Monthly Archives: December 2012

An Unforgettable Safari: Elephant Crossings, Cape Buffalo, Hippos, Rhino, and Breathtaking Sunset

12/15/12

BirdI woke up at 1:00am this morning, too hot to sleep. The air was on but we forgot to turn on the oscillating vents, so it wasnt reaching the bed. It was too dark to get up and make sense of where things were, so I laid patiently awaiting the morning light, drifting off to sleep for brief moments at a time.

At 4:00am, we woke up for good, an hour prior to our scheduled wake-up call. We opened the curtains and watched the morning sky as the sun rose. Moments before our 5:00am wake-up call, we got up and got ready for our 5:30am game drive. We had set all the important stuff – cameras, hats, sunglasses, deet – out last night, so that we wouldn’t forget anything.

We met Landon and the group in the dining area and set out for another game drive. It was much quieter this morning, a further affirmation of yesterday’s blessings. Again we saw numerous varieties of birds, all new to us. The gorgeous colors of the roller bird were striking, making them among the easiest to identify. Roller Bird

In the midst of our peaceful morning drive through the bush, we heard what sounded like angry dogs barking. When we inquired, Landon said that was the warning call of waterbuck, signifying a predator is in the area. Landon speculated there may be a leopard nearby.

We didn’t spot a leopard this morning, but we did see a beautiful male nyala. Landon pointed out some of the distinct characteristics of this antelope, including the orange coloring on its legs. Landon said he’d do his best to point out a female nyala as well, so we could see how vastly different these animals look based on their sex. nyala

After the nyala, we spotted some waterbuck. These waterbuck appeared to feel out of harm’s way of the earlier predator, relaxed and at ease in the wilderness before us. waterbuck

Next, we came upon a baby hyena den. Suddenly, it didn’t feel like such a quiet morning, as the bush continued to present one amazing sighting after the next. When we first pulled up to the den, only one baby was visible.  We watched him as he watched us, our curiosities matched. We marveled at the size of his teeth when he yawned.  Baby hyena IMG_2404

After a few minutes of observing the baby hyena, three more babies emerged from the den. We watched them play, snuggle with each other, and explore the surroundings. They played like children left home alone. They were undeniably cute. I mentioned that it feels like hyenas get a bad rap, often portrayed as vicious and ugly. Landon agreed as he reinforced what we were seeing – a more holistic expression of the hyena. “They are very social animals,” Landon said. baby hyenas

On our way back to the lodge, we came across dozens of impala. Seeing them en masse was spectacular. “We call these ‘impala that survived the night’,” Landon said, balancing the reality with a bit of humor. Impala

Completely content, thinking we’d seen all we were going to see this morning, we were surprised and delighted to see two giraffes, grazing on the trees. They towered above the trees, happily sauntering through the bush, plucking leaves off the branches. One of the giraffes crossed the road in front of us and we enjoyed a full, unobstructed view as he devoured his morning meal. IMG_2527 IMG_2490 Giraffe

After our morning game drive, we headed back to the lodge for a delicious breakfast and some downtime. I spent the afternoon on the river deck, sipping champagne. It’s a beautiful space to sit, beneath a fig tree, overlooking the Sabie river. At one point, I looked up just as a hippo was entering the water. It was the first hippo I’ve seen on this trip. I watched him swim around a bit and listened to his grunts. I was the only person at the river deck, so nobody heard my declaration, “hippo!”hippo

Just before noon a troop of monkeys came out to the river deck. They fed off the fig tree for what felt like hours. There were several moms, carting around babies. Initially, all the monkeys were far more interested in the figs, than they were in me.

Shortly after the monkeys arrived, another guest joined me on the river deck. Her name is Colette as well and she is from a town near the small town where I grew up. Colette and I laughed as the monkeys scurried around the trees, chasing each other, tossing figs they felt were sub-par, and playing. In time, the monkeys became comfortable in our presence and soon joined us on the river deck furniture.vervet monkey

The clever bushbuck stood under the fig tree, benefiting from the fig remains dropped by the monkeys. Every time I sat down to write, I’d hear a noise. It was either the monkeys, the bushbuck, or a hippo. It was too exciting to focus on writing so I sat back, enjoyed my champagne, and watched the monkeys.

The monkeys were very curious about us as well, often peering out at us, with expressions that mimicked our own. I looked up at one point and saw a baby monkey in the tree, hand covering its mouth, as if auditioning for the “speak no evil” role. Monkeys IMG_2564 IMG_2583

We were called to lunch around one o’clock. From the dining deck, we could see the monkeys had turned the river deck into their own personal playground. They chased each other around and swung in the swing chairs. They appeared to be having so much fun as they took over our afternoon sanctuary.

