Category Archives: Africa

Sabi Sands: Elephant Walk

Leading the pack.

Leading the pack.

This morning’s game drive was incredible! We actually were going to look for Wild Dogs, when we got diverted by some other interesting finds. We were also keeping our eyes peeled for Elephants, since we had passed up some previous opportunities during our big cat tracking.

We soon found ourselves in the midst of a substantial herd of females and babies, Fred counted 30. We had passed the big males close by – the size contrast was unbelievable – from the humongous bull to the tiniest baby (under 6 months). It was a truly magical experience and my husband has dubbed it his favorite of the day.

My favorite was, however, still to come. We got word of a mother Leopard, with two cubs, which were finishing off a recent Impala kill. We found them and watched for quite awhile from no more than 10 feet away. The cubs are 6 months old and are her first litter – they were adorable and playful – I could’ve watched all day.

But we moved on and saw a lake full of Hippos and incredibly a little while later, two Lions mating. The male Lion in this twosome is a sort of bad actor around here, recently returning to the pride after a two year hiatus. Because he was away, he has killed all the cubs in the pride, because they were not his. Nature at work – not always nice to think about.

We actually skipped our break in order to get around all these incredible sights – but the staff was positioned just prior to our return with special smoothies and fruit as a breakfast appetizer.

From the Lodge, we also see animals – today a Hippo (out of the water), yesterday a Giraffe, not to mention the Warthogs that surrounded the pool yesterday.

Dog Day Afternoon.  Even though we saw many animals, our afternoon drive had one goal – to find the elusive and endangered Wild Dogs (also called Painted Dogs). There is one known pack of 10 and they have recently been spotted in the area after a long absence. We did find them – sleeping in the sand and reeds of a dry riverbed. Although mangy-looking in pictures, they really do have wonderfully random markings to keep them well-camouflaged in the bush. This pack has four surviving cute pups (of 6) that were alert and ready to roll. We got to see a little typical dog-revelry with them jumping around and greeting one another – kind of like locker-room antics before a big game.

It’s absolutely amazing that you can be so close to the animals here and they are undisturbed and don’t run away. It can also be very intimidating at times with the larger animals and predators.

Into Africa: The Best of Sabi Sands

A male Cheetah surveys the burned out landscape.

A male Cheetah surveys the burned out landscape.

The schedule is: up at 5:30, coffee & tea at 6, then off for your first drive (and it is quite chilly for the first hour or so). Back around 9:30 – 10 for breakfast then time for resting, napping, reading or blogging. Lunch at 3 and then off again from 4-7. Dinner and drinks follow.

The scenery is amazing here – from the air it just looks brown, but on the ground you see the colors; greens and golds as well as multi-hued flowers. Much of the landscape is the color of lions and it is incredible to learn an animal can be right in front of you and so successfully camouflaged you don’t see it.

We were off again looking for Leopards this morning . . . we could hear them so close by. A young female was pursuing a male, very interested in mating. The females will try to engage as many males as possible, to eventually protect their cubs. A male will not attack a cub of a female he has mated. Today, this male was just not interested. We had a very lively and entertaining trek through the bush and riverbeds, up and down, back and forth, ducking the thorny (1-3″ long spikes) branches of small trees and bushes along the way. But we were rewarded with sightings of both Leopards!

We had a very fruitful morning, seeing the largest male Giraffe we have ever seen, a herd of Burchell’s Zebra, Wildebeest, Kudu, Waterbuck, Vervet Monkeys, and Antelope. We also spent some time watching a group of Water Buffalo, the big males and their nearby harem, not six feet away from us, clearly unconcerned with our presence.

We opted to go on a bush walk after the drive. By then the day was quite warm. Our Ranger carried a 375 caliber rifle and taught us about tracks, plants, how to ID various types of dung, etc. Fortunately, the walk back to the Lodge and our breakfast was uneventful.

Cheetah!

Our afternoon drive took us to the far southern reaches of our camp’s boundary to search for Cheetah . . . and our efforts paid off as we spotted him on top of a termite mound. He caught the scent of a nearby lone Impala and proceeded to casually stroll in that direction, occasionally flattening his ears and getting lower to the ground. Since this was in some of the recently burned area as well as a relatively flat landscape, he was very easy to follow. The unsuspecting Impala finally got the gist of things, sounding some loud cries of distress and moving a bit farther away. The Cheetah eventually tired of the game and sauntered off.

