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Saturday, December 8, 2012

South Africa

Here's another disturbing example (at least to me and some members of my family) of how my brain works.  Before taking this trip, when I thought of South Africa, I either thought of Gary Player and Ernie Els (two world-famous golfers who are natives of SA) or a scene from Lethal Weapon 2.  In the scene Joe Pesci is with Danny Glover at the South African Consulate in Los Angeles and the worker there is stunned that Glover would want to go to South Africa because of his race.  It's a pretty funny clip

A lot has changed about South Africa since Lethal Weapon 2 was released.  For one thing, there have been two more Lethal Weapon films, each more hideous than the one before.  More importantly, Nelson Mandela was president of South Africa from 1994-1999.  Don't know if you've noticed this, but he's, like they say in the Lethal Weapon 2 clip, "blek."  

In planning the trip, South Africa was high on our list of destinations mostly because of friends we knew who had either visited there or lived there.  It's not an easy place to get to, but we felt pretty confident it would be worth the effort.  And it definitely took some effort to get there.

With our 90 days in the Schengen Agreement burned through, it was time to get out of Europe.   We left Munich at about 4:30pm local time and arrived in Doha, Qatar at around 11:15pm.  We spent the night in the airport, not sleeping much, doing what we could to find power outlets to get some juice in our devices.  It was very interesting to watch the ebbs and flows of the airport during the overnight hours, as flights came and went from and to all around the world at all different times of the morning.

Our departure from Doha was at 7:15am, with a direct flight to Cape Town that arrived at 5:40pm.  It added up to around 25 hours of travel, our longest travel segment of the trip (so far).  It wasn't quite as much of an ordeal as I expected for whatever reason.  We did get to see the sun come up in Qatar, which was a first for us.
People we talked to about South Africa raved about its natural beauty and we saw evidence of that before we even set foot on the soil of that country.  As our plane approached the airport at Cape Town, the coastline spread out below us in all its' beauty.
We got to experience even more of that beauty first hand with the waterfront condo that I found online at a good price that I managed to negotiate even lower for our stay there.  It was in an area called Mouille Point, and was almost literally in the shadow of the stadium where the World Cup games were played in Cape Town in 2010. If you listened closely and the wind was coming from just the right direction, you could almost hear the echoes of the vuvuzelas, those horns that were blown constantly during the competition.  In case you forgot what they sounded like there is a website that plays the vuvuzela, 24/7-365:  You're welcome!
The weather wasn't perfect while we were in Cape Town, but it was good enough for us to get to explore some of what was quite possibly the most beautiful urban setting we had seen on the trip.  There were vuvuzelas for sale on the streets of Cape Town, along with all kinds of other trinkets and souvenirs and clothing and hats, etc., etc.
We've tried to avoid doing "touristy" things along the way, but one of the activities that brands you as a tourist has turned out to be a great way to see an area that you are unfamiliar with, especially if you don't have a car:  the double decker open-top bus.  
We first heard of the bus tours which operate in several major cities when we were staying just outside Paris.  That's when we really started to plan the South African part of the trip and a friend of ours who is from SA recommended taking the tour as a great way to see the city in a short amount of time for not a lot of money.  We took her advice and did the bus tours in both Dublin and Edinburgh, and really enjoyed it. 

That enjoyment continued in Cape Town, and it really was a fantastic way to see the city.  You can get on the bus at any of its' many stops and get back off again anywhere you want.  And it's really a great ride in Cape Town, especially if you listen to the recorded commentary that describes the different parts of town the bus goes through and some of the sights along the way.
The water front area of Cape Town became one of our favorite spots.  With Table Mountain in the background, the water shimmered with the reflection of buildings and ships and boats and a gigantic red Lego figure.

One of the stops that the bus took was to the top of Table Mountain, where you could pay a fee and ride a cable car up to the top of the mountain for an even better view.  We were running out of time to catch the last bus of the day, so we skipped the cable car ride and settled for a beautiful view of the bay.