At 4:30pm we set out for our afternoon drive. Within minutes of leaving the lodge we saw several hippos and cape buffalo lounging in a river. It was amazing seeing two of the big five sharing space, enjoying the cool river. Landon mentioned that these animals can be very territorial, so seeing them together, in groups, was unique. He attributed their acceptance of one another to the heat – they all needed a place to cool off. Hippos and Cape Buffalo

I couldn’t help but stare at the cape buffalo. They are so perfect, they look like statues. Landon informed us that their commanding presence is matched by their strength and speed. As we watched them resting, Landon explained how powerful and dangerous cape buffalo can be. Cape Buffalo

We drove up the road a bit further and saw some elephants making their way to the river. We were a safe distance away, so we were allowed to get out of the vehicle to view them. Landon estimated there were thirty elephants in the herd. They ranged in size from small calf to large bull. They seemed so organized as they made their way toward the river. Staying close together, each elephant appeared to have a place and a shared, pre-determined, destination in mind. Elephant Crossing

We got back in the vehicle and drove up the road a bit further, just in time to watch the elephants walk up the river bank and cross the road in front of us. The sound of the herd of elephants walking at a solid clip was quite spectacular. We saw them eat along the way, keep youngsters in line, and continue off into the bush. I never imagined I’d witness a herd of elephants crossing my path, just a few feet away. Our third game drive provided another experience not to be forgotten. Elephants IMG_2673 IMG_2693

Continuing along our way, we saw a couple of rhinoceros. In just over an hour’s time, we had seen three of the big five. Rhino

“There was too much animal activity last night, so we skipped our drink break,” Landon noted. Given that yesterday was our first game drive, we had no expectations of a drink break. Tonight we enjoyed a happy hour like no other. We shared our appreciation with Eddie and Landon as we sipped cocktails, in the bush, at sunset. The sunset was magnificent and we collectively marveled at how blessed we are to be here. Bush Sunset

The increasing beauty of the evolving sunset provided the opportunity and backdrop for us to have more than a few drinks. The six of us in our vehicle took down two bottles of champagne, two bottles of wine, and some gin. We were giddy, if  not a bit drunk, as we made our way back to the lodge.

Tonight we headed straight to the bar, with our cameras, hats, sunglasses, and all our gear. We reflected on the outstanding events of the day – reminding each other that it wasn’t a dream. What we experienced was very real, but so spectacular it’s still hard to believe. We celebrated with more wine and were then treated to a traditional African BBQ, with our guides, out under the stars.

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Safari at Lion Sands: Lions, Leopards, Elephants and More

12/14/12

ImpalaThis morning we woke up with the knowledge that we’d soon be headed on safari. Awareness and having ideas about events to come is one thing, actually experiencing them is another. We could not imagine what we were going to experience today.

We gathered our ever-expanding luggage, took our malaria pills, and embarked on our fourth flight of the trip. We flew directly from Cape Town to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport.

We were excited to start the next leg of our trip. We were greeted by our transfer guide who informed us it would be an hour and a half drive to the game reserve. After all the traveling we’d been doing, receiving notice of the forthcoming hour and a half drive was a bit of a bummer initially. As it turned out, the drive to the game reserve was fascinating, educational, and the perfect transition into the bush.

The bush viewThe landscape and views are a sharp contrast to Cape Town. There is no sign of a city in sight and the pace definitely feels slower. The land is lush and green during this time of year, the rainy season. It’s a very different perspective of Africa, a reminder of how large and magnificent this continent is. This is further pronounced considering, thus far, we’ve only been in the southern hemisphere and we’ve already experienced so much diversity.

We drove past several villages. The “electronics store” on the side of the road was showcasing an old Zenith TV alongside a VCR. From our perspective it looked more like an antique store, but here in the bush those items are high-tech. The barber shop consisted of an E-Z UP tent, four plastic lawn chairs, and two men awaiting customers. Children were playing outside. People seemed to be constantly interacting with one another, smiling, and walking along the roads.

All the people I saw popping in and around the various villages were with at least one other person.  Community seems to be very important here. It looked and felt as though people were at ease, genuinely enjoying their lives and the company of those they were with.  Even people who were working in the heat of the day, transporting goods from town back to the villages in wheelbarrows or atop their heads, were smiling.

We learned there are three tribes in the area, each speaks a distinct language that the others cannot understand.  “Everybody knows who’s in which village – where people come from” our guide informed us.  It didn’t appear as if there were any street signs in the villages we passed.  People are familiar with the dirt roads, their neighbors, and members of nearby villages.

When we pulled up at the entrance to the game lodge, we were stopped for verification – a process which took several minutes. There has been a severe problem with rhino poachers in the area so security is exceptionally strict.

Bath Lion SandsThe moment we stepped out of the van, onto the grounds of Lion Sands, I felt extreme peace. The air is spacious and calm. The bush doesn’t just look vast, it feels vast – wide open. The only sounds I heard were birds, a vervet monkey rustling in the trees, and the sound of the Sabie River rushing by.

We were greeted by the wonderful staff of Lion Sands who further reinforced the calm atmosphere, handing us lavender washcloths for our faces.

We were taken through orientation and lodge safety. The staff was quick to point out that there are no fences separating us from the wildlife.  The animals are free to roam around the property as well as into and out of the neighboring reserves. There is to be no walking alone after sunset. Somebody will escort us to and from our room following the afternoon game drives and before and after dinner.

Lion Sands BedWe were shown to our rooms and told to meet back in an hour for our first game drive. The room is beautiful.  The wall facing the river is made entirely of sliding glass doors, reinforcing the “middle of the wilderness” feeling.  We were reminded to ensure the screen doors remain locked. “The monkeys are very clever and if they get into your room, they will do some redecorating,” we were told.

The sunken bathtub, rainforest shower and double-sinks are welcome amenities. There are no shared walls – each room is a free standing bungalow.  The individual wooden walkway leading to the front door makes it feel as if you’re arriving home.

