So our first sip of safari was a guided tour through Addo Elephant National Park (see yesterday's post South Africa - land of weavers) and it tasted like more. The only problem was that the big game reserves were a 2-day drive away, through an area called Transkei, or "yonder side of the Kei River". We were not looking forward to the long haul, but decided against flying this stretch as it would give us an opportunity to also see this part of the country. And there was something mysterious to an area called on the yonder side of the Kei River.
We were not comforted by the owners of the citrus farm where we were staying in Addo, making remarks like "are you driving that route?" and "well, it's not unsafe, but you'll see for yourself". Well, we did see indeed. Taking heed of their other advice ("fill up on gas before you enter, close your windows, lock your doors, and do not stop for that 6 hour stretch"), we drove through a place that was different from anything we ever saw before. Transkei is the birthplace of Nelson Mandela, is black and very poor, with grassy hills littered by small huts as far as the eye can see.
Kids in school uniforms are walking or hitch hiking along the highway at any time of the day, making you wonder if they actually attend school, or whether their uniform is the only clothing they have. Most of them do have a smartphone, which must cost more than the hut they live in. And most of them are happy, dancing, singing and laughing along that same highway.
The highway in South Africa, and in particular in Transkei, functions as the town square in other areas of the world; a central point where people meet, chat, dance, take judo lessons, you name it. And cars, heave trucks and taxi vans loaded with more than 12 passengers zip by at over 60 miles per hour. All of this becomes a big beehive of people when the same highway takes you through the city of Mthatha, where thousands of people crisscross the road doing nothing in particular. Or at least it was not clear to us what people were doing, but that could very well be pure ignorance on our behalf. We were mere spectators from the comfort of our rental car, keeping that strange world out by locked doors and closed windows.
It was a strenuous and long 2 days of driving. Interesting to see, but next time we'll probably fly.
After whale watching in Gansbaai, touring through the barren arid landscapes of Klein Karoo, visiting an ostrich farm in 0strich capital of the world Oudtshoorn, and cruising along the Garden Route, we stayed two nights at a citrus farm in the little town of Addo, just north of Port Elizabeth in Eastern Cape Province. It's known for its citrus farming (it was the greatest producer of lemons in the world last year), as well as for neighboring Addo Elephant National Park. Elephants and citrus farms do not make a good mix, as the local elephants turned out to be a big fan of citrus. So the village hired an army major to shoot them all, and he almost succeeded. Almost, because the original population of thousands was decimated to a mere 16 in 1920. By 1931, only 3 males and 8 females remained in all of Eastern Cape Province, and Addo Park was founded to protect them from extinction. It took a while for the park to become successful; the fences were not strong enough to keep the elephants within the park's boundaries, and out of harm's way with the farming community. But in 1954, they figured out a way to build a fence out of elevator cables and tram rails, which is still in use today. Interestingly, of the original 3 males only 1 bred, and most of the 8 females had no tusks. Their heritage is still noticeable today, with many of the now 550 elephants in the park having no or very small tusks.
Although originally founded to protect the African Elephant, the park is now a big success story of preservation of the unique Addo habitat. Black Rhino, a unique dung beetle, and many many bird species call this area home.
Some interesting things we saw and learned: all geraniums now blooming in Europe and North America originate from Addo. And many airlines are sponsoring the local spekkieboom, because it is the most efficient neutralizer of their carbon footprint. Unfortunately the local elephants not only like citrus, but also love grazing through fields full of newly planted spekkieboom sprouts. And one of the most interesting sights: a 5 foot long earth worm, shaped exactly like the 'regular' 3-5 inch long type but blown up to gigantic proportions. When our guide picked it up, it started shedding water in the hope to either slip out of his hands or gross him out so much he would voluntarily let go. Neither worked, as our guide had a very specific sense of humor; over lunch he was going to surprise his girlfriend by asking her to close her eyes and hang the worm around her neck pretending it was a necklace. And he was sure she was going to love him even more for that gesture........
The birdlife in the park is prolific, and perhaps the most amazing is the fiscal shrike, also known as Jackie Hangman or Butcher Bird for the male's habit of pinning his pray of lizards and large insects to the horned acacia bush in which he made his nest - all of that to lure the ladies in. Guides and shrikes alike are not your ordinary womanizer around here......
