Jan 27, 2013

Safari (3)

After completing the Big 5 when we saw the male leopard on our 3rd day in Phinda (see the post Safari (2)), ranger Devon came up with another idea. This guy was never short of entertaining stories, had so many interesting facts and experiences to share, could whistle the song of more or less each bird on the reserve, and used an app on his blackberry to produce calls that would trigger a bird to respond. He loved his job, and was always up for another idea. This time, on our 4th afternoon game drive, we would go to the south once more, for another try to track down elephants, and on our last morning do a walking safari on the border of the northern savannah.

And then there was Zac, our tracker. We already were utterly impressed with his skills tracking the leopard or spotting cheetahs from far away, but on our trip to the south is where he again came into play. Although we could all figure out that freshly looking and smelling elephant dung on the road is a sign that elephants must be in the neighborhood, this guy spotted elephants over a mile away with bare eyes, while bumping around on his stool on the hood of the landcruiser. We still had a hard time seeing them through binoculars with the car standing still!
The next trick up Zac's khaki sleeve: predict where elephants move to.  Driving through the rocky terrain it probably took us 5 minutes to get to the spot where we had seen them from a mile away. They were nowhere to be seen, and seemed to have vanished in thin air to us amateur Crocodile Dundees in the back of the jeep. Back in Addo Elephant National Park (see South Africa - Land of weavers) we had already been amazed to see that it took these giants only 2 seconds to disappear out of sight, not leaving a single trace noticeable to us. But Zac could trace back exactly how and where they had moved, and we got a prime sighting of a group of 9 beauties.

On the way back to the lodge, about an hour drive, we bumped into another lion hunt. This time another pride of lions, hunting a large group of female wildebeest. But one young male in the pride was too playful and spoiled the hunt for his mom. He didn't really care, and instead started teasing his sister. Scaring the heck out of her by sneaking up on her from behind, they got into a playful fight. That's when you realize they are big cats - they play like kittens, except they are about 25 times bigger and heavier. Imagine 200 pounds of lean muscle with paws the size of a human head hitting his little sis........
After 4 days of amazing game viewing, it was time to leave. But not until our last morning drive and walking safari. We all had our wish list checked off, but when Devon asked if there was anything we would still like to see, Gabriella was quick to say "honey badger". Devon smirked "yeah, right", and took us on a walking tour through bushland. This time he did load his gun (that's a heavy thing to carry around, by the way), and no one was allowed to talk so we would not chase off any small wildlife or scare any big ones into attack. If we wanted to get Devon's attention, we had to click our fingers.

All were confused when Jeroen started clicking like a madman, until everyone saw running straight at us from around a bush: a honey badger! No kidding! Devon was ecstatic, making victory dances: this was the third time he ever saw one on over 30 years of safari, the first time on over a 1000 walking safaris, and the first time in plain daylight. Gabri was a little more down-to-earth by responding: "You just have to wish hard enough for it". Don't you love her? Well, I do..... And the honey badger? When he saw us he stopped dead in his tracks, paused to consider whether he was gonna give a s#!t, then turned around and ran off.
Devon, still excited like a little kid, also had a trick up his khaki sleeve. Walking up front, he guided us to the last sighting in this beautiful safari paradise. A green-white checkered picnic table, with Zac's hot chocolate and amarula waiting for us.

Man, it's hard to leave this place. Maybe I should have followed by childhood dream of becoming a ranger after all. Nonetheless, a couple of dreams came true in GABROEN's 4 days in Phinda.

GABROEN on behalf of Jeroen

Jan 23, 2013

Safari (2)

Being back from South Africa almost two months now, it's time to wrap up the GABROEN posts about that trip. And now that Chicago temperatures are dipping lower than we have had so far in the two years we've been here (0 degrees F or -20 degrees C, with an additional -20 degrees F / -10 degrees C windchill), the balmy South African spring seems to have drifted off to a remote neuron in our memory. After the previous five posts (South AfricaGood HopeLand of weaversTranskei and Safari (1)), I'll post three more. One about the end of our trip in famous Kruger National Park and an Ndebele community, and two more about the beautiful safari experience in Phinda Game Reserve.

Our 4 days in the safari paradises called Phinda consisted of the same schedule: wake-up call at 5am, tea/coffee at 5:30, morning game drive from 5:45 till 9, breakfast till 10, time to chill at the pool till lunch at 1:30pm, afternoon tea at 3, afternoon game drive from 3:30 till 7, and dinner at 7:30. After the first day's awesome afternoon game drive with a cheetah mom hunting for her two cubs (see the post Safari (1)), we feel we could get used to this. The only thing requiring some adjustment for us is to get in bed early enough to cope with the 5am wake up call. But if all game drives are as great as the first one, GABROEN does not have any problem getting up early.