We opened the bottle of champagne in the minibar and celebrated our arrival. The curious voices of friends were swimming in my head, “Will you be staying in tents??” they asked before I departed for Africa. The juxtaposition of that question and the spa-like room coincided with our champagne toast.

At four o’clock we met up with our group and were introduced to our guide, Landon. Landon has been a guide for twelve years, working at Lion Sands for nine. Landon introduced us to our tracker, Eddie. Eddie grew up in the area and has extensive practical, as well as intuitive, experience spotting animals. I asked Landon how the past few days of viewing had been. “It’s been a bit quiet” he said, noting the previous rainy days.

There are no guarantees on safari. The land is expansive, there are no fences constraining the animals into any one area. They are free to roam across thousands of hectares . Furthermore, weather conditions can be unpredictable. The bush is particularly thick this time of year due to the rains, making it more difficult to spot wildlife.

HornbillWe set out in an amazing vehicle, capable of traversing all types of terrain. I was immediately struck by how many species of birds we saw, including birds I’d never heard of nor seen before. We also saw numerous impala, one of the most abundant mammals in the bush.  Then, a call came over the radio.

The guides and spotters speak a hybrid language, appropriately called “bush language”. They understand each other completely. To us, it sounds like code. Following the call over the radio, we started tracking a mysterious animal. Landon and Eddie kept it a secret at first, so that we wouldn’t be disappointed if we didn’t see the animal. Eventually, they let us in on the secret so that we could help them spot it. “We’re looking for a leopard in this area,” Landon said. “It’s very rare to spot them,” he added.

After our search proved futile, we decided to move on. We headed somewhere else, clear to the guides, unknown to us. As we made our way to the next destination, we came upon an old male giraffe, scratching his back and neck on a tree. He was stunning, leaving us speechless and in awe. There is nothing like seeing these animals, in their natural habitat.

First GiraffeI was mesmerized by the giraffe, more than I could have expected. Perhaps it’s the way he looked against the backdrop of the bush, his body extending from the earth, through the lush green trees, and up into the open blue skies. The giraffe seemed peaceful and content. I watched the giraffe as I removed the long lens from my camera. I smiled at the discovery that we were too close to use a long lens. We watched the giraffe’s behavior for several minutes, laughing as he walked in circles around the tree, to relieve his itchy skin.

“Something else is happening and I want to try to make our way over while the light is still good,” Landon said. We bid farewell to the giraffe and set out again. “Elephants!” someone shouted. “The elephants are just a bonus,” Landon replied with a smile. We looked to our right and saw two young male lions, with a large female. They were resting, weary after a large meal and the heat of the day. I put my long lens away entirely – it clearly wouldn’t be needed. Lions
Landon explained that these are the only surviving members of the Charleston pride. The young males’ mother was killed, so her sister – the female lion we were watching – took them under her care. The other pride in the area is the Southern Pride, 18 lions strong.  Landon said the guides have been paying close attention to the Charleston pride. This pride is significantly outnumbered and their long-term survival is questionable.

Landon’s words, as we marveled at the lions, were an important reminder. We are not in a zoo, we are not in control of the outcome, humans don’t interfere.  We are truly witnessing natural order, survival of the fittest, the wild kingdom in action. This is life, unfolding before us. Lions Charleston Pride

The lions are magnificent. With each movement came sighs of “awwwww” from the vehicle. The elephants remained in clear view, although at a greater distance, while we observed the lions. Lion

Lion

We left the lions lounging and sought out to find some more animals. Beneath a beautiful fig tree we spotted four rhino. It was wonderful to see them, with even greater appreciation, given the recent assault on their species. Rhinos and Figtree

Rhino

Darkness came quickly as we scurried through the bush. “Leopard!” Eddie exclaimed, pointing toward the trees. We drove further to get a closer look and sure enough, we saw a gorgeous leopard in the tree. Leopard

With each animal sighting, we counted our blessings and gave thanks. We know this is not something to take for granted. We’ve heard stories of people being here for three or four days, never spotting lions nor a leopard. Within an hour and a half, during our first game drive, we saw four of the big five.

We continued on our way, traveling at a much slower pace. Suddenly, Landon turned off the lights and shut down the engine. “There’s another leopard. This one is stalking its prey” Landon said, pointing to the leopard in the grass.

The leopard was strategically placed downwind of the impala so they were unaware of its presence. We observed as the leopard laid low in the grass, patiently awaiting his opportunity.Leopard Stalking Impala

Landon explained that leopards are very patient and will wait hours for a kill. He said they have a very high average success rate of 60%, compared to the approximate 40% success rate of lions. We pulled away before the leopard made his kill, ironically to get back to the lodge for our dinner. We later heard from another group that the leopard was indeed successful, capturing and killing a young impala.

Somewhere along the way – earlier in the afternoon – we saw a wildebeest  It’s hard to keep track of the series of events on such an active and exciting afternoon and evening of viewing.

Wildebeest

We headed back to the lodge well after dark and returned our cameras to our room. “We’re ready for drinks!” I said, telephoning the staff so they could escort us to the bar.  After enjoying a couple glasses of wine, we sat down to dinner. It was nearing 9:00pm and I wasn’t all that hungry.  I decided to eat “light” and order the salmon. Soon, the largest piece of salmon I’ve ever eaten was before me. The food at Lion Sands is outstanding – from salads through main courses and dessert – delicious.

