Wednesday, December 6, 2017

We Finish Our African Trip with a Visit to Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls

Nelson Mandela's house
Back at the lodge and dried out, we had breakfast with our new Canadian friends, Dave and Linda, and then it was time to pack up and head to the airport for our flight to Johannesburg. We traveled to the airport in covered Land Cruisers and spotted all sorts of animals. It never stops! Two of the nicest things about group travel are that you don’t have to constantly handle and worry about your luggage. Turn it over to the porters (which we were told were handsomely tipped) and it magically appears where it needs to be next—even carry-ons. The other thing we enjoyed were group check-ins at airports or priority handling at immigration and customs which make other travelers standing in line ahead of you just fume.

Nice airport for Zimbabwe
Arriving at Joburg or Josie as it’s called by the locals, we board a bus as our bags are taken care of and ride to our next hotel—54 on Bath—for check-in. We find the hotel to be nice and upscale, but somewhat sterile and cold with its gray, black, and white color scheme. Our bags were no sooner delivered to our room than it’s time to board our bus for our Joburg tour.
One-legged women only, please
Our first stop is the Apartheid Museum, and just as we arrive it starts raining. At the entry into the museum, each entrant is randomly assigned to a white/non-white category which exposes him/her to what would be experienced as an individual under the rules of apartheid. Capt. Larry was a white, and Jane a non-white (she has Cajun in her!) and we saw the documentation and rules that the government required for each group.
Taking drink orders
We rejoined inside the museum and started a tour of the apartheid movement which initially dated back to the 1920’s. The history and timeline of the implementation of apartheid was interesting and we were at the 1950’s when the timeline was abruptly truncated by our local guide, so that we would have time to see the other part of the museum which focused on Nelson Mandela. We were irritated that our historical recount of the apartheid movement was interrupted so that we could visit the adjoining Mandela museum which was not nearly as historically interesting.
Leaving the water to feed
If you are going to make apartheid history the focal point of the tour, allow enough time so we can absorb the entire line of events.
A "float" of hippos
To the blacks in South Africa Mandela is godlike, but little credit is attributed to Prime Minister F. W. de Klerk who set Mandela free and really was responsible for starting to roll back the oppressive acts of the apartheid movement.
Done with the museum and it’s still raining, we board our buses and head to Soweto (SOuth WEst TOwnship), a section of Joburg that was the focal point of the anti-apartheid movement.
We saw the home that Mandela occupied after his release from Robben Island, and before he moved to more upscale digs as the head of the new government. We then retired to a local restaurant for lunch which was sort of a soul food mecca for local palates.
Maybe I'll get back in...
We had our lunch then retreated to the streets for some shopping with the local vendors, before boarding our bus and returning to our hotel. We found it ironic that with all of the emphasis on the good things that came with the fall of apartheid, we would be cautioned not to venture outside the confines of our hotel and adjacent shopping mall (in what seemed to be a fairly upscale neighborhood) as it was deemed not to be a safe neighborhood.
Hotel lobby and StanleyRoom
We did manage to meet up with Dave and Linda for some pizza and beer, after which we toured the mall, getting lost only occasionally! After this day, we returned to our room and prepared to check out the following morning for our flight to Zimbabwe, the next stop on our itinerary.
After breakfast the next morning, we boarded a bus that would take us to the Joburg airport.
Hotel lounge
We were able to store our big suitcases with the local Tauck representative, so we only had two carry-ons which we checked. How nice not to have to deal with luggage. The flight to Zimbabwe only took 45 minutes, but our guide, Jeff, told us to expect at least an hour to get through immigration control. Again, we were moved through immigration as a group which didn’t sit well with some of the other travelers.
Livingston, I presume...
Jeff obviously has some really good connections and we imagined him going through airports, hotels, and transfer companies with a big bankroll of cash, greasing every palm that would benefit his tour group and likely earn him the moniker “Mr. Quick Lube.” The week before we arrived in Zimbabwe there was a military coup that forced President Mugabe from power, a position he had held since 1983. But the county is very desperate for cash and this power struggle would not negatively affect tourism which is a major source of income.
~88 cents in Zimbabwe
Jeff gave every American $30 USD and every Canadian $150 USD (they must have made someone mad!) to purchase our visas. The passport control agents do all of their paperwork manually so we expected a long wait, but amazingly the entire group was finished in about 25 minutes.
We boarded a bus and met our local guide “Lucky” who shared some background facts about Zimbabwe as we rode to our hotel, THE Victoria Falls Hotel (apparently there are imposters). We checked in and got settled into our room, only to get ready for a river booze cruise on the Zambezi River, the stream between Zambia and Zimbabwe that supplies Victoria Falls.
Main part of Victoria Falls