Our first morning drive led us to the Zuku Mountains searching for elephants. We did not find them, but we did see a majestic Martial Eagle feasting on a young warthog, as well as herds of zebra, Impala and Nyala antelopes, giraffes, warthogs, African Buffalo, and many birds. It's impressive to see how many animals live so close to each other in the wild, and how many one can see even before breakfast!?! Even more during breakfast, with Nyalas sparring and baby warthogs playing right in front of your table while you're enjoying Zulu chef Sam's creations, unless birds or vervet monkeys raid it out of your hand.

Still full from first day's dinner, we eased on the calories at breakfast, dozed off at the pool while watching vervet monkeys with babies boldly hunting for an easy guest food steal. Gabri's mom already had one fetching an apple from her room. Lunch was great, with possibly the best burger ever (Kudu meat with a local Zulu relish). Around here, it's actually Chicago that is moving out to pretty remote areas of our brains.

The afternoon drive was back to the northern savannah, after seeing a juvenile Martial Eagle just starting on a freshly caught stork. On the savannah we saw white and black rhino. Other than the name suggests, both types of rhinoceros are grayish-black, and the origin of their names is not clear. White rhinos are much more common, have a broad chin, a saddled back, live in open areas and run behind their young when fleeing.
The much rarer black rhino has a pointy beak, a straight back, and typically live in more bushy areas. When in danger, they run in front of their young to clear a way through the thick bush. One theory for the names is that difference in baby behavior: the african, black tribes carry their babies on their backs, while the European settlers brought in the habit of pushing baby strollers in front of them. Another theory, one sounding much more convincing to us, was that the first settlers Dutch settlers used the word 'wijd' to distinguish the wider beak, which was misinterpreted as 'white' rather than 'wide' by the later English settlers. Rhinos have bad eye-sight, so they typically come up close to check you out. Well, this rhino mom definitely did. We saw plenty of black and white rhinos during our stay, some with very impressive horns. Even more impressive if you see them at less than 20 feet, with nothing between you and that 3 feet weapon.

We checked out the same pride of lions that we saw digesting and dozing on the first day. The second day they were back on a hunt of wildebeest, but apparently not hungry enough to do more than half an effort. But even half an effort by the largest lioness recorded in history is pretty awesome to watch. And this time, the pride was awake, and picture perfect.

On another drive, we watch a small herd of rhinos get up close and personal with the pride of lions, and neither of them like it for one bit. Despite some growling from the male lion, it's hard to argue when something weighing a ton is coming horn first through your lounge spot. It looked like a circus act, and is easy to forget that these are wild animals that are not acting out a trained trick.

All of this safari goodness is intertwined with stops for hot chocolate with Amarula liquor to take the briskness of the early morning drives, or wine with nuts and game jerky for the balmy afternoon drives. By now we had seen 4 of the Big 5: elephants in Addo, lions (plenty and up close), Cape buffalo and black rhino. But number 5, the majestic leopard remained elusive. We had been following the tracks of a male for 3 game drives, but without luck. However, that's where the incredible skills of our tracker Zac come to play. He also makes the best hot chocolate.......

On the third day, Zac picked up the tracks of the male leopard once again, and traced them down to a small bush. After a lot of patience, more pitstops with Zac's hot chocolate, more fabulous breakfasts, lunches and dinners from Sam, and many many more fascinating stories from ranger Devon, we got a beautiful male leopard in full view. Still digesting his recent impala kill. And that made our Big 5 complete, and fulfilled a long cherished wish of Gabriella's mom.
# Bucket list - check.
# Awesome safari - check.
# Great vacation - check.

# Happy GABROEN - check.

Jan 21, 2013

Photo Diary - Day 21

A dusting of snow and tonight -20 Celsius (the wind makes it feel like -29!). Or -4 Fahrenheit (-22F).

Jan 19, 2013

Beading Friendship - Marcia

I took a class at Chicago's City Beads last week by my good friend Marcia DeCoster. It was a typical MADDesign, clever and pretty (see the result on the post Photo Diary - Day 14). It's always lovely to see Marcia.

A nice dinner after class with NanC, Bev and Lisa,
all bead wizards from around here
Marcia and I go back quite a while, almost to when I started beading 6 years ago. It was actually Atlanta-now-San Francisco-based Joanne who introduced me to beads. She was the human resources rep for the company that relocated us as expats from Holland to Georgia, and she took her job seriously. She worked hard to make GABROEN feel at home, with her guiding principle that the majority of expat assignments fail because of unhappy spouses. And she most definitely was not going to have that happen. So one day she asked Jeroen how I was doing, and if I would be interested in joining her to go to a bead show. A lot of things were new to us those first couple of months in the US, and the concept of a bead show was certainly one of them. But I did go with Joanne, and it gave me a first glance into the world of beads, as well as a friendship for life.