After dinner, we took showers, and are going to bed relatively early (11:00 pm) tonight, in anticipation of our 5:00 am wake up call tomorrow.

Friendship, Lessons, and Community in Cape Town, South Africa

December 13, 2012

Camps Bay BeachToday was our final day in Cape Town and the only day we hadn’t booked a full day of activities.  We attempted to sleep in, but still woke up around 6:00am, so we went to breakfast and got an early jump on the day.

After breakfast we set out to explore Cape Town on foot one more time.  The first day we walked around Cape Town we were a bit delirious from the preceding 36 hours of travel.  Having been here a few days now, we were able to absorb much more during this second go-round.

We’d hoped to do some final gift shopping so we made our way down to Long Street.  By this time, we’d showered and had a very leisurely breakfast, so we were surprised the shops weren’t open yet. I glanced down at my watch – it was only 8:00am – that explained it.

We continued to wander as we waited for the shops to open and came across a collaborative bucket list project, “Before I Die”.  A wall outside of a business was covered with chalkboard paint and the words “Before I die I want to…” were written  next to numerous blank lines.  They have chalk inside the shop so that everyone can finish the sentence in their own words.

Before I Die

We were, of course, too early – the shop with chalk hadn’t opened yet – so we read the wishes of others. Some were quite funny and others were truly touching. I was filled with gratitude, reading the community bucket list.  One of the things I wanted to do before I die is travel to Africa. Simultaneously reading and fulfilling a bucket list, I smiled and gave thanks.

By the time the shops opened, our attention spans for shopping had diminished. We popped in and out of some stores quickly, eventually deciding to go down to the beach instead. As we were walking back to the hotel we came across a protest in front of the courthouse.

Social Justice Coalition Protest

I spoke with some of the protesters to find out what was going on. They explained that an independent commission of inquiry had been established to investigate crimes and potential law enforcement corruption in some of the most densely populated townships.

“I don’t feel safe at home,” one young woman told me. “The commission of inquiry gave me hope that I’d be protected and things would get better, but the Minister of Police is trying to stop the commission’s work.  There’s a court hearing right now,” she added. We watched as the crowd grew and their chanting got louder. As we turned to head back to the hotel, busloads of people were arriving, hoping their voices would make a difference.

Tomorrow we leave for safari at Kruger National Park which means there was much organizing and re-packing to do today. I went back to the room and packed, thankful that I had purchased another duffle bag the day we arrived in Cape Town.

Cold water Camps BayNext I headed to Camps Bay beach for a couple hours.  It’s summer so the beaches are quite busy, but the water is cold.  It was somewhat deceptive as I equate crystal clear waters such as those of Camps Bay with warmth.  I walked into the waves for a minute so that my body and mind would believe what everyone had told me about how cold the water is here.

After the beach, I met up with some friends who live in Cape Town.  I initially met Maureen and Adrian during a really special trip to Alaska in 2010.  We’d each been selected in a lottery to visit McNeil River, a protected park that has the highest concentration of brown bears in the world.

During our four days at McNeil, Maureen, Adrian and I would talk about travel, life, coffee, and wine. It’s no wonder we became friends. “If you’re ever in Cape Town, give us a call! We’d love to show you around,” they said when our time at McNeil came to a close.

It was so nice to be reunited with Maureen and Adrian on yet another special trip. They brought me up to their home and we caught up over wine, while overlooking the windswept beach. I hadn’t mentioned this to them, but two things I was sorry I didn’t do while in Cape Town were go to Signal Hill and eat sushi.

“Shall we go get a bite to eat?” Adrian asked.  And then, as if reading my mind, “Do you like sushi?”

When we got in the car Adrian asked if I’d been up to Signal Hill. “No… that’s one thing we didn’t have time to do,”  I replied.  Within 7 minutes, we were atop Signal Hill and Adrian was pointing out some of the city’s landmarks.  The views at Signal Hill are spectacular.  As we looked down at the stadium, built initially to host the World Cup, Adrian and Maureen shared additional history about the development of Cape Town and possible plans for the stadium moving forward.

Spending time with Maureen and Adrian made South Africa feel like home.

View from Signal Hill

When they dropped me back at More Quarters following dinner, it didn’t feel sad – it felt exciting. We talked about where in the world we may see each other next. Perhaps we’d all meet in Alaska again.  Of course I’ll reach out the next time I’m in South Africa.  We might reunite in London. . . or on a trip to see the polar bears in Churchill. Maybe they’ll come visit me. . . or perhaps we’ll meet somewhere none of us has been yet.

Traveling around the world is what I enjoy most. My time in Cape Town offered further reinforcement as to the importance of doing so. Traveling broadens perspectives, opens minds, allows us to form friendships with people we otherwise may not meet. Travel allows us to witness, first-hand, how others respond to global and local challenges – environmental, political, and social. New solutions can emerge from listening to, learning from, and collaborating with other cultures. Understanding and compassion increase as experience reminds us that we are not alone, that people on the other side of the world want the same basic things we do, and that everybody has something they’d like to do before they die.

Time for sleep.  Tomorrow is a big day as we head into the second portion of our journey – safari.

Journey Along Cape Point Route, South Africa

12/12/12

Cape Point DriveMonday we enjoyed a self-guided, aimless, walking tour of Cape Town.  Yesterday we embarked on a drinking tour of South Africa. Today we set out to discover the beauty of South Africa by driving along the pristine Cape Point Route. There’s been no time for jetlag – and little time for sleep – we’re intent on making the most of every moment we have here in Cape Town.