As we arrive at the boat dock, we are met by a singing and dancing group of males dressed in native costume. Of course, they want money to pose for photos. Boarding our pontoon, we are given safety instructions by our captain as we place our drink orders. We are not far from the dock when we spot a bloat (yep, that’s the collective noun) of hippopotamuses in the water. We count 7 including a baby hippo. We are told that hippos do not swim so we estimate the river depth to be fairly shallow.
Falls overlook
The water level is low as the dry season is just ending and more water will collect as the coming wet season progresses. Hippos are nocturnal and spend most of the day in the water. They have sensitive skin that can crack in the sunlight so they come ashore to feed at night. The Zambezi River is the fourth longest river in Africa and we are told that the falls are about 4 miles downstream. Victoria Falls was discovered by Dr. David Livingston, a Scottish-born, doctor, and missionary, and iconic explorer that spent many years exploring central Africa in the mid-1800’s.
Long way down
As we were starting our return trip to the dock we were treated to a lecture about Livingston’s life and explorations by a local Livingston expert. As the sun was setting at the conclusion of the lecture, we spotted an adult hippo leaving the water to feed on the bank. It was a great little cruise.
Cecil Rhodes' bridge
Back at the hotel we get ready for a night of food and entertainment provided by a native group of dancers and turned in early after a very busy day.
The next morning we breakfast with Dave and Linda as we watch groundskeepers deal with a troop of baboons that are trying to steal food from the buffet. They shoot them with pellet guns which sting the animals and scatter them when they see a groundskeeper with a rifle approach.
Elephant Camp main lodge
Boarding a bus we head out to see Victoria Falls, one of the 7 world wonders. The falls are in a national park and we were disappointed that they did not have a stamp for our national park book. Outside the gate, Dave is approached by a local who has a handful of Zimbabwean money he is trying to sell. The first thing we notice is the one billion dollar note followed by 4-5 notes denominated in the hundreds of millions. Dave asks how much and buys the notes for $10.
Sly and some friends
He's told that the billion dollar note is worth about $5. Unreal that conditions are that bad off. The falls are viewed from the Zimbabwean side of the river from a trail with 16 overlooks extending for about 1¼ miles. Victoria Falls is the tallest waterfall in the world, but Iguazu Falls in Brazil is the widest and Niagara Falls is the most voluminous. We made our way along the trail, stopping at the overlooks to snap some pictures.
Jane makes a friend
At the final stop we were able to view the bridge that was constructed by Cecil Rhodes, an African entrepreneur in diamonds and gold. Rhodes envisioned a Cape Town to Cairo railroad that would cross the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls. He ordered the bridge so passengers could see the falls from it. Completed in 1905, the bridge was prefabricated in London and shipped to the falls and reassembled and erected in only 14 months time. We walked back to the park entrance, boarded our bus, and rode to our next destination—Elephant Walk Rescue Center.
The Elephant Camp provides a safe refuge for elephants that have become injured or abused.
Linda, Dave, Elephant, Jane, Capt. Larry
But probably the center’s most famous resident is a cheetah named Sylvester. Sly was brought to the center as a cub after a lion killed his mother and two siblings. Raised among humans, the cat has no wild instincts and for all intents and purposes is more comfortable among humans than other wild animals. Everyone in our group had a chance for a photo session with Sylvester. The staff noted that Sylvester the Cheetah is the only cheetah with a Facebook page. The center then served us a delicious lunch, after which the elephants were paraded in for an up-close petting session.
"Trunk up!"
These animals have been domesticated and familiar with being around people. But the elephants also know that treats will be fed to them after the petting is over. When it came to feeding time, we were told they understand two commands: “trunk up” where they raise their trunks and open their mouths so we can throw the pellets directly into their mouths; and “trunk down” where they invert their trunks so we can place the pellets in their snouts and they feed themselves.
The cleanup crew!
After the elephants were fed they retired to a pond to cool off and a family of warthogs moved in to devour the pellets that fell to the ground. We watched a video on elephant social behavior, then moved to the gift shop (Jane was already there!) before boarding the bus and returning to the hotel.
No rest for the wicked and back at the hotel we had to pack our suitcases for tomorrow’s flight back to Johannesburg where the tour ends, and get ready for tonight’s farewell dinner. The dinner started with cocktails before retiring to the Stanley dining room for dinner.
Farewell dinner in the Stanley Room
The meal was good, but the food at the hotel did not match that at some of the other venues we had eaten at. We were given carved wooden “Big 5” animals as a gift along with a group photo.
The next morning we had breakfast with Dave and Linda then prepared to go to the airport for a flight back to Johannesburg. We retrieved our stored bags at the Joburg airport and passed through immigration control and security. We said our goodbyes, exchanged our information, and headed home. We spent the layover at the Frankfurt airport in the Lufthansa business class lounge.
Some of Africa's beauty
Jane said she could live there. Finally it was time to board our flight and head back to Miami. The travel to and from was really arduous, but the in-between was really great.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Our Safari Ends at Sabi Sabi Game Reserve

