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.
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 . . .
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!
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 . . . .
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 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.
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!