On the recommendation of a friend of a friend, we connected with a phenomenal guide named Marion Ellis.  As with all the amazing people we’ve encountered in South Africa, Marion is more than a guide – she’s a friend and a tremendous host.

Marion met us in the lobby at More Quarters and suggested we go back to our rooms to gather hats and jackets. It’s summer in South Africa and Marion wanted to ensure we had everything we needed to protect us from the scorching sun and high winds.

As Marion led us along the gorgeous coasts of Cape Town, she shared history and insights about the development of each area.  We made our way through Camps Bay, Clifton Beaches, Hout Bay, Noordhoek, the gorgeous Chapman’s Peak Drive, Scarborough, and the Cape of Good Hope, before stopping for a picnic lunch (champagne included).

beach view We absorbed Marion’s verbal history of each point along the route as we stood outside, taking in the views. This was a very impressive and impactful way to learn more about South Africa.  Marion was born and raised here. She has experienced the development of these regions first-hand and has vast knowledge and wonderful stories to share.

We learned about some of the informal settlements and how the government and people are working to provide infrastructure and public services to those communities. One of the things that struck me most was the sight of thousands of shacks adjacent to some exceptionally nice homes in well-off neighborhoods.  In many places, in other countries, the poor often reside in certain neighborhoods, generally out of sight of the extremely wealthy.  It makes it easier to ignore the issues when you can’t see them.

In parts of South Africa, however, there’s no escaping it. Day in and day out, the hilltop views of some of the country’s wealthiest, those who have running water and numerous luxuries, are obstructed by shacks that appear to be barely standing. The issues here can’t be ignored and it was extremely interesting listening to Marion’s accounts of how they’re trying to tackle these challenges.

ElandWe also learned why there are two lighthouses at the Cape of Good Hope, what the city is doing to manage the baboons, and the vast ecosystems of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans which intersect here.  As we were leaving the Cape of Good Hope, Marion pointed out two eland.  Eland, the largest antelope, are shy animals so we were quite lucky to see them.  Marion suggested we journey to see the old bushmen cave paintings of eland the next time we come to South Africa. “The bushmen revered the eland,” she noted.

During a coffee stop earlier in the day, the kind man who’d been driving us around all day shared some of his personal history with us. I’m witholding his name in case he’d like some anonymity. The man was from an area called District Six. His grandfather had worked hard and built a house in the area, where our driver and his family lived. Beginning in the late 1960’s, under the apartheid regime, the 60,000+ residents of District Six were forced to leave, their homes bulldozed.

The apartheid regime then declared District Six a “whites-only” area and relocated the former inhabitants to poor, gang ridden communities. At the age of 19, this man was uprooted from his home, separated from his family, and forced to leave behind the life he knew and loved. The home his grandfather worked so hard for had been destroyed.

He had tears in his eyes when he finished telling the story. “Did you ever consider leaving South Africa?” we asked him. “No. I love my country,” he replied with honor and grace.

Boulders Beach PenguinsAfter lunch, we headed to Boulders Beach to see the penguin colony.  The penguins settled on the beach, in a residential neighborhood, in 1982, much to the dismay of the human residents. The penguins are protected, however, and Boulders Beach is a great place to view them in  their natural habitat. We did notice some entrepreneurial  human residents who had converted their garages into mini businesses to capitalize on this relatively recent tourist destination.

Penguin ReflectionOne of the things I’ve come to appreciate about South Africa is that the animals appear to have the right of way.  There seems to be an awareness and respect that we – people – are the visitors in the animals’ habitat. I’m often upset by the removal of wild animals from “suburban” areas in Los Angeles.  Where are the animals supposed to go as we continue to build on their land and force them out of their natural habitat? It’s inspiring to witness some of the fair, respectful, wildlife policies in South Africa.

We watched the penguins for a while and I was blown away by how they communicate.  It’s one thing to watch National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.  It’s another thing to stand 5 feet from penguins and observe their behavior.  We watched penguins approach one another and cock their heads as they squawked at each other, in animated conversation.  We saw two babies hounding their mom for food and watched several penguins swim and emerge from the ocean.

Next we headed to Kalk Bay where the brown sands of the Indian Ocean were present.  We learned that from atop Table Mountain, you can tell which ocean you’re looking at based on the color of the sand.  The Atlantic’s fine white beaches are a sharp contrast to the rust-colored sands of the Indian Ocean. Marion took us to a great gallery and shop in Kalk Bay so we could see the work of some local artisans.

As happened during yesterday’s wine excursion, we were not ready for our tour to end. On our way back to More Quarters Marion called Table Mountain Park.  “Is the mountain open?” she inquired.  Due to high winds, the mountain is often closed, so it’s important to check in advance before venturing to this landmark. “It’s open.  You should seize the moment and go up Table Mountain for sunset! It  may be closed tomorrow, so go while you can,” Marion suggested.

Table Mountain SunsetWe were exhausted, but we’re in Africa and we didn’t come here to sleep.  So, we dropped off our stuff at the hotel and took the cable car up Table Mountain. It was extremely crowded as a result of discounted prices after 6pm. Rather than fight the crowds for a spot at the edge of the mountain, we purchased some Pinotage, found a quiet table, and watched the sunset peacefully.

