild, untamed place and the outstanding staff at Vuyani were there to protect us as much or more than to educate or entertain us.


Uyai, in the tracker seat on game drive.

Jim, trying out the seat he aspires to occupy.

Jim, trying out the seat he aspires to occupy.

JD and Uyai at sundowner

JD and Uyai at sundowner

Ranger Jesse with Jim

Ranger Jesse with Jim brandishing Zulu spears

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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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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.




rhinos seen from a gas station!


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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JoBurg From The Big Red Bus


Starting with breakfast outside.


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.




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.


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.


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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Countdown to Africa – South African History Simplified

I’ve long enjoyed reading a novel about the area I’m visiting.  I’m currently reading the classic, Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton about South Africa for this trip.  Some of the following information comes from that novel.

South Africa, referred to as the Cradle of Humankind, has been occupied for many thousands of years.  The earliest occupants were native Bushmen and the Khoikhoi (Hottentots) in the Cape area and the Bantu (Zulu) to the north.  Europeans arrived on the scene in 1652 when the Dutch landed at the Cape of Good Hope and founded a colony.  The Cape Colony gradually expanded, driving the native people from the land and eventually the need for additional workers resulted in the import of slaves.  (Sound familiar?)

By the early 1800’s, the British took over rule of the area from the Dutch and British settlers moved in causing resentment among the Dutch Boers. (Boer is the Dutch word for farmer.  These people were later called Afrikaners.)  Soon after the abolition of slavery in 1834, the Boers began the Great Trek to escape British rule and eventually established 2 republics of their own, the Orange Free State and Transvaal.

Eventually, the British wanted control of the Dutch republics to unite the area and by 1900 the Anglo-Boer War ensued.  The British prevailed and in 1910 the Union of South Africa was formed.  Lack of agreement between the British and the Afrikaners over the treatment of the majority native population, however, resulted in the policy of separate development later known as apartheid.

Apartheid became the official policy of racial segregation and subjugation in South Africa following WWII.  People were classified by race as black, white, colored, or Indian.  Racial injustice to dispossess and disenfranchise the majority native population flourished in South Africa in spite of international pressure until apartheid was finally abolished in 1993.  Nelson Mandela, the resistance leader who was jailed for 27 years, was elected the first black President in 1994.

Today, 20 years later, the struggle to establish social and economic justice in post-apartheid South Africa continues.

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Countdown to Africa: Packing Tips

Some of my friends have suggested I blog travel tips in addition to a travelogue so if this is boring stuff to you, just skip it.

We leave for South Africa in 3 days.  Those of you who know me well know I’m already packed and ready to go.  In fact, I started packing when I got home from the last trip.  The guest room is now called the packing room and I spend as much time packing as planning-which is a lot.  My husband Jim, on the other hand, packs at the last minute.

To me, packing is a science and a challenge.  We travel with only carry on bags.  Yes, you read that right.  We carry on.   Consequently, we’ve never lost our bags and we’re more mobile without all that luggage.  This space limitation requires thoughtful consideration of each item before it goes into the bag.  And in spite of careful consideration, I still come home with clothes never worn on the trip so I’m still taking too much.  And yes, I do change my clothes!

A couple rules apply:

1. Pick a color scheme and stick with it.  Usually I go for black but a safari requires khaki.  All items of clothing go together so with a small number of pieces you can combine in more ways than you have days.  This allows you to take fewer shoes, too.  My rule is one dress shoe, one casual shoe, and one other (running or hiking, whatever.)

2. Pack lighter weight clothing and wear your heaviest, bulkiest items including shoes. Other countries have weight restrictions in addition to size limits for carry on bags so lighter is better.  I’m always on the lookout for the lightest carry on and currently I’m using a rolling backpack.

Along with your carry on, you can take one personal item such as a purse or computer bag that fits under the seat.  We each take a small backpack as our personal item and put our electronics, toiletries, small purse(for me) and snacks in it.  If you’re on a small plane (like we take out of Des Moines,) they will take your carry on at the jetway because it’s too big for the overhead compartment.  Make sure any items of value are in your personal item.

Here’s a tip:  Be considerate of other passengers and don’t put your personal item in the overhead bin until everyone else has stowed their carry ons.  I’ve seen men fold and lay their sport coat in the overhead bin alongside their carry on and expect the rest of us to honor that.  Come on, guys.  That’s just unrealistic on a full flight.

Some of you may be thinking you can’t possibly carry on because you can’t get all the liquids and gels you need in 3 ounce sizes to fit in a quart baggie.  Well, take along the things you can’t purchase away from home and buy the mouthwash, sunscreen, etc. when you get there.  Actually, you’ll be surprised at how much will fit in a baggie if you buy little containers and put in just the amount you need for the trip.

If you have tips to share, please post them in comments.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you how we picked this trip and how we planned the itinerary.

Categories: Africa, South Africa, Travel Tips, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Countdown to Africa- How This Trip Found Me

Now that we’re retired I really want to go somewhere warm for the entire winter.  My husband, Jim, however, isn’t keen on the idea of being gone for an extended period.  We’ve compromised by taking several shorter trips to warm spots over the cold months.

About the time we decided a cruise of the Hawaiian Islands would cost more than we wanted to spend, I received an email from offering a special deal on a trip to Vuyani Safari Lodge in South Africa.  I told Jim it would cost less to go there for 7 days than a cruise of Hawaii and he said, “Let’s go.”   Check it out at to see where we’re going.

After booking the trip, I watched airfare prices for a while and finally booked a Delta flight from Des Moines to Atlanta, then Atlanta directly to Johannesburg, but the ATL to JNB leg is nearly 16 hours!  More on that later.

Tips for booking airfare:  I use a number of sites like,, and  Each one allows you to set alerts to send you a daily or weekly email with the current price at various airlines and online booking agents for your desired route.  Kayak also has a tool that shows the airfare trend that tells you whether to buy or wait.  When you’ve watched prices long enough to know a good deal when you see one, jump on it before it’s gone.  Then stop looking. If the price goes down, you’ll just feel bad and who needs that? Incidentally, you can also sign up at Airfarewatchdog for their newsletter sent to your email each day showing the best airfares from your selected home airport to all kinds of destinations.  If you just want an inexpensive flight and don’t have a destination in mind, this is a great tool.  That’s how we ended up going to Boston.

We have 2 days in Johannesburg before Vuyani Lodge picks us up and drives us 5 hours northeast to the lodge located just outside Kruger National Park.  We usually like to go off on our own to explore but I’ve read conflicting reports about crime in JoBurg so we’ve selected the safest options for touring the city.  The first day we will do the City Sightseeing JoBurg Hop On Hop Off Red Bus and day 2 we’ll have a tour guide from Themba Day Tours and Safaris show us Soweto.  I checked each of these organizations through Tripadvisor and both show very positive reviews.

Another tip:  I always try to check hotels, restaurants, and sights on  The reviews are submitted by users like me and are very helpful in planning our trips.

If you have favorite tips to share, please post a comment.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you about some unusual preparations for this journey.

Categories: Africa, South Africa, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

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