Once I got a taste of beads, Joanne and I joined a beading class by Marcia at the local ATL store Beadazzles. A few years earlier, Marcia had been on an assignment in the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands. She loved living in the Netherlands, and once she realized she had a Dutch student in her Atlanta class, she was thrilled to talk 'oliebollen', 'stroopwafels' and other Dutch delights. Her class was great, and it gave me a good glance in bead glamour and right angle weave techniques, as well as another newfound friendship.

Since then, Marcia and I remained friends mainly through the internet. We do try to let our paths cross somewhere in the world; I have visited her beautiful art deco home three times now, they spent one Christmas in our Amsterdam home, and we both joined the Seed Bead Summit at Kate McKinnon's in Tucson. We saw each other at last year's Bead&Button in Milwaukee, and we are planning to get together for her master class at this year's show.

At the Seed Bead Summit in Kate McKinnon's home in Tucson
I was DELIGHTED when Marcia asked me late last year to showcase my beadwork in a book she is curating. The book is a collection of bead artists who use the internet to maintain a beading community. After weeks of finalizing my pieces to complete my collection and after Jeroen spent many evenings taking high quality photographs, I submitted my work. I can't wait to see the result, as well as the work by the other artists. The book is scheduled to come out early 2014.

One of my pieces - "Van Gogh's Blooming Acacia"
Thank you Marcia for being an inspiration and a good friend.

GABROEN on behalf of Gabriella

Jan 16, 2013

Photo Diary - Day 14

Last Friday Gabriella took a bead class: Vienna - a clever piece of design by Marcia DeCoster.

Jan 13, 2013

Photo Diary - day 13

Land of Lincoln = land of icicles.

Freezing rain has ice-coated Johnny Cash in half an inch. That makes for a crackling drive!

Photo Diary - Day 12

Hole-y guacamole cold!!!!!

Jan 12, 2013

Photo Diary - Day 11

One day winter is here
the next it's gone

Waiting for the next cold spell - the skies are already turning pinkish from the snow clouds building up

Photo Diary - Day 10

The last remnants of ice sculptures from Lake Michigan's mini-tide. 

Jan 6, 2013

Safari (1)

We picked Phinda Game Reserve for its great guest reviews, and at the time of booking our 4-night stay we already expected something great. But being there blew our minds. This place is out of this world. We arrived just after lunch time, still tired from our monster journey through Transkei the day before (see the earlier post Transkei). But at Phinda, arriving after lunch time meant we could still squeeze in a beautiful short lunch, get an introduction to the reserve and 'our' game drive group, and still catch the afternoon game drive.

And what an introduction to guided safari this was. Phinda is known for its seven different habitats in a relatively small area. We are staying in a rare sand forest, the only one left in South Africa, and home to tiny antelope like Suni and Red Duiker, as well as the Narina Trogon, a rare, bright green-and-red bird for which many birders travel from all over the globe just to get a glimpse sighting. Even before getting started on the afternoon drive, we got a prime sighting of the bird, showing off its feisty red breast. Once leaving the sand forest, we made our way through woodlands towards the northern part of the reserve, a more open savannah habitat, where we witnessed a cheetah mother on the hunt to feed her two cubs. Unbelievable spectacle, with the cubs less than 100 meters behind us, patiently waiting for their mom to bring in dinner. The target was an Impala antelope, but the hunt unsuccessful. It felt like the soothing voice of David Attenborough would start describing the scene at any time...........

Next on the drive was a pride of 10 lions, with the largest lioness ever recorded - the scale came in at 220 kg. Like the rest of the pride, she was digesting the last meal, but largely out of sight. The big male was lying right on the road with some juveniles around him, about 25 meters from us. Or as Devon put it comfortingly, at a distance of three jumps or 2 seconds. But this was not an active bunch, dozing off in the afternoon heat.

To finish off the drive, we visited the rare champagne tree, known for blooming with flutes and an ice bucket plus bottle ready to be poured in celebration of a birthday and honeymoon in our group of 6.  The belated birthday of Gabri's mom, that is, and the honeymoon was of a British couple, their third trip after getting married earlier in 2012 - she in her late 60s and he in his late 70s. Adorable and a very good reason to raise a flute. In the next 4 days our group of 6 will be guided around the preserve by ranger Devon and Zulu tracker Zakhele ('Zac'), and we can't wait.

Back at the lodge, a lovely dinner was served in the boma, the traditional Zulu open air kitchen lit by oil lamps and fire pits. We could get used to this..... So could Gabri's mom, who was enchanted when the local staff serenaded her with a birthday song in English and Zulu. And GABROEN was enchanted with how their birthday present turned out to be.

Photo Diary - Day 6

Making spelt bread....

...and banana pecan rolls

Jan 2, 2013

Photo Diary - Day 2

Everyone speaks well of the bridge which carries him over. ~ Unknown