The cable ride car back down the mountain was spectacular and something I hadn’t expected.  With the sun now below the horizon, Cape Town was lit up beautifully against the night sky.

Before heading to bed, we popped into a great bar near More Quarters, Asoka, for a nightcap. There, we were introduced to one of the most delicious drinks I’ve ever had – vanilla vodka, shaken with fresh passion fruit, passion fruit puree and vanilla sugar. They serve it straight up, with a shot of champagne on the side. Two of those and it’s time to call it a night.

Tomorrow is our last day in Cape Town.  We don’t have any scheduled activities, just time to explore and enjoy the city. I have some friends who live here I’m going to attempt to connect with. I can’t wait to share my adventures with them and to hear and learn from their perspectives as well.

If you plan to visit Cape Town, I highly recommend you connect with Marion Ellis at Cape Insights.  She will make sure you get the most out of your time in South Africa, taking you on amazing custom tours and adventures. You’ll learn a lot and have a wonderful time!

Cape Insights
+27(0)21 424 0018 (GMT+2)
info@capeinsights.com

Drinking Our Way Through South Africa

12/11/12 

stellenboschWe woke up early this morning so we’d have time for breakfast prior to the day’s wine tasting adventures.

The package we booked through Lion World Tours included a half-day trip to Stellenbosch, one of South Africa’s famous wine regions. However, we felt that traveling nearly 10,000 miles to South Africa warranted a full day in the Stellenbosch region, so we opted to extend the tour.  South Africa is known for its wine and we wanted to ensure we had ample time to appreciate it.

Our package also includes daily breakfast at More Quarters, where we’re staying. In my previous travel experiences, “breakfast included” equals continental breakfast, which isn’t really my thing.  So I anticipated that this may simply be a snack and that we’d get a “real breakfast” somewhere else.  I am pleased to report that I was entirely wrong. Breakfast at More Quarters is outstanding!

We were escorted to the dining room upstairs by Liz, who works at the front desk, but again, treats us more like old friends than hotel guests.  The dining room is beautiful, open and spacious, with windows on all sides.  There was a wonderful spread of fresh juices, tea, pastries, meats and cheeses, fruits, and cereals.  It was the  most elaborate “continental breakfast” I’d seen.

Next we were handed menus, which included a wonderful selection of egg dishes, as well as sweet items, and create-your-own options.  Breakfast at More Quarters is among the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. I’m already looking forward to tomorrow morning’s meal.

During breakfast I reflected on our day yesterday. I tried to recall my formal education – the lectures and the textbooks.  We were taught about apartheid at some point, I remember that much.  Yet, everything I learned was a “fact” presented on a piece of paper or talked at me by someone who couldn’t lend any first-hand perspective.  I’m grateful for school and I received a wonderful education, but I don’t feel I truly learned about apartheid until I came to Africa and heard about it from people who’ve lived through it.

I snapped out of my daydream and finished breakfast just before our guide, Sharif, arrived to escort us on our wine tour. We made arrangements to go to a few wineries early in the day and then meet up with the half-day group during the latter part of the day.

Fairview Goat GreetingOur wine tasting began at Fairview, known for their wines, cheeses, and goats.  When we arrived, we noticed a male goat sitting peacefully on the top floor of a tower. Shortly thereafter a female goat greeted us.

The GoatfatherWe selected a special tasting that included cheese pairing.  “Colette! It’s 9:15 in the morning and we’re already drinking,” my friend exclaimed, reveling in the absurdity of it all. “Cheers!” I replied, raising my glass.  I had no doubt we’d be able to endure the extended day of wine tasting.

First we were asked to choose either the “traditional path” or the “adventurous path”.  I chose the adventurous path, which allowed me to taste some of the winery’s more unique wines.

With our final glass of wine we were instructed to head over to the cheese tasting area so we could pair the wine with assorted cheeses.  The honey flavored goat cheese was my favorite.  Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to bring any back to the States.

Lion SanctuaryTaking a break from wine, we set off to Cheetah Outreach so we could learn about cheetahs. However, on the way to Cheetah Outreach we noticed a lion sanctuary. Drakenstein Lion Park rescues lions that have been raised in captivity and therefore would not survive in the wild. They rescue lions from circuses and from zoos that are closing down.

Coca Cola Sponsorship of Lion SanctuaryIt appears Coca Cola is a major contributor to the sanctuary.  I was happy to see a large company contributing funds to this important project, for what truly seems to be altruistic reasons.  I don’t imagine Coca Cola gets much global recognition for this effort, but they should.

We finished up at the lion sanctuary and continued on to Cheetah Outreach. Cheetah Outreach does important work to support the well-being of these endangered animals.  During our visit we learned that farmers have been shooting cheetahs who threaten their chickens. In an effort to reduce this, Cheetah Outreach breeds Turkish Anatolian Shepherd dogs and places them on South African farms to guard livestock.

Petting Cheetah JosephCheetah Outreach raises the dogs alongside chickens so that the dogs naturally become protective of the chickens and scare away potential predators. There are fewer than 1,000 cheetahs remaining in South Africa and Cheetah Outreach’s mission is to help ensure their survival in the wild.

While learning about the program, I got to pet an adult male cheetah, named Joseph.  He began purring the moment I touched him.  While I was well aware Joseph is a cat, I hadn’t expected him to purr.  His entire body hummed as we connected peacefully.

