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.

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

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