The End of an Annum

Hey.

Howzit? You’re still here?

I probably would have given up waiting for that one last blog post by now. It’s been, what, a month? More than a month! What gives?

Ag, man…eish! It’s been hectic. In the past 30 days, we’ve driven across the US in a rented car, purchased a new car, moved back into our house, installed new carpet in our house, moved our stuff back into our house (which involved hoisting a sofa bed up through a third-story bedroom window), painted nearly every wall in the house, ordered internet service, cancelled internet service, ordered different internet service and a whole bunch of other stuff that required the focus of a blinkered thoroughbred…all while learning how to live in America again.

Sure, we’ve taken time out to enjoy time with family and friends, but until now there just hasn’t been a quiet moment to reflect on the past year, on the experiences we had, on the life we lived in South Africa, on that which was there but now is gone.

Truthfully, several quiet moments have likely come and gone. Instead of filling them with contemplation or remembrance, I played Words With Friends or watched a very sensationalized and very tape-delayed Olympic event. Shame on me. Loathe to admit in writing what I already know to be true, I’ve been putting off this task, as if not summarizing the past year would somehow leave the door open to a swift return to life in South Africa, as if these very characters would fashion themselves into nails and forever seal shut our portal to Pretoria.

As if the 8,000-mile, 16-hour flight didn’t do just that. That is, once we actually took off.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Top 20 Safari Photos

With just over four weeks left in sunny South Africa, we are beginning to face facts. Our days on safari are (likely) over. At least for a while.

But, we still have the memories … and the photos. Hundreds of them.

I narrowed down my favorite safari shots to the 20 photos below. Now, we need to pick the best one(s).

Which one is your favorite? Which one says safari to you? VOTE NOW!

Check out the slideshow, then choose your favorite in the poll below. Larger images are available by clicking the thumbnails at the bottom. Thanks!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Sense of Safari

It was late afternoon when the elephant took its last step. The young male, a sub-adult, likely broke away from the herd early in the day, trudged along a dirt path and lumbered into a thicket of suikerbos, where it fell, landing on its left side with a thud. In this position, prone, helpless, struggling to breathe, the young elephant died.

Natural causes, the ranger said, though it’s hard to say exactly what.

To the hyenas (brown and spotted), wild dogs, lions and other carnivores of the African bush, the reason for the elephant’s death does not matter. What matters is that dinner is served.

By the time we arrived on the scene – “we” being Jenny and I, Jenny’s parents, our ranger, Nick, our tracker, Max, and a young South African couple on their first safari – the carcass of the young elephant had become a sad, mangled, putrid smorgasbord. Just thinking about it now makes my stomach turn. The stench

But, on this Monday morning, there was no better place to be.

As we sat, quietly, in the open Land Cruiser, just feet from the rotting remains, we heard footsteps from behind. Two very wary, but very hungry, brown hyenas approached. They made a wide arc around our truck, stopping often to sniff the air and listen for possible competitors, before trotting over to the smelly elly. One quickly tore a hunk from the pachyderm’s posterior, but the other was spooked. We had all heard, just moments earlier, a lion roar from just beyond our position; the hyenas knew the cats were close.

Suddenly, the silence was broken by the crack of a snapped twig somewhere to the hyenas’ right, our left. Was it an elephant, coming to protect the sanctity of its fallen comrade? Ranger Nick reflexively reached for the ignition. A fellow elephant would be extremely upset to find that opportunistic scavengers had already eaten the juvenile’s neck and part of its back, ripped open its belly and removed its intestines. Ranger Nick was ready to reverse. (Good…the dead elephant stinks!)

Alas, it was not an elephant, but the hyenas bolted, nonetheless. The two mongrels figured themselves no match for what did emerge: four self-confident lions, looking to feed. A young male, two females and a cub sauntered over to the gray buffet. We watched, in awe, with shirt collars over our noses, as the lions dove in.

Young male lion and cub feasting on a dead elephant

But this moment, too, was short-lived. Again, the first lion roared from the bushes beyond. A rival pride was near. The absolutely rancid odor of death, of the disemboweled, dined-on elephant served as a breakfast beacon.

Time for us to leave.

The scene we witnessed, awesome and gruesome as it was, reminded me that as elusive as the Big Five animals can often be, each and every safari experience comes with a guarantee of another Big Five: the sights, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells of the African bush.

Of course, the sights are incredible, and the easiest to convey here. We can show you photos of the lions and the landscapes. You can see a red-billed oxpecker clinging to a giraffe’s neck. You can see a zebra foal nuzzling its mother. You can see a herd of playful elephants drinking and bathing in a watering hole. You can see Jenny’s mom serving as our tracker:

Jenny's mom, Sharon, in the tracker's seat on safari. Not sure what she sees...

When we share video, you can hear the birds chirping or the small trees snapping under the powerful game drive vehicle as it crashes through the bush. More often, you can hear Jenny asking me whether I’m “getting this on video.”

But, what’s more difficult to convey, despite video evidence, is the feeling of the bouncy, jostling, sometimes bone-jarring game drives. Or the warmth of the sun or the coolness of the wind. Or the prick of a thorn tree catching you on the shoulder as you walk through the bush searching for a safe place to pee.

And, regrettably, there is no word count, pixel width or megabyte capacity large enough to do justice to the tastes and smells of safari. After a few hours driving in the open vehicle, you’re bound to find yourself with a bit of gritty, red dust in your mouth, leaving you parched in a way that only a sundowner – perhaps a fruity Sauvignon blanc or a tangy gin and dry lemon – can remedy. All the while, your nose is working overtime, discerning scents as varied as the freshness of wild herbs and eucalyptus to the pungency of dung and death.

I only hope that we can hold on to the memories of these sensations long after we’ve left Africa. I hope that we can, while looking at the photos, watching the videos and telling the stories, remember what it felt like, what it tasted like, and what it smelled like to be out in the wild. I hope that we will always have this sense of safari.

At least we’ll have the photos.

Weekend at Vickie’s Pt. 2: Cruising the Chobe River with a Boy Named Diane

As if standing on a rock just above Victoria Falls watching the great Zambezi River rush past and disappear over the edge — or jumping backwards off a cliff into a gorge, 177 feet below — wasn’t enough excitement for one weekend, we decided to spend Day 3 in Zambia by going to … Botswana.

Although not part of the original plan, we learned of an opportunity to take a day trip to the famous Chobe National Park, just an hour or so from Victoria Falls. Operating on the We May Never Have This Chance Again principle, we signed up.

Departing at 7:30, our small bus reached the Kazungula border post at 8:30. Along the way, we passed through small settlements with a hodgepodge of buildings: some tin, some stone, some mud and thatch. Pantless children stood behind wooden fences; women washed clothes in colorful plastic buckets; chickens and goats roamed the roadsides.

The Kazungula border crossing is one of the more unique in the world. It’s the only place on the planet where four independent nations meet. Though there is some debate as to where the mid-river borders actually are, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia all come together in one quadripoint in Kazungula where the Zambezi River and Chobe River intersect.

Quadripoint at Kazungula between Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia

A reasonable person would expect to find a bridge spanning the river, allowing vehicular traffic (and cargo) to cross between countries efficiently. Unfortunately, Robert Mugabe is not a reasonable person. Zimbabwe still refuses to agree to any such construction, I suppose partially due to the fact that there is a bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia in nearby Victoria Falls. As a result, semis loaded with goods heading to or from the four states (or other places on the continent, like South Africa and the DRC), must wait their turn to be ferried across the river. One by one.

The queue of trucks on the Zambian side stretched for nearly a mile. Our guide said the drivers may be forced to wait for a week or more before their turn comes. Africa time.

We, however, jumped the queue.