After our amazing animal encounters it was time to get back to drinking wine. The knowledgable staff at More Quarters recommended we visit and dine at Tokara.  The view at Tokara was breathtaking and the wine was some of the best I’ve ever had.  I purchased a bottle of their scarce, award-winning 2010 Pinotage which is not available for shipping in the U.S. I also shipped a few bottles of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet home.

We wanted to stay at Tokara all day, but the time had come for us to meet up with the half-day tour.   We connected with the rest of the group at Ernie Els Wine Reserve.  We took in the beauty of the property as we embarked down another tasting adventure. Ernie Els specializes in red wines.  While tasting, we learned that the vineyards are carefully arranged according to wind patterns, to minimize damage from high winds.

Ernie Ells Private CellarJust as our group was about to leave, another group was headed down for a tour of Ernie Els’ private cellar.  We spoke with both guides, as well as the staff at Ernie Els, and arranged to stay behind for the special tour.

The group of people we connected with on this portion of the tour were quite spirited and, like us, not quite ready to call it quits.  We asked our guide if we could stop by another winery rather than head back to the hotel.  Much to everyone’s delight, he obliged. We shared a lot of laughs – as well as several bathroom and water stops – with this fun group of people, solidifying several new friendships.

Still not ready to return home, we asked our wonderful guide if he’d drop us off at Mama Africa for traditional African food and live music.  Our new wine-enthusiast friends, Les and Dana, joined us and we had an absolutely amazing time.  The place was packed and it took 2 hours for our food to arrive, which meant nothing more than we had 2 additional hours to drink. We tried some new beers, various speciality shots, and some traditional cocktails.

A really fun live band called Abakhaya performed throughout the night.  I shot some video to share with you, but upon further review it turns out 16 hours of drinking does little for my cinematography skills.  You’ll just have to travel to Cape Town to see them. . . or take my word for it.

Off to bed.  Tomorrow is another full day of adventure as we embark on the famous Cape Point drive.

Arriving in Cape Town, South Africa

12/10/12 

We arrived. By the time we checked into More Quarters, it was 2:30pm Monday. This would have been our first moment to unwind since we began the series of flights Saturday night. However, rather than relaxing, we decided to seize the moment – and the daylight – to explore Cape Town. We quickly took showers, changed clothes and walked out the door. We didn’t really have a determined destination, we simply set out to explore.

IMG_1892 Cape Town is a city with prominent and unique geographic features.  Table Mountain, recently named one of the “New Seven Wonders of Nature”, is visible from nearly every vantage point.  The warm waters of the Indian Ocean and the cool waters of the Atlantic meet in Cape Town as well. The rich marine surroundings are exquisite, further highlighted by the vast mountains.

It’s so surreal that we’ve reminded ourselves we’re here numerous times throughout the day. There have been some comical and obvious indicators that we’re in new territory: figuring out how turn the lights on. . . and off, how to fill the bathtub. . . and drain it, and how to use an old metal key to open the gates leading to our hotel room.

Those are good indicators that we’re in unfamiliar territory, but the best indicator that we’re in Africa is the people. I’ve heard this –  and chances are you’ve heard this as well – the people in Africa are kind, hospitable, positive, and full of gratitude. We are blessed to experience this first-hand. Everyone we’ve encountered exudes joy, love and passion, even in the face of challenges.

People in Africa look up to America. We’re the Americans in town and they’re happy to see us. America is a place many say they aspire to live. “If I work hard, I can go there someday,” a wonderful man named Gilbert said, with a smile and the look of a dream-come-true in his eyes. “But I have to work really hard,” he added.

“Stay hopeful!” two young men we met today cheered. Obama’s words have traveresed continents. There are people in Africa, up against insurmountable odds, who have hope as a result of our President’s words and leadership.

People here are extremely interested in, informed, and invested in our politics. They depend on our policies, our foreign relations, our leadership, to pave the way for their future.

We walked down Kloof and Long streets to take it all in. The staff at More Quarters, who treat us as friends, told us about a place called Green Market Square where people sell African arts and crafts. However, we didn’t remember how to get there. As we walked aimlessly, we met a nice young South African couple who’d just returned from a hike. We asked them about Green Market Square and they kindly offered to lead us there.

As we were walking, they shared some of the history of South Africa with us. They told us that Green Market Square is initially where ships’ crews would come to stock up on freh produce before returning to sea. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was merely our first history lesson. Everywhere we went today, people shared history. It’s almost as if understanding its history is a prerequisite to truly experience and appreciate South Africa.

As we continued our walk, it became apparent why people are so adamant about sharing their country’s history. The history of Cape Town is exceptionally rich. To experience Cape Town, you must understand how it came to be. The couple continued to explain how Cape Town was discovered, developed, the origins of the classifications whites, colored, and black. The physical boundaries that came with the classifications went away with Apartheid, but their identities did not.

They talked to us about how things have changed since Apartheid was abolished. It was only very recently, from a historical perspective, that these three groups of people were allowed to integrate, share neighborhoods, schools, restaurants. As a result, there has been a tremendous amount of rapid change. The positive abolishment of Apartheid brought with it its own set of new challenges. It’s the beginning of a new era and everyone we meet is invested and active in positive change.

As I processed this information, sleep deprived, and disoriented, I heard “Here we are!” I looked at the couple, the brightest smiles shining on their faces. They take pride in sharing their country with us, in sharing each moment.