We also spent some time watching Rhinos at a water hole. Impalas and other ungulates are everywhere. I haven’t really explained how the air is here – it does get warm, but this time of year we have very low humidity and often a nice breeze, making the shade a wonderful spot to be (where I am now, sitting on our deck). The air is fresh and clean and occasionally, you pick up the slightly sweet scent of a fresh pile of dung or a faint smokiness from the recent burns.

After stopping for our “comfort break” on a hill overlooking a mountain range and another glorious sunset, we made the long journey back to the Lodge. Upon arrival we were greeted with a champagne cocktail. Dinner was a lovely candlelit setting in the main lodge where we enjoyed incredible grilled prawns and roasted pork along with our South African Shiraz.

After an amazing 24 hours in the bush – we have seen the ”Big 5″: Lion ~ Rhino ~ Water Buffalo ~ Leopard & Elephant.

Sabi Sands: The Lion Sleeps Tonight

A sleeping Lion.

A sleeping Lion.

The day begins early ~ good practice for the next 2 weeks of early safari drives. . . We were picked up for the 2 hour drive to Cape Town airport, and this time drove along the coastal route which was very similar to driving the California coast, dramatic and beautiful. We flew to Kruger Mpumalanga Airport and took a small 6-seater plane to Ulsaba (which is Sir Richard Branson’s airstrip). Along the way we dropped off a South African travel agent at another strip, and then flew very low the last 15 minutes – allowing both of us to see elephant herds from the air.  Our final destination: South Africa’s legendary Sabi Sands Game Reserve near Kruger National Park.

Once at the & Beyond Exeter River Lodge, we sat under a huge Sausage Tree for a wonderful lunch and then departed for our first drive at 4. The experience was everything, and more, that I ever imagined. Riding in the open safari rover is similar to riding in the Everglades in a swamp buggy – but without the mud (this time of year).

Minutes into the drive, we stopped and gave ample room to a six foot Black Mamba – Africa’s deadliest snake, to finish crossing the road. Our Ranger gave it a wide berth, since it can rise up to 2/3 of its length, before striking. A bite will kill within 15 minutes. It was a rare and exciting sighting.

Several weeks ago a control burn in the area became out of control and all the surrounding camps had to get together to fight the fire. Apparently, control burns are used regularly to preserve and regenerate the 160,000 acre Sabi Sand Game Reserve (adjacent to the 5 million acre Kruger National Park). In any case, we found ourselves tracking a leopard through part of the burned area. The downside of this being vehicles are not supposed to drive on newly burned terrain.

Our Ranger, Craig, got special permission for one vehicle to enter and off we went. When they say you drive through the bush –they are not kidding – you venture wayyyy off-road. In the meantime our tracker, Martin, is off after the elusive Leopard (who could be heard making its throaty rumble not far away). We ended up finding some White Rhino, Baboons, Monkeys, Dwarf Monkeys, Impala, a solitary Water Buffalo and a variety of beautiful birds; but abandoned our Leopard hunt for another day.

Along the way we stopped for a “sundowner” cocktail and bathroom break (yes, in the bush) and to photograph the beautiful sunset. Darkness came quickly and the weather got dramatically cooler. Eventually Martin found a beautiful sleeping male Lion! We had been hearing him roar for awhile. Amazingly, he also roared, while resting (and we got that on video).

Back at the Lodge, we were met by singing and dancing staff members, along with some warm soup as a starter for our upcoming dinner. Dinner and drinks were served in the Boma (a communal dining area) around a fire (and I promise you,even a picky eater will like the food here).

BTW – the Exeter River Lodge is beautiful and photos actually do not do it justice. Our suite is amazing.

Holy Shark! Gansbaai Delivers Big Time

Great White Shark viewing, while in the water in Gansbaai, South Africa..

Shark in front!

We Star in Our Own Episode of Shark Week.  While some of you were sleeping soundly, we were up at dawn and ready for our next great adventure – getting in the water with Great White Sharks. I know I speak for both of us when I say, this has been one of the most exciting and incredible experiences we have ever had.