Day 2 of our Sabi Sabi adventure found us with the same morning routine doing the morning game drive at 0630. Kerry took us to another pond where we found a cackle or clan of hyenas consisting of 2 adults, 2 juveniles, and 3 pups.
Hey, let me have that!
Two of the pups were fighting over a Cape buffalo skull, while the others were resting. The pups were in a playful mood and seemed curious about our presence, as they kept approaching the vehicle and stared at us.
Who are you guys?
Although they are morphologically similar to canines, they are a separate family of mammals and are phylogenetically closer to felines and viverrids. Moving on we spotted a lone wildebeest which was the first sighting of these animals we had seen.
Apparently other in our vehicle saw many wildebeests at Lion Sands. We next spotted some zebras grazing next to the road. It was time for a morning break and we pulled into a cleared opening for some coffee, tea, and biscuits (cookies).
A wildebeest
Our spread drew the attention of a grey get-away-bird and a yellow-billed hornbill who came for some cookie crumbs. The hornbill picked up some crumbs and took them to a cavity in a tree where Kerry said that it likely had a nest as they are cavity nesters.
Chillin' out
Throwing them crumbs, they entertained us until the biscuits ran out, and then we were on our way.
Yellow-billed hornbill
A report went out of another spotted leopard sighting. It was time to go in, but Kerry told us it was 15 minutes away and asked if we wanted to stay out and see it. There were three other vehicles (one with photographers from National Geographic) following her.
Grey get-away-bird
As it would be difficult for us to turn around on the bed, Kerry decided to go back up the bank in case she decided to leave the river bed. And that is exactly what she did. She came up just about 20 yards from where we were sitting.
Our second leopard
We moved into position and had a birds-eye view as she went about here preening. The other vehicles finally caught up to us, so we moved out and headed back to the main lodge. Everyone agreed and we were on our way. We arrived at the area to learn that the leopard was walking along a dried river bed. We got to the edge of the bank and thought, “Oh no, Kerry is really going to take this down that steep incline.” 
Preening herself
It was more than 45°. She shifted it into low range and down we went. We had arrived at the bottom only 20-30 seconds before the cat passed our point of descent. Any later and we would have missed her.
Back on the prowl
We had signed up to visit the village of Hundnukazi, a small village of around 4,500 residents, many who work at the game reserves.
Village housing
This would be a cultural exchange since we would be visiting an orphanage, preschool, a village shaman, and an African market. Our driver, Heavyness, took us in a covered safari vehicle, and our tracker, Doc, drove the remainder in a small van.
A rondeval and its owner
After about a 45 minute drive, we arrived at Hundnukazi and were immediately impressed by the poverty and bleak living conditions compared to some of the poorer areas in the states. We saw many rondeval huts, a traditional African architectural design, with their conical thatched roofs.
Inside the orphanage
Noticing many partially built homes with no roofs or windows, we asked Heavyness why these homes were incomplete. He explained that the government will build the slab and walls to a home, but it is the owners responsibility to finish the roof and windows.
The homes are unfinished, because the owners are saving their money to finish construction (notice that no borrowing is involved). As a partial solution, we found many homes with widows and corrugated metal roofs.
Our first stop was at the Ona Shwa Orphanage which provides care for children at risk.  The orphanage functions primarily from donations from sponsers—Sabi Sabi is a major one—and from charitable givers. We were given a peek at the Christmas presents that will be given to each child and realized that a even a meager contribution to this cause could impact very many.
Simon says...
There is a high incidence of HIV-Aids in children which represents the majority of children taken in by the orphanage. We were given a tour of the facility and told of their upcoming holiday schedule. The children were not present on this day as they were getting ready for the graduation of 5th & 6th graders. the following day.
Our next stop was at the pre-school and we were not prepared and were overwhelmed by the welcome the children gave us. Virtually all of the children, ages 3-6 years, swarmed the bus wanting us to touch, lift, high-five, and hug them. It was a very moving moment to stare into these happy, innocent faces.
We left the bus to enter the school and the children were grabbing our hands, almost to the point of fighting others for them, so that they could escort us in. Many of the children would hold two fingers up which seemed like some sort of salutation. Inside the rather small classroom the teacher gained control over their rambunctiousness and we were greeted.
Drying clothes
The teacher provided a short background of the school and the students which is open around 12 hours a day to accommodate the schedules of working parents. Most of the students are from the village, but some come from outlying areas. The school has 3 classrooms and they are crowded with 60, 65, and 80 students in the classes. After the teacher conducted a Simon-says-type of exercise, the students sang two songs for us.
Coming to the "Secret Room"
Heavyness and the shaman
Singing a maximum volume, the songs weren’t initially recognizable, but when they came to the chorus we could pick out the familiar tunes. After their performance we went back outside to board the bus and were again mobbed by the children. If only our own children wanted to be with us this much!

