Tag Archives: South Africa vacation

The other side of the world, part 2

Hanging with the animals in Kruger National Park — safari day 1

After staying the night at Pestana Lodge, just outside the Kruger, we entered the park the next morning at the Malelane Gate, across the Crocodile River. (Read Part 1 here.) Jacqui had made our overnight reservations for us because it was easier for her to communicate with the Kruger locally than it would have been for me on the other side of the world. We checked in and received our permit for our first two nights at Lower Sabie rest camp.

I gawked at this elephant skull while waiting in line to check in.

The Kruger is so big I can’t get the map in one photo! We stayed at Lower Sabie, Satara, and Skukuza rest camps.

The Kruger is a huge park — at 7523 square miles, it’s almost as big as Massachusetts. In our five days, we’d cover little more than the southern third. And of that, only a fraction of the available roads.

A dozen rest camps are scattered throughout the park, featuring bungalows, shops, restaurants, and gas stations. Each camp is fenced to prevent animals from intruding, and you’d better be inside the gates by closing time, or you’ll be fined.

The rules are strict, for obvious reasons: The animals are real, wild, often BIG, and not necessarily fond of humans. In fact, contact with humans is forbidden. You must stay in your car, be quiet, and give the animals the right of way. In other words, don’t be stupid.  The animals are said to be accustomed to cars, but not accustomed to seeing humans outside of their vehicles. Humans might piss them off.

Pay attention!

Jacqui had sent us a Kruger Park Map, which was full of information about the animals we hoped to see. We referred to it constantly as we traveled through the park.

These map books were available in all park shops. Ours proved an invaluable asset.

Okay, enough background — you want to see animals, right? So did we. It seemed we no sooner cleared the entry gate than we had to stop to allow a herd of elephants to cross the road directly in front of us!

One of the first elephants we saw up close. She was huge. Photo taken through our windshield.

I had to ask Eric whether we also saw giraffes and zebras (in SA, that’s ZEB-ra, not ZEE-bra) nearby, or had my brain tricked me into thinking we saw them all at once? He assured me I remembered it correctly. Need less to say, we were awed and thrilled. Little did we know that we’d see so many elephants, giraffes, and zebras that we’d quit taking photos of them after a few days.

A South African giraffe, one of four giraffe species, and the only one that lives in the Kruger. This species has speckled lower legs; the others don’t.

Look a little closer and you can see the scars on this giraffe’s neck. Life in the bush is not easy. Thorn bushes are everywhere. Most of the animals we saw had scars, whether from thorns or fighting. The giraffes also had black bumps that looked like they could be ticks on their bellies and under their legs.

Giraffes are fairly social and often hang out in groups. They mate at any time of year, and the males are continually cruising for receptive females. Sometimes we saw small groups, but most often we saw pairs.

Her skin tells a painful story.

The zebras were so lovely and peaceful. This is a Burchell’s zebra, which has pale taupe shadow stripes between the black stripes on the rump.

Each zebra’s stripe pattern is unique.

What a sweet zebra family!

We drove on, following Kevin and Jacqui’s car. Occasionally, an arm would stick out of their window, pointing at something for our benefit. It took Eric and me a few days to learn where to look and what to look for to spot animals. We did get better at it. When we first entered the park, everything looked to be the same shades of yellow ochre or dull green. I loved the landscape.

That’s Jacqui and Kevin up ahead.

There’s an elephant retreating between the two trees in the middle of the photo.

Take this kudu, for instance: See how his spiral horns mimic the tree branches, and how the stripes on his sides blend into the grasses? Of course, he’s easy to spot when he’s nibbling on a tree right next to the road.

Those fabulous horns look like the tree branches.

The Kruger is home to several species of antelope in addition to the kudu. We saw:

Speaking of right next to the road … our eyes practically popped out of our heads when we came upon this rhino snoozing under a tree, just feet from our car! This beast was at least as big as the VW Beetle that I used to drive! Notice the horizontal scratches on his hide.

A napping rhino, seemingly unperturbed by our presence. We sure hoped so, anyway.

This elephant stared at us is if she were deciding whether to make a move. She didn’t seem upset, but I had the distinct feeling that we were in her space. She slowly flapped her ears in the heat … and we slowly rolled away. An unforgettable encounter.

Staring contest …. she won.

