Wednesday, October 15, 2014



THB checks off the animals

Animals, birds and sightseeing: For the viewing of animals, there is quite the industry built up, in Addo NP, Chobe, and greater Kruger. And, an emphasis on environmental and poaching controls. Like watching a giraffe walk (they move both legs on the same side at a time), it looks awkward and yet is enchanