We travelled to South Africa to learn about the history and culture, photograph animals, and see the landscape. These pursuits brought us to the Cape of Good Hope, the Garden Route, on a cross-country train ride from Cape Town to Pretoria, and finally on safari in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve. To spare you all the details of the trip, some of the highlights are described below. There is more detail with the photos, click on the links in the red box to the right.
We arrive in South Africa at the Cape Town International Airport and pick up a rental car that will be ours - knock on wood - for the next week. The N2 highway takes us west towards the city centre and is flanked by a nuclear reactor and the Eastern Cape townships. Less than an hour in the country and we get a glimpse of an apartheid-influenced way of life. The townships are full of colourful shacks on a grid of dirt roads and low hanging power lines. We have been duly warned about entering these areas unaccompanied by a local, so intrigued, we continue to drive towards Table Mountain. Later in the trip we would take tours to Robben Island and the District Six museum to learn more about apartheid and South Africa's struggle for equality.
Soon we arrive in Tamboerskloof, a suburb at the foot of Table Mountain. We found ourselves in a lovely spot with views of the flat-topped mountain and overlooking the city centre and harbour. The weather is perfect and I quickly realize this is a great place for outdoor activities. Tamboerskloof was an excellent base for exploring the Western Cape region.
Table Mountain National Park
Table Mountain is said to have a tablecloth because bright white clouds often drape over the top. Most of the days were clear and we were not concerned with low visibility. Most days - that is - except the day we decided to hike. The southeasterly winds kicked up and we were like little ants scurrying around under the tablecloth. We decided to get to and from the top via the gondola. The gondola rotates over 360 degrees during the ride and Mike was pleasantly surprised.
Table Mountain National Park is quite large encompassing more than just Table Mountain. It includes the Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens and stretches down the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Point. In the park we found an incredible landscape covered with interesting flora and fauna. Ostrich were strutting around the fynbos and baboons were scouring the tourist areas for leftovers. Equally impressive, however, not in the park was Boulder's Beach, just outside of Simon's Town.
South African penguins, aka Jackass penguins wander around the Boulder's beach area. There is a protected site where you can pay to enter and learn about the penguins. Alternatively, you can simply go the neighbouring parks and beaches and walk amongst the funny little birds. They go about their business just like the other beachgoers, however, come sundown it's a whole other story. The movie, City Slickers was filmed here and exposed some of the little buggers more clandestine acts.
Cheetahs on the Garden Route
The Garden Route is a 500-kilometre roadway following the Southeast coast of South Africa. It is billed as a scenic drive, which I expected to rival the Great Ocean Road in Australia or the Big Sur Coastal highway in California. What I didn't realize is that it takes about four hours to drive from Cape Town to the Garden Routes' starting point. By then, we were pretty well tired of being in a car and stopped driving when we reached Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of the world. In addition the curious array of Ostrich attractions, we were interested in visiting the Cango Wildlife Ranch.
The Cango Ranch is similar to Steve Irwin's Australia Zoo. Its rangers put on a show teaching about the animals and championing their conservation efforts. Accordingly, the Cango Wildlife Ranch is a member of the Cheetah Conservation Society. Now, anyone who knows Alana knows why we ended up here - the Cheetah is one of her favourite animals. She relishes every opportunity to see them and on the rare occasion pet one. Alana last petted a cheetah at the Meet-a-Cheetah program through the Canberra Zoo in Australia. Alana now had the opportunity to enter a cage full of cheetah kittens. The kittens were full of energy and having fun wrestling with each other. Some kittens took time out to entrain us and even let us pet them and take a photo. Alana has yet to see a cheetah in the wild - we may have to return to Africa someday.
We ended our African adventure with a four-day safari in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve at Kirkman's Camp. We were paired with a guide, a tracker and a German family. Solomon was our guide and driver. He grew up in the area and knew all about the animals. He was also pretty handy behind the wheel of the Land Rover and not afraid to share his views on politics. Our tracker, Eckson, was a quite man with an amazing ability to find animals.
One night we were driving back after an evening safari well after dark. Eckson pulls out a spot light and scans the passing bush. Soon after, he motions to stop and Solomon takes us a short distance off our path. We get out of the Jeep and walk over to a bush where Eckson has found a green chameleon on a branch among the leaves of a bush. Solomon started telling us facts about the chameleon, as he does every time we see an animal. I was more amazed at what just happened - Eckson spotted a two-inch chameleon in a bush 30 metres off our path while driving nearly 30 kilometres per hour at night! I had no doubt in his ability to find whatever animals were around.
The accommodation was lovely, but the guides made for a great experience by finding and sharing what they knew about the local wildlife.
Leopard in The Tree
Solomon manoeuvres the Land Rover into an impossible spot among the bushes and trees revealing an unobstructed view of a leopard standing on a tree limb. The leopard was panting and peering into the nearby bushes where we could hear crunching sounds of animals chewing bones from a carcass. Because the leopard was unable to hoist his kill into the tree with him, he was forced to watch a pack of hyenas devour his kill. There was a bleeding wound on the leopard's hind leg suggesting he did not give up his meal without a fight. The leopard eventually climbed down the tree and grabbed a hunk of meat he had stowed away. The leopard left so we fired up the jeep and worked our way out of the bush. While doing so, we were surprised to see the leopard return, possibly in an attempt to recover more of his kill from the hyenas. If the hyenas are not alert, the leopard is daring and fast enough to snag the remaining meat. It amazes me that the animals carry on despite the presence of a jeep loaded with seven photo-snapping humans.
We were cruising along a ridge following a river nearly 200 feet below when Eckson gestures quietly towards the water. A large herd of breeding elephants roaming the riverside comes into view below us. We can see about twenty, including babies, adolescents, large males and females. Elephant herds range in size from 10 to 150 and this was a large one considering we also heard rustling in the tree ahead of us.
It was during an earlier encounter that Solomon taught us a lesson in elephant behaviour. We had happened by a single bull feeding on trees. He stopped eating and stared at us as we approached. He then proceeded to grunt, flare his ears, and stomp his feet in a threatening manner. Being new to the African bush, I glanced over to Solomon to see if he was as concerned as I was. While the elephant carried on, Solomon explained that elephants are an easy read as they always show their true feelings, unlike humans, who can smile when they are angry. While this bull wanted to scare us off, he was not genuinely angry. Solomon knows when you are in trouble based on elephant behaviour.
Staying true to his unending quest for the perfect photo opportunity, Solomon skilfully eases the jeep down the embankment fairly close the herd. One of the large bulls did not appreciate this move at all. Instead of finding out how a truly angry elephant acts, we turned around and returned to higher ground. At this point the herd was making its way past our original path, so we stopped happy to watch them go by.
Suddenly, in the distance, some elephants were starting to make quite a ruckus. They were blowing through their trunks like trumpets and smashing trees. The same bull elephant we saw by the river was now walking in our direction. You could sense uneasiness in the herd and a few more bulls nearby starting carrying on as well. Once again I glanced over to Solomon who now had a very concerned look on his face. He started the jeep and as we drove off, more and more elephants appeared out of the bush and we realized that we were amidst a very large herd of grumpy elephants. Another large bull locked onto the jeep and came towards us quickly and purposefully. Solomon floored it and we saw just how fast a Land Rover accelerates as we bounced along the earth leaving the thunderous herd behind.