That afternoon, with the temperature over 100° F, we came across an enormous herd of Cape buffalo cooling off in the river. I mean, there were hundreds of them.

Just a few of the buffalo that were taking a water break.

They all  part their hair down the middle.

Just past the buffalo we noticed a traffic jam of cars. What could it be? We jockeyed for position and finally saw her — a beautiful lioness lying in the shade of a red rock outcropping. Simply awesome.

This lady was the highlight of our first day in the Kruger.

And that was just day one of our self-guided safari! Incredibly, in our first day in the park, we’d bagged four of the Big 5 (elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion, and leopard). We were over the moon!

We pulled into Lower Sabie rest camp and moved into our little thatched-roof bungalow. The accommodations were basic, but we had AC, comfy beds, and indoor plumbing, so we did fine. The kitchen facilities are outside on the porch to keep food smells (and roving critters) out of the rooms.

Our bungalow at Lower Sabie rest camp.

Our bungalow was at the edge of the camp, overlooking the Sabie River. As the sun went down, I noticed a couple of elephants playing in the water …

Taking a sunset dip.

Well, maybe they weren’t just “playing” …

This guy thinks he’s getting lucky.

But, she said “No.”  “Aw, c’mon!” he said, and kept advancing.


He had only one thing on his mind.

“No means NO, you jerk!” She turned tail and disappeared up the hill, leaving her date thrashing at tree branches in frustration.

Kevin and Jacqui had packed a car-load of food and libations for our safari trip. Kevin cooked a delicious braai supper (a braai is what we’d call a barbeque), and we fell into bed wondering what day two would bring.

NEXT: More from our safari!

Eric is writing his own reflections on our trip on his blog, PhotoGraphic Thoughts. Check it out for another perspective.

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

The other side of the world, part 1

How far can blogging take you? If you’re lucky, to the other side of the world, which is where it took Eric and me this October.

But first … where have I been?

In a word: Retired! Doing whatevertheheck I want! Apparently, that hasn’t included writing blog posts. I realize my last post was over a year ago. You know, it’s curious … several bloggers that I’ve followed for as long as I’ve been writing mine (2012) also evaporated into the blog ether. A few have resurfaced lately, which I’m delighted to see. I hope to remain one of them. Thank you for stopping by!

Now, back to my story. Several years ago I began following a fascinating blog, Africadayz, written by a woman named Jacqui in Johannesburg, South Africa. Jacqui’s a wonderful storyteller, and I found her insights on post-apartheid South African life to be fascinating. I also follow her blog, Home-in-the-Making, which chronicles her story of building a new home. I was sure Jacqui was someone I’d enjoy knowing. We began exchanging emails and became Facebook friends.

A few years ago, my friend, Cathy (Cathy’s Adventures)  was passing through Johannesburg, and I offered to link her up with Jacqui. I was so tickled to do this, but at the same time, I was envious … Cathy had met Jacqui, but would I ever get the chance? So, Cathy, Eric, and I began cooking up a plan to take a South African vacation. Unfortunately, late in the game, Cathy was unable to go, so Eric and I set out on our own.

I’d never traveled so far before: If you stick a pin through the Earth, the antipode of Seattle is somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean. The nearest large land mass is South Africa. And I’d never taken such a long vacation — over three weeks — impossible when I was working, and hard to justify because of our pets. Shout out to our dedicated and kind friends, Art and Maari, who cat-sat our colony!

The antipode of Seattle is in the Indian Ocean.

We splurged on business-class tickets because we just couldn’t conceive of sitting with our legs wrapped around our necks for 24 hours of flight time. Even though we had lie-flat pods, free booze, and gourmet meals, the other side of the world is a LONG ways away. We endured a nine-hour layover in Dubai, during which I discovered my iPad had gone missing, which spoiled any chance of relaxation. Plus, I ate something bad. So had a few other folks, which made the final leg of the journey to Johannesburg uncomfortable. TMI?

As we staggered out of customs and baggage claim at O R Tambo International in Joburg, there was Jacqui, just as promised, and our adventure began in earnest. Eric wrangled our rental car at the Hertz counter (not as smooth a transaction as we’re used to), and climbed into the right-hand driver’s seat of our Opel SUV. Jacqui bravely rode shotgun and navigated while Eric faced his first attempt at driving on the “wrong” side of the road. I sat in the back seat, trying not to flinch out loud. I’d “driven” the route a couple of times on Google Street View, so the whole trip to Jacqui’s house looked oddly familiar, as if I’d dreamed it. Freeways are pretty much the same everywhere … you see the backs of car dealerships, box stores, and housing developments, and all the traffic seems to going in your direction.