I decided to be among the first group to get in the water ~ just in case I chickened out later.   Although the water was cold, it was tolerable (my biggest problem would turn out to be getting out of the cage). The saltwater in this part of the Atlantic is different – seems less salty and much lighter and more refreshing on your skin.

“Divers” are outfitted with very thick wet suits, boots, hoods, and masks – when a shark is coming in, you simply hold your breath and go under! This works fine, unless you are having trouble breathing in general. To put it mildly, the experience was “breath-taking.” It’s amazing and frightening that when you are in the water you can’t see the sharks until they are right in front of you.

The crew was using chum, tuna heads and a seal board (just like on Shark Week) to lure the big guys in. We were with Marine Dynamics in Gansbaai – on a boat named Shark Fever; they have been featured on several Shark Week programs, as well as a number of Nat Geo and BBC documentaries. Some months of the year, they visit sharks in nearby “Shark Alley”, but this time of year the sharks are in an area called “The Shallows” (about 30’ deep). They were trying to monitor some females they had tagged, but they were elusive today. Our onboard marine biologist said we saw 7 different Great Whites today. With some of the sharks, the differences were quite obvious. For our Canes fans – he also said last year they had 5 interns from the UM program.

We were each probably in the water for about 30 minutes. What I saw suited me just fine – sharks moving gracefully around us, but my husband had some real excitement. A shark got the tuna head (which they are not supposed to get) and was chomping on it with his mouth wide open – basically inches in front of him and one other woman (she was actually screaming underwater). So they got to see the full shark “smile”, with all of rows teeth up close and personal!!!

In summary, every minute was an incredible adrenalin rush – we saw multiple sharks at a time, numerous episodes of them coming head-first out of the water and pretty much solid action for several hours.

Interestingly, you board the boat on land and then are launched into the water. Our group of 20 passengers was a real international crowd and we were the only Americans and probably about twice the age of most on the trip. I have some pretty decent video, but it will take to long to post here, so we will stick with stills for now.

All I have to say is ~ you’ve gotta do this!!!

Once back at Grootbos – we cleaned up and got them to drive us over to Hermanus for a little more whale watching. What a cute town in a breathtaking setting. Lots of cafes, a town “Whale Crier” and outdoor theater built into the ground for sitting and contemplating the whales. We walked on the Cliff Walk and positioned ourselves on a rock outcrop to watch whales for a while. Then it was time for gelato and the ride “home.”

What a day.

It will be an early night since we leave at 6am to head off to the Cape Town airport on our way to the first of four safari camps! It’s anyone’s guess when we will have a connection to post again . . .

South Africa: Moving to the Coast

Crystal, arrows & china . . .

Crystal, arrows & china . . .

From Cape Town to Grootbos.Today we had a relaxing morning and breakfast at the Cape Grace, bid farewell to the fabulous staff and drove to the coast with our chatty driver from &Beyond, Oliver.

I must digress for a moment and mention the incredible chandeliers throughout the Cape Grace . . . festooned with china, antlers, brass cups, incredible shells and, my favorite, native arrows; I only hope my pictures do them some justice.

OK – back to our journey . . . it was a beautiful drive through farmlands (wheat and apples), rolling hills, and finally, the coast. We also rode alongside some very large pigs for awhile (my husband loves big pigs).

Once at the Forest Lodge at Grootbos, we met with an activity staff member and planned our stay, checked into our beautiful, private suite and enjoyed a nice, back to normal size, lunch. We then took off for a visit to an 80,000 year old cave. Unfortunately for us, the tide was coming in faster than anyone planned. After going down the 185 steps and climbing over some boulders and rocks, it was determined that if we went in we would likely be trapped by the water and not be able to get out for a long while. Since this did not seem like a good option, we went back up the 185 steps and went whale watching!

Walker Bay was full of whales – and some of them were really huge.  All Southern Right Whales, we were enchanted with their antics ~ adults and babies alike. You could hear them spraying water through their blow holes and splashing, hitting the water hard with their pectoral fins.

We have a lovely, very modern suite – set up like an apartment with separate living room, bedroom, two bathrooms and walls of glass windows overlooking the reserve and ocean. Dinner was a lovely multi-course, gourmet experience that included horseradish hummus, lentil & saffron soup, pork, and a white chocolate mousse for dessert. The meal was served with a special starter from the chef, palate cleanser sorbet between courses, and very unusual (but tasty) garnishes and sauces. Even my husband liked his tempura-style salmon and Thai soup.