Our new friends left us with hugs and well wishes as we entered Green Market Square to begin purchasing gifts for friends and family back home. We were a bit overwhelmed by the quantity of art and goods before us.  Each time I picked something up, I asked who made it, where it originated.  Many of the pieces I inquired about came from Zimbabwe, a country we’ll be visiting at the end of our journey here.

We purchased a few items, vowing to return once we’d gotten some sleep, and found a nearby bar, The Slug & Lettuce, to unwind. Again, we were greeted as if we were family or long-lost friends, as opposed to visitors.  We enjoyed a few drinks, had inspiring conversations with locals, and walked away with a recommendation for dinner.

View of Table Mountain From The Waterfront

View of Table Mountain From The Waterfront

We enjoyed our first meal outside of an airplane or airport in 36 hours at a restaurant at The Waterfront, called Baia. A martini, a bottle of wine, and a delicious seafood platter were welcome comforts before enjoying our first night of sleep in a proper bed.

Our wake-up call tomorrow morning is set for 6:00am.  Our adventure: touring some of the wineries of Stellenbosch. A good night’s sleep is in order.

The Journey To Africa

December 9

IMG_2752I’m sitting awake on the second of three flights to South Africa. I should be sleeping now to get my body adjusted to the new time zone, but alas the Tylenol PM has worn off. Back-up plan activated: melatonin, red wine, and writing until the next wave of sleep kicks in. We’ve got 15 hours on this flight, so there’s time for it all.

It’s worth mentioning that my soundtrack at the moment is Tom McRae‘s album, Lowlands. It goes well with the red wine and dimmed lights of the aircraft cabin.

There’s something else: a Twix candy bar has never tasted so good as it did 5 minutes ago. We’ve been traveling since Saturday night. The journey began following 2 weeks of prep and packing. The task was made all that more challenging by the luggage weight restrictions. Due to the fact that we’ll be traveling to safari on smaller aircraft, there are strict baggage considerations. “44 pounds” has never been so meaningful. With the taxi waiting outside, I left a pair of pants and a raincoat behind. It seems trivial – how much could that really weigh? 1.2 pounds to be exact. So, some clothing gets sacrificed on behalf of my camera equipment, which I’m not sacrificing, despite its 17 pounds.

In all the packing and getting things set up at work, time was compressed leading up to this journey. There were some friends I just didn’t have time to see before I left town. I’m looking forward to sharing stories when we reunite.

One of my favorite things about life is how we can feel the presence of those we love, even when we’re 35,000 feet above ground, half a world away. My current sipping of red wine straight from the bottle brought laughter at the memory of the wine shortage on a recent train ride to visit the polar bears in Churchill. My friends Jeremy and Heather conspired to get off the train during the next “stop” and find wine. This was a two day journey and stops were infrequent, in the middle of nowhere, and brief. It’s up to the passengers to get themselves back on board before the train leaves. The train won’t wait for you and the crew won’t turn back. So, unless you’d like to be left behind in sub-zero degree weather, you may step off the train for some fresh air, but that’s about all you have time for.

Jeremy and Heather set their minds to acquiring wine. They were gone far too long, but much to everyone’s surprise, the train didn’t budge in their absence. Resourceful as ever, these two encouraged a couple of the crew to help facilitate their mission. Turns out, the crew was stopping at a market to pick up some supplies, so Jeremy and Heather hitched a ride with them. The smiles on their faces and the sigh of relief when they returned to the train is as funny as a memory now as it was at the time it occurred.

So yes, I’m drinking red wine from a bottle on a 15 hour flight from JFK to Johannesburg, sandwiched between a red eye flight from Los Angeles to New York and a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town. This, in combination with a hefty dose of melatonin, is a concoction worthy of inducing sleep.

Going to Africa has long been a dream of mine. Earlier this year I had a talk with myself. “What are you waiting for??” More time? More money? The “right” person to travel with? Yes, those seem like logical considerations… But upon further analysis, it turns out those are merely perceived obstacles I was allowing to stop me from fulfilling a dream.

If I had more time, it’s possible I’d be working less and not have the money to do a trip like this. If I had more money, I’d probably be working so much, I wouldn’t have time to embark on his journey. Such factors are unknown and can always stop us if we allow them to. I’m alive now – that’s truth. The only way to realize our dreams is to take steps to do so. So, in June, I made a commitment to myself to travel to Africa before year’s end.

A funny thing happens when you commit to something – it begins to come to fruition. The following day one of my close girlfriends called me, “I just filed for divorce, want to go on a big trip?” she asked. Then came an irresistable deal from Lion World Tours, advertised at Travelzoo. Within 48 hours, our trip to Africa was booked.

I don’t know what’s going to happen while we’re there. We have a loose itinerary and amazing things “to do”, but we’re both looking forward to the expanded perspective and unforeseen adventures that ensue.

In other news, this is my first time on South African Airlines and I’m exceptionally impressed. The service in Coach is equivalent to that which I’ve previously experienced in Business Class on other airlines. They should win an award, if they haven’t already.  Thankfully, no wine shortage here. One of the things South Africa is known for is its wine.

Well, the magical cocktail of melatonin, red wine and sleep deprivation is taking effect. Soundtrack: The Alternative Best Of Radiohead.

More soon. Or later.