Back on the bus we were told that the children very seldom get to see white people, so that is why we were such a novelty.
Our next stop was too a village shaman.
The shaman's bones
We entered a walled lot with a rondeval “secret room” attached to what appeared to be a home.As we left the bus, a woman near the entrance started to beat a drum and chant. Heavyness told us that as we enter we must show respect by bowing, clapping our hands twice, and saying something that sounded like “TOO-rah.” When all had entered, Heavyness told us what the protocol would be and that the shaman would have to roll the bones to see if we were welcome there. Kneeling on a mat, she shook the bones in her hand and threw them out onto the mat and studied them intently. What a relief it was when she announced that we could stay. Heavyness then told us how this woman had received the “gift” from her ancestors and how she came to be one of the village’s shamans.
Being greeted by the market vendors
Villagers could seek advice or healing from the shaman for which they paid 150 rand (~$10) per visit. After providing this background, we were allowed to ask questions with Heavyness serving as interpreter. We left the shaman to the beating drums and proceeded to our final stop.
We arrived at an outdoor market with local goods and to the women vendors singing and dancing for us. We formed a circle around them and they broke into song and dance.
We sorta got it!
Each member alternated in choosing 2 or 3 of us and dragging us into the center to dance with them. After everyone (except Capt. Larry who wisely kept his video going) had danced, the drumming stopped, the circle broke, and the market was opened for us to make purchases. These purchases are an important source of income in these villages which suffer from very high unemployment, so no one felt compelled to drive a hard bargain.
At the market
We were running late and hadn’t had anything to eat for over two hours, so it was definitely time to get back to the lodge. We said goodbye to a farewell song, boarded our bus, and returned to Sabi Sabi.
Our afternoon drive was rather uneventful with the sighting of some kudus and elephants. However, Kerry did show us an unusual bird’s nest.
Big nest for little birds
The nest is massive, but is built by a very small male bird (the name escapes). When the nest is presented to the female, she will tear it completely apart if she does not judge it to be suitable. The male must then try again to build a suitable. Capt. Larry commented that this behavior is certainly not unique to this species, but parallels can be drawn to humans. Moving on, Kerry brought us to a watering pond where we could scratch hippopotamuses of our list.
Open wide!
Two hippos were in the water, but despite our coaxing, they would not show much more than their ears, eyes, and nose. Kerry told us that these animals have fairly delicate skin and prolonged exposure to sunlight can crack and irritate their skin. For that reason, they stay in the water during the day and come out at night.
We had our safari happy hour and returned to the lodge. No sunset tonight because of cloudy skies.
Our last morning at Sabi Sabi and Jane awoke to an upset stomach. She decided not to go out on the final game drive. Capt. Larry got ready and met up with the rest of the crew.
Dwarf mongooses
About one-half hour into the drive, it began to rain. Kerry spotted some dwarf mongooses that had taken over an abandoned termite mound. There were several of these cute animals in the mound and we enjoyed watching them scurry about for a while. Moving on we spotted a lone hyena just as Kerry received a report of a leopard sighting.
Dwarf mongooses in termite mound  
We headed toward the location with Doc guiding us off-road. By this time it was raining pretty hard. We spotted the male leopard and his safari entourage as the animal was approaching a termite mound with a rain-sheltering tree growing out of it.
Beautiful cat
Being smarter than the safari photographers (the National Geographic boys again with their huge camera lenses), the cat perched itself atop the mound and sat there. Then it laid down and eventually started dozing.
Surveying the situation
This was a magnificent specimen, much different from the females, and absolutely lovely to look at. The pictures here will speak volumes. After viewing the animal for a while we decided to head back to the lodge early and call an end to our safari. It was a really awesome experience.


So regal

Taking a rest