What a spectacular view it was! Those views continued as we took the bus south from Table Mountain towards Camps Bay and Bantry Bay.  The road hugs the twisting shoreline around some secluded coves that are home to pristine beaches.  Seeing the ocean, beaches and mountains as part of a singular landscape was stunning.
The bus route went right by the apartment we rented, and even though there wasn't an assigned stop there the driver was kind enough to pull over and let us out, avoiding a pretty long walk from the closest stop. 

We took that long walk into town the next good weather day to take the ferry to Robben Island.  Despite it's beautiful setting, Robben Island has been a place where unwanted members of society have been sent for about 400 years.  Home to political prisoners and even lepers over the years, Robben Island is best known for being where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.  A ferry runs a few times a day, taking passengers over to see where the prisoners called home.

The island is about four miles off the mainland and was also used as a military fortification during World War II when the locals became concerned about the Japanese invading.  Tour buses take people to a few stops on the island, and the most compelling one is the prison where Mandela was held.
Mandela's cell is closed off and preserved as it was when he was there.  Most of the guides are former prisoners who tell some pretty chilling tales of what life was like, especially while Mandela was there.

It's fascinating to get a first-hand look at the place where the future President of South Africa was held, and released just 22 years ago.
One thing I liked about the guide who led our group through the facility was that he seemed to have no bitterness about the half-dozen our so years he was held there as a political prisoner, and it was obvious he had great pride to have shared time there with Mandela.  And we were fulfilled to have been able to see a powerful part of South African history in person.

After five days, it was time to leave Cape Town and head east, along what's called the Garden Route.  The route through the southern part of South Africa is filled with even more beauty.  After seeing so much amazing scenery around Cape Town, you kind of figure that the beauty bucket would be empty.  Not quite.  We rented a car in CT and hit the N2, with the town of Mossel Bay being our destination for a couple of nights.  As we headed east, we were bombarded with non stop mountain views to our left.  This went on literally for hours, and as we got close to Mossel Bay, the scenery got even more beautiful as the view from the road would occasionally include the ocean to our right.

The place we booked in Mossel Bay was the lower portion of a house that had a great view over the bay and nature provided us a welcoming gift of a gorgeous sunset our first night there.  
The owners were a very interesting couple.  He was from Switzerland and she was a Brit and they had been living in South Africa for several years, having moved to Mossel Bay from Durban.  They were still searching for just the right spot and were thinking of South America and gave us some interesting reading materials, including several copies of International Living magazine.  Those articles got our  brains spinning about living somewhere else for a while.

The location of Mossel Bay made it perfect for a day trip to see an ostrich farm and a nearby animal sanctuary.  Both were near the town of Oudtshoorn, so we got in our rental car for the 90-minute drive to see some more wildlife.  Unfortunately, for us and more so for the birds, some sort of bird flu had the ostrich farms shut down.  But that didn't stop us from getting a close-up look at those amazing creatures.  We pulled off at the entrance to one of the farms, where some of the large, prehistoric looking birds were gathered.
They seemed to like the attention, and were not shy about us approaching them.  Up close, the birds are absolute freaks of nature.  These huge bodies on spindly legs with those long necks that don't look like they should be able to support their heads.  When they open their wings, you can see how the feathers are connected and it looks skeletal.  Very weird.  And while we were disappointed the ostrich farms were not open, it was great just to have the chance to see them separated only by the wires of a fence.
Fortunately, the ostrich farm wasn't our only desired destination of the day.  Not too  far away was the Cango Wildlife Ranch, offering a "hands-on" experience to check out some wildlife.  You never know about the quality of these places and how the animals are being taken care of, but we had a good feeling from the moment we pulled into the parking lot.

The wildlife ranch is sort of a glorified zoo, with the main attractions being large cats.  The cats had the appropriate large spaces to in which to move around, and seemed pretty happy with their surroundings.
There was an option, for a price of course, to have an intimate encounter with lemurs.  Ben and Annie were the most into it, so to economize as much as possible, we paid for just those two to have a personal tour with the lemurs.

That proved to be some of the best money we spent on the trip, if for no other reason than the pictures we got of Ben with the lemurs.  He's something of an animal whisperer and animals totally take to him.   He's got such a great heart that one time on vacation when he was about seven we were out to eat, and he ordered just plain fish and wanted to make sure it didn't have any spicy seasonings on it.  Turns out he wanted to take some from the restaurant to give to some stray cats he had seen as we walked to dinner from our rental condo.  Apparently word has spread since then among the animal kingdom, because animals of all varieties just seem to love him, including lemurs.
And the feeling is definitely mutual.