Other than driving on the left side of the road, the freeways looked pretty typical. [Photo: Google Maps]

Getting close to Jacqui’s house. Aren’t these trees great? It was spring and they hadn’t leafed out yet. [Photo: Google Maps]

Jacqui and Kevin were such gracious hosts. Eric and I will be forever grateful for their generosity and hospitality. We were given a lovely upstairs bedroom with a view of the park. It was obvious why they named their house “Treetops.”

Our peaceful park view.

We were happy to meet their spaniel, Daisy, and three Norwegian forest cats, Mischka, Monty, and Izzy. Pet availability is important when you’re far away from home. I’m sorry, Daisy, I didn’t get a pic of you!

Security-wise, everyday life in Johannesburg is different than what we’re accustomed to in the States. To be sure, many Americans live in gated communities, or we may have a fenced yard with an electronic gate. (In our case, our bungalow is in town, on a corner, and unprotected.) We Americans don’t usually live behind tall walls topped with electrified razor wire …  unless we’re celebrities or politicians. But this level of security is par for the course in South Africa, as in other countries where the difference between the “haves” and the “have nots” is great. It was not a surprise to me, as I’d read about it on Jacqui’s blog, as well as seen it in photos. However, seeing it in person, the necessity of protecting oneself and one’s property was a bit of a shock. The leafy suburb that we’d call home for two nights was light years away from the tin and paper shacks in the townships we passed on the highway, where the have-nots live.

This new-construction house is already surrounded by a tall wall topped with electrified wire. [Photo: Google Maps]

Our first day was spent recovering from jetlag, but on day 2 we drove into town to a place I’d noticed on Jacqui’s Facebook page. Victoria Yards is a century-old industrial complex of low brick buildings and metal-framed windows. It’s been reborn as an artists’ community, with galleries and studios for painters, glassblowers, sculptors, and potters, with edible gardens providing green space. I love adaptive reuse, and I LOVED Victoria Yards. What fun it would be to have a studio in such a place!

Next, Jacqui took us to one of her favorite shops, Art Africa, which sells African folk art. Such a feast for the eyes! I wanted to buy the whole store! We had to limit ourselves to a few easily packable goodies such a flat woven baskets and beaded necklaces. Beading is a popular craft in South Africa. We saw some gorgeous beaded items, and came home with several.

Jacqui makes a purchase at Art Africa.

That night, Jacqui and Kevin hosted a dinner party to introduce us to some of their close friends. We had so much fun talking to everyone. I wonder what they thought of us, with our slangy American speech? Did I take any photos? Nope. In fact, I failed to take photos of human beings this entire trip, unless they wound up in a photo by accident. Guess I had African flora, fauna, and scenery on my mind. I must make a better effort in the future!

The next morning we piled into our cars and hit the road to Kruger National Park, nearly  six hours away. Our destination was just outside the park, in a town called Malelane.  The trip itself was an education. Along the route, we passed enormous coal mines and coal-fired generating plants. Coal trucks dominated the highway. South Africa is both a major producer and consumer of coal. This was a difficult scene to witness.

Coal pollution was evident.

Yet, most of the trip was beautiful. We didn’t realize that Johannesburg is higher than Denver, at 5,750 ft. Nearing the Kruger, we dropped a down a very long hill into the Lowveld (veld is grassland or prairie), at 1153 ft.

Our stop for the night was Pestana Lodge, where we relaxed with drinks and a sunset dinner on their large deck overlooking the Crocodile River. What a view! We were so excited to see African animals right in front of us at the river! Water buck, hippos, impala, egrets, fish eagles, and more. “Welcome to Africa,” I thought. It was hard to believe we were really there.

From the deck we had a view of the bridge and the entry into Kruger National Park. Those little antelope are impala.

A hippo grazes at sunset.

Hippos are more often seen in the water. They make an awesome bellowing sound.

A troupe of vervet monkeys scampers by our bungalow.

Next up, Part 2 — Our five incredible days in Kruger National Park.