We saw many different raptor birds and different type of weavers. Weavers are common across most places we went to in South Africa, and were also all around our rooms at the citrus farm. These little guys are pretty amazing, knotting and weaving nests out of grass and leaves with just their beak. Ever tried to make a knot with just your index and middle finger?
The male weavers are also womanizing show-offs, hanging and swinging from their newly built basket nests in a motion what looks most like head-banging. Hoping to show the females what a skilled builders they are, they should be ready for an emasculating disappointment. The alpha female of the group has the privilege of checking out the nest, which took him days of hard work, and she chops it right off the branch if there is anything not to her liking. Ouch. Talking about a tough housing market.
We spent a couple of days exploring the Cape Town area, with the city itself, the vast townships directly surrounding it, the wine region a little further out, and the Cape of Good Hope (see the earlier post Good Hope, and the picture below).
Cape Town lies on the north end of the cape. The city is mainly known for its scenic beauty, with glamorous palm-lined boulevards along bright white sandy beaches and a downtown financial district tucked in a natural bowl against Table Mountain to its south and Lion's Head to its north. It is also the seat of the national government, and the scene of heartbreaking forced deportations during the era of Apartheid. It is surprising to see how far the city has come 20 years after the end of that era, but at the same token it is sobering to see how the uneven distribution of wealth still is cutting through society, almost like a surgical incision along racial lines, laying bare a wound that is far from healing. There is a lot of social and labor unrest, where the poor laborers that work the mines or farmlands are protesting for raising minimum wages to a little bit more than close to nothing.
Our next stop was Gansbaai ('Goose Bay' in Afrikaans and Dutch), about 150 miles to the East along the South Atlantic coast. The coastline is smashing, and known as one of the most beautiful seaside drives in the world.
We passed another famous penguin beach, this time with hundreds of African penguins dozing in the sun or playing in the water.
Gansbaai is located on the South end of Walker Bay. On the other end is its more famous neighbor, Hermanus, a.k.a. whale capital of the world. When booking our trip on the internet, many hotels in Hermanus were fully booked, and we didn't find anything to our liking among the ones that did have availability, so we opted for Gansbaai instead. Or actually De Kelders, a little neighborhood just outside of Gansbaai, where we found a beautiful contemporary guesthouse with glass all around and stunning views of Walker Bay.
Little did we know that although Hermanus indeed has the title of whale capital, where southern right whales cruise along the coast, it's actually in De Kelders where they come and play. In plain view from land, so in plain view from our guesthouse. No need to go through all the hassle of getting on a boat and get seasick. Just stand on your 'own' balcony, with a cappuccino in hand, and see 50 feet long whales breaching and jumping. That's pretty darn amazing, and a first true highlight of our trip. More to come.............
'Tis the season for making holiday presents. This year it's beaded earrings. My good friend Marcia DeCoster came up with this design. Please see her blog by clicking here, so you can make your own. Do you want a pair?
Gabri's parents worked in their twenties in both Senegal and Ivory Coast. Her mom Marianne was a nurse, while her dad was teaching physical exercise and sports as part of the same mission. He was born on the Caribbean island of Curacao, from a rich cultural mix of african, native south american and european descent. Gabri would have been born in Africa, were it not for her mom cutting her assignment short, as she got malaria while pregnant with her and required treatment in Holland. That was the last time Marianne was in Africa, and she longed to return at least once.
That's how our whole trip came about - it was a present for her 70th birthday last year. Somewhat coincidentally, our day of arrival in Cape Town coincided with her 71st. So after a long flight (12 hours for her, 22 hours for GABROEN), we were happy to arrive just before midnight at our first guesthouse in Fish Hoek to a bottle of sparkling wine to drink to her health.
The next morning we woke up to a bright sunny day and a great view of False Bay and the mountains surrounding Cape Town. We quickly realized we arrived on a very different continent, with penguins straddling the beach only 10 minutes south from our beautifully decorated guesthouse - surely a sign of good hope.