With the blue ink of the EXIT stamps from Zambian immigration drying in our passports, we pushed through the crowd of people clustered inside the tall, metal gates and walked with blinders past the hawkers in their Chipolopolo jerseys. “Remember me. Peter! I am Peter! When you return, remember Peter. Copper bracelets. Big Five carvings. Peter!”

Mercifully, the drone of the speedboat we boarded at the river’s edge soon drowned out the hawkers’ cries, and within 60 seconds we were across to Botswana.

Standing on shore was our ranger and guide for the day, a fit, handsome man named Diane. Though pronounced more like de-YAN-ee, seeing the shiny, gold name badge with “Diane” on his greenish-khaki shirt was, at first, rather strange.

We rode in an open safari vehicle from the river to the border post, where we were quickly processed by Botswana immigration before stepping on a conspicuously dirty sponge mat ostensibly designed to clean our shoes of anything that could transmit foot-and-mouth disease. From the spongy block, we could see another queue of trucks waiting to cross the river.

After ten minutes by highway in the open vehicle, we reached Chobe Safari Lodge, our departure point for the first activity: a river safari.

It was truly amazing to see the animals from the water, and to see so many species of animals that live on or near the water. It’s a completely different feel from a traditional game drive.

Wire-tailed swallows enjoy a ride on our boat in Chobe National Park

We were pretty lucky that day. The sightings were nice, especially of hippos, crocs and birds.

Pod of hippos in Chobe National Park

Large crocodile and great white egret in Chobe National Park

African darter (with fish) in Chobe National Park

We also spent some quality time with an older bull elephant who had crossed the deep river channel in order to munch on the soft green grasses of Sedudu Island.

Bull elephant in Chobe National Park

If the day had ended here, we would have been extremely satisfied, but we were only halfway through. We still had a game drive after lunch!

After the buffet, a brief chat with a group of retirees from Iowa, and a bit of a torrential rainstorm, we donned ponchos and set out in the open vehicle to tour the land side of Chobe National Park. Within minutes, we saw a large troop of baboons, several hundred impala, some kudu and a marshland antelope called a puku.

Then, we saw the elephants.

Driving on a sandy dirt road parallel to the river, Diane spotted a small family of elephants ahead on the bank, drinking. He guided the truck onto a rutted path, angling towards the shoreline. He cut the engine and we coasted to a stop some 50 feet away from the herd. As soon as they spotted our vehicle, most of the elephants turned and waded into the water; one, a juvenile male, stayed behind and stared at us.

Elephants in Chobe National Park

Eventually, they all crossed over and focused on other things, but not before another of the big creatures trumpeted at us in warning.

We could have spent hours watching them, but it was getting late – time for us to get started on our return journey.

But, wait! What’s this? Another ranger driving an open vehicle flagged us down and told Diane that a leopard had been spotted nearby. Let’s go!

Diane whipped the truck into the bush, executed a killer three-point turn and gunned it in the opposite direction. Our placid game drive was now a Ferrari Safari.

As we raced down the road, the truck’s tires skidded in the soft dirt. We rounded a corner and started scanning the bush and trees for signs of the big cat. Up a small incline we spotted an unusual set of tire tracks. The other vehicle must have stopped here to watch the leopard.

Diane halted abruptly. “There!” Indeed, there it was. High in a tree, roughly 100 feet from the road, was a male leopard.

Male leopard in tree in Chobe National Park

Surveying the scene from high above, the leopard certainly had been watching the herd of impala grazing between the road and the river. They were gradually making their way inland, ever closer to the leopard’s perch. But, for now, he had his sights set squarely on us.

Male leopard watching us from tree in Chobe National Park

Quite an amazing ending to an incredible day – a day when we set foot in two countries, saw two more, and explored the Chobe River with a man named Diane.

Up next, Pt. 3: That time we crossed into Zimbabwe illegally

It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and … Hey! Look at that Lion!

Well, here we are. 2012. The beginning of the end, so they say.