Now, I am doing anything to avoid thinking about getting so close to Great White Sharks in the morning ~ we leave at 7!

South Africa: The Winelands

In the colorful Bo~Kapp district

In the colorful Bo~Kapp district

We headed off for new adventures today as we took in some key sights in town, including the Castle, Bo-Kaap (Malaysian/Muslim) district & Parliament area. Then we headed off to the Winelands and the historic towns of Dutch-influenced Stellenbosch and French-influenced Franschhoek. We began with a visit to the typically-Dutch estate and winery of Meerlust, in the same family for 8 generations! Afterward, we saw the beautiful, quaint town of Stellenbosch with it’s charming Dutch-gabled architecture, churches, homes and leafy tree-lined streets with flowers blooming and birds singing. Then, off to learn about the great (and famous) South African wine – Pinotage, at the award-winning Kanonkop winery. They get the KFB prize for the best wine of the day.

We’d had enough wine to require heading off to lunch at the lovely, relaxing La Petite Ferme, for an amazing gourmet meal. If you’d dropped us in the spot, I would’ve bet my next trip that we were in Europe ~ based on the ambiance, views and wonderful food.

After walking off some (not enough) of the terrific lunch, we visited the lovely village of Franschhoek and saw enough restaurants and interesting shops to make us regret having to move on so quickly . . . . but, alas, we needed to make it to at least one more winery – and we did: the Rupert & Rothschild facility. We sampled their offerings, including their new olive oil (many of the vignerons here have decided growing olives is compatible with wine), in a lovely garden setting, before making the one hour journey back to Cape Town.

And then, we had to rest . . . .

South Africa: To the Cape of Good Hope

A Local Resident, a Southern Right Whale.

A Local Resident, a Southern Right Whale.

Off around the coast today with our South African guide, Karin. We started out with the beach-front suburbs and beautiful homes along the hills; then the 12 Apostles (and no, they don’t have individual names); Hout Bay; the fabulous Chapman’s Peak drive and eventually into Table Mountain National Park to visit the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point.

We could not have ordered a better day of incredible weather! Once we were at the Cape Point Lighthouse, we did a hike, for about an hour, to the Cape of Good Hope. Photos don’t do it justice – they just don’t capture the ruggedness, stiff breeze or cool chill in the air, much less the sounds of the waves crashing on the rocks far below, the smell of salt air and an incredible sense of beautiful isolation.

We continued our trip around the coast to Simon’s Town, it’s famous False Bay and the “Boulders” where we visited the really cute African Penguin colony at Foxy Beach.

By now, it was late in the day and we had worked up quite an appetite – so off to Kalk Bay for another incredible seafood meal, this time at the Harbour House restaurant hanging right out over the Atlantic.

After resting and refueling, we headed back towards town and made a stop at Kirstenbosch, the national botanical garden. What a wonderful way to end an amazing day.

A Glorious Day in Cape Town, South Africa

 

View from Table Mountain

View from Table Mountain

We arrived in Cape Town just after noon, on a plane that was on time and with the miracle of our bags actually arriving with us. J-burg Tambo airport has a little trouble with the staffing system for their domestic connecting flights & baggage re-check, and a whole lot of guys standing around to “help” you get the job done . . . we did not have confidence . . .

In any case, we are here and feel pretty good despite a 24-hour trip; the weather is crystal clear with beautiful blue skies and a temperature in the low-mid 60s. So we decided to take the advice of the travel writers and our hotel concierge, and take the cable car to Table Mountain today (even though we were supposed to see it tomorrow). The weather can change so fast here that clouds and/or strong winds often keep visitors from experiencing the incredible views.

Our lovely hotel, the Cape Grace, has cute drivers in new, top-of-the-line, BMW 760s to take you places and pick you up, so it’s very convenient and pleasant. Traffic is moderate and the city is very clean, although has areas of slums on the outskirts.

We spent some time late in the day walking around the waterfront and decided to have a relatively light seafood dinner at Quay 4. I actually had the best mussels ever and did something I haven’t done since traveling in Mexico years ago ~ ordered another round;  of mussels, of course!