We were on our way to the most southwestern tip of the African continent, the Cape of Good Hope. Initially this historically significant cliff was called Cabo das Tormentas - or Cape of Storms by the first Portuguese to round it. But that name was not to the liking of the Portuguese king, who apparently was in need of a more upbeat, optimistic sign that the money spent on finding a trading route to the Far East was not in vain. So instead, he renamed it Cabo de Boa Esperanca, or die Kaap die Goeie Hoop in Afrikaans.
Standing on the Cape you kind of feel the historical significance. You can also feel the wind howling, and kind of get why it got its first name; it's a pretty barren and narrow peninsula, so it's definitely less hopeful as it may have seen to a guy sitting on a throne in distant Portugal. It's also a little strange, at least to me - Gabri is utterly unbothered by this - to be in a place where the sun is in the North and the night sky is largely unfamiliar or upside down. It makes you realize it's actually you who is upside down from the Northern Hemisphere. I know being upside down is a relative term when you are talking about a round globe, gravity, etcetera, and you are not more likely to fall off the face of the earth in South Africa than in the U.S., Europe or the North Pole, but "good hope" is not the first sentiment that came to mind when standing upside down on a barren, narrow peninsula surrounded by nothing but cold Atlantic waters. But it was kind of cool to stand on the world's most famous cape.
Supposedly you can see whales swim along both sides of the Cape, but that didn't happen for us. But we had good hope, as after three days of Cape, Table Mountain National Park, downtown Cape Town and the wine region, our next stop was Gansbaai. Supposedly the best place in the world to watch whales from land. Fingers crossed.........
You probably noticed that GABROEN has had a couple of weeks of radio silence, or blog silence rather. Not sure if 'blog silence' is a word yet - I may just have invented it. The reason for the blog silence? GABROEN just returned from an awesome, 3-weeks trip to South Africa. With the limited number of vacation days when working in the U.S., such a long trip is pretty atypical, and probably a first for us since our honeymoon. In the office, coworkers started freaking out in the weeks running up to our departure, as if we would be gone for the whole winter. To make it more palatable, we included the Thanksgiving week - happy belated Thanksgiving everyone, and thank you for following our blog.
The trip being 3 weeks long, this will be a blog post in different acts. Starting with a high level itinerary here, and following with a number of posts to describe some of the highlights - and there have been many. We flew from Chicago to Amsterdam, where Gabri's mom Marianne joined us, and on to Cape Town. The first week included Cape Town, wine region, whale coast and garden route along the country's southwest coast. Second week was a first guided safari, long driving days to get to the northeast of the country, and more guided safaris. And the last couple of days were spent in famous Kruger Park, for some self-drive safari, before returning to Johannesburg and back home.
South Africa has beautiful scenery, much more mountainous than we had expected, and a network of well maintained roads that makes self driving relatively easy, albeit on the left side. Road maintenance also seems to be a continuous activity, and a way to create many many jobs, albeit very cheap labor, as well as a stimulus for the local micro-economies with people selling everything from fruit to phone charging cables. I don't recall ever seeing so much roadwork as in South Africa.
It's also a country of stark contrasts between rich and poor, largely along racial lines. Townships are present everywhere, and you can't ignore them even if you stick to the most touristic areas. In our case, we cut straight through The Cape Flats, the huge slums on the outskirt of Cape Town, because the road we wanted to take was closed off by police to intercept drug traffickers. We also drove through all of Transkei, birthplace of Nelson Mandela, a former homeland during the Apartheid days, and still a very poor area today that does not show up on many tourist itineraries. The contrast within the country is confusing, even distressing. It's incredibly rich in natural resources such as coal, gold, diamonds and platinum, as well as in fertile farmland, while shockingly poor in the vast slumps where the people live that mine and farm all that wealth, making just over a meager 50 cents per hour.
As a traveler in a comfortable rental car, cruising along beautiful landscapes and slums stretching out for miles, on highways that are used as walkway, dance floor, judo practice studio, and meeting place, the country is overwhelmingly rich in impressions, but confusing at the same time. We saw the happiest scenes in the poorest slums, which are devastated by AIDS and most heartbreaking to look at. So we just returned from a trip full of impressions, full of great safari game drives, and feel enriched.