But, if the curtain really does come down this year, assuming the Mayans didn’t just switch from stone tablet calendars to e-tablet calendars, the opening act was better than Broadway.

Our new year popped open at midnight with a bottle of Cap Classique and a dazzling display of fireworks, flares and flashes of lightning over the Pretoria skyline. Standing on the upper veranda at the home of our friends Yvonne and Danie, we watched as the city celebrated with gushing Roman candles, floating Asian lanterns and soaring distress flares. From the CBD to Sunnyside, back towards the Union Buildings, across to Loftus Versfeld Stadium and beyond the university campus, the night sky was alive with explosive revelry.

Exciting as it was to welcome a new year in a new city with new friends, we could not afford to linger too long into 2012; we had a big day ahead. We were beginning the end at Nkomazi.

Early on New Year’s Day, with our bikes loaded on the back of the Rio, we drove east through the mountains of Mpumalanga for about three-and-a-half hours, pushing ever closer to the border with Swaziland, until we reached the beautiful Nkomazi Game Reserve. Inside the main gate, we met Heinrich, an affable Afrikaner and ranger at the reserve who helped us transfer our gear and bikes to the safari vehicle for the 30-minute drive to camp. Leaving our car at the gate was the first of many unique and rewarding aspects of our Nkomazi experience.

On the drive to camp, we saw most of the usual suspects: wildebeest, impala, warthogs (Jenny’s favorite) and zebra. But there were several more locals who came out to greet us, including blesbok, nyala, giraffe and white rhino. Sightings before settling in. Nice.

Several other staff members were awaiting our arrival as we approached the inner gate at the Komati Tented Lodge. Hopping out of the tall vehicle onto the sandy ground below, we were welcomed by name, offered chilled, scented towels and served a flute of cold ginger beer.

“Thanks, we’re just happy to be here.”

A view of the Komati River from Komati Tented Lodge at Nkomazi

Ulrich, a co-manager of Komati, along with his wife, Arline, gave us the lay of the land at the luxurious lodge. It was amazing. Don’t let the words tented or camp fool you – the place was five-star. But an incredible value.

Like most of the other tents in camp, ours (#9) opened into a richly furnished bedroom, which led into a generous bathroom area, complete with rain shower and separate dressing room. Outside, on the ample private deck overlooking a roaring stretch of Komati River rapids, two wooden chaise lounges sat under an umbrella at the edge of a triangular plunge pool. On the opposite end, hugging the tent to the right of the entry flap, stood a massive, claw-footed outdoor bathtub. We were spoiled.

We got used to it.

In fact, it was this kind of impeccable attention to detail – from knowing our names, planned activities and dietary preferences, to the bottles of water by the bed each night and other little things – that made Nkomazi special.

Over the next two nights and three days, we enjoyed delicious food, struck up stimulating conversations with friends old and new (our buddies Hannah and Bob, and their friend, Ann, were also at Nkomazi), had relaxing massages at the river’s edge, and explored the landscape and wildlife of the reserve – both in open game vehicles and on our mountain bikes (though, I did take a nasty spill).

One of the highlights of the game drives was our time spent watching two lionesses taunt a tower/kaleidoscope/journey (the official names for “herd”) of giraffe. Driving along a grassy path between two outcroppings, we saw four giraffe loping towards us before they stopped and turned their long necks back in the opposite direction. They were running from something.

Sure enough, from behind a lollipop-shaped thorny acacia tree came the self-satisfied saunter of a healthy lioness.

We stopped. She stopped. We stared. She stared.

Lioness watching giraffe at Nkomazi

As we sat in the stillness of the warm, African evening, a thunderstorm was brewing to the west. Lightning bolts pierced the sky above distant mountains.

The giraffe took baby steps away from the lioness, but another big cat appeared. Soon, both were lying in the grass, struggling to choose between chasing or napping. In an instant, it seemed that the feline closest to our vehicle would choose the chase. She sprang to her feet and darted directly towards us. Had she recognized us as human steak kabobs? Would she leap into the middle row, where Jenny and I had just broken one of the cardinal rules of safari by trading seats?