Annie got into the act as well, showing off her own animal magnetism.

If nothing else, our visit made me appreciate the animators of movies like Madagascar, who really capture the essence of animals such as the lemur and the meerkat.

On our way out of Mossel Bay we took the advice of the owners of the place where we were staying and went across the bay to try to spot some whales.  It didn't take long at all to see the graceful beasts swimming a few hundred yards off the coast.  We tried to take some pictures but we don't have a telephoto lens on our camera and they didn't come out, so we'll just have to rely on our photographic memories to recall the majesty of the half-dozen or so whales we saw that day.

Our final stop on the Garden Route was for a few days in a seaside area known as Nature's Valley.  We had to be in Port Elizabeth in four days for our flight to Johannesburg and the start of our three-day safari in Kruger National Park.  Nature's Valley was comprised of a few hundred vacation homes spread out among about a half dozen streets that ran parallel to a really pretty beach. 
We jumped on a good weather day and had a great time hanging in the sand and creating our own little village.  

Our house was fairly typical of many of the homes in Nature's Valley.  It was on a decent-sized lot and we loved the a-frame construction and the big glass sliding doors that opened up to a nice deck.  

There was only one restaurant in Nature's Valley and we ate there pretty much everyday, making friends with one of the servers there.  He had dreams of going to the States, joining a friend in Texas for a while working as a welder and saving up some money, hoping to return to South Africa with a bunch of money a few years later.  We wished him well on that.

Nature beckoned again as it does so often in South Africa, and just a short drive away was Monkeyland and Birds of Eden.  The two adjoining nature parks had a decent package deal and exposed us to even more wildlife.   As fellow primates, we decided to save the monkeys for last and began with the birds.  

Birds of Eden is described as the world's largest free-flight aviary, covering more than five and a half acres, with more than 3,500 specimens of almost 300 species.  They are enclosed in a massive netting system that rises about 150 feet into the sky, giving the birds plenty of space to fly around.  We walked along the more than mile and a half of boardwalks, and were amazed at all the different types of birds we saw.  I can't possibly describe everything we saw as well as pictures can, so enjoy!

We had a blast at Birds of Eden, but you know what's even more fun than birds?  Monkeys!!  Monkeyland was just a short walk away from the bird sanctuary, and Lots and lots of monkeys called Monkeyland home, and it was just a short walk from one place to the other.

To get into the primate world of Monkeyland, it's necessary to go through a double gate, to keep the monkeys from getting out.  Most of the monkeys at Monkeyland come from zoos that have gotten overcrowded or from people who thought it would be a great idea to have a monkey as a pet.  And it does sound like a great idea, until they start flinging poo at you at the dinner table or demonstrating inappropriate and distracting behavior while you're trying to watch America's Got Talent, which I'm guessing is a pretty popular show in the world of monkeys.

The monkeys at Monkeyland have free reign of the place and seem pretty content.  They were clearly accustomed to human visitors and it was great to have them scamper about on the ground and in the trees coming very close to us several times.

They're fed a diet of fruit and hover around the feeding stations, especially when tour groups come through.  It was fun to watch them eat the orange slices, some of them carefully studying them before deciding which one to devour.
One of our favorites was a Lar Gibbon, who unlike most of the other monkeys, hung out by himself most of the time.  He made a few brief appearances on the periphery of the other monkey activities.

The closest and most frequent encounters we had came with the lemurs.  They darted in and out of the trees and along the paths that we walked along, some of them carrying adorable little lemur babies.

There were monkeys beside us, around us and above us, and we enjoyed it as much as we could considering the 15 or so members of the group we were with.  We did have a very good guide who did a great job of patiently answering questions and explaining the different species of monkeys we were seeing.

We had a great time seeing all the different kinds of monkeys prowling around Monkeyland, and they seemed to enjoy our visit just about as much.  That taste of wildlife was just an appetizer for the seven-course meal of wildlife awaiting us at our next stop.

1 comment:

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