No, she was using the truck as a shield to surprise the giraffe from their left flank. They spotted her as she rounded the rear bumper and ran through a clump of small trees. They trotted safely away, for it was all just a game, anyway. While the lion(s) surely could catch the giraffe, they would need much more help to actually bring one down. These two girls couldn’t do it alone.

Still…it was an exhilarating moment.

From here, it’s probably best to let the pictures tell the story, but let me just say this: Our Fulbright Friend, Cynthia, allowed me to borrow her 300mm lens for this trip, so almost all of my photos show signs of my experimentation with how to keep such a lens in focus and the shots properly exposed, etc. In other words, they are not my best work. Fortunately, I think the magnificence of Nkomazi’s flora and fauna make up for my mediocre photos.

Safari, So Good

As if out of nowhere, two massive waterbuck charge from the thicket on our left, rumble down the grassy slope and splash violently into the previously tranquil watering hole straight ahead. Are they being chased? By what? Where is it now?

Wait! One of the waterbuck is turning around, swimming for shore. The lead buck is now safely across, water dripping from its dark, brown fur as it stands on the bank and looks back for its mate. We sit, watching as the second buck climbs up onto dry land. A small herd of zebra stroll in from our right to survey the scene.

Everyone, and everything, is quiet.

Is there a predator nearby? A lion? A leopard? Why won’t the other waterbuck cross?

Finally, the animal finds a more narrow, shallow spot, crosses the water, joins its buddy and bounds off into the brush.

I look across at the zebra, the water again still enough to reflect their stripes. I start the car. We drive on.

And that is how our 4-day safari in Pilanesberg National Park began: with an afternoon “self-drive” game drive in the sunset beach Kia Rio.

Waterbuck swims across watering hole

Due to a bit of a scheduling error, my mom, my Mike and I were not booked on the official lodge game drive on our first night at Kwa Maritane, so we opted to drive ourselves. While I am no ranger, we actually managed to have some decent sightings, including a white rhino munching along a riverbed and a black-backed jackal hunting for ground birds.

Later that night, we joined fellow lodge guests at a “bush braai” out in an enclosed (read: safe from lions) a short drive away from the main buildings. It was a nice introduction to safari-dom for my mom, who was the only one of the three of us who had not experienced such an adventure.

Mom & Mike at bush braai

This particular adventure featured:

Giraffe sauntering home at sunset (the star above is actually the planet Jupiter)

And the list goes on…

Though we didn’t get to see all of the Big Five – the buffalo were hanging out in a remote section of the park and the leopard remained elusive – we did, I think, have ourselves a nice little safari. But don’t take my word for it. Judge for yourself, check out the rest of the photos.

Oh, and just ask mom & Mike!

Live from the Watering Hole

Greetings from the underground hide. I’ve been down here for a couple of hours now, since we finished breakfast following our 5:30am game drive. It’s peaceful, for the most part, except that there are two massive hornets building mud nests on the ceiling and every once in a while some intrepid birds fly in to search for bugs.

The hide itself is situated at a small watering hole on the Kwa Maritane lodge grounds inside Pilanesberg National Park. I am here with my mom and my Mike on a short safari.

We’ve had some pretty nice sightings already, and hope for more tonight and tomorrow morning before we head back to Pretoria. In fact, tomorrow morning I am going to skip the normal game drive to go on a 3-hour bush walk with one of the rangers. I’ll wear my fastest shoes in case we encounter the Alec Baldwin of lions. (Don’t get the reference? Stop reading and go watch Madagascar 1 & 2 right now.)

Anyway, since I’m down here in the bunker, I thought I’d share a little iPhone snap of a wildebeest that just came by for a drink. More, and hopefully better, photos to follow soon.

20111107-133050.jpg

Now, time to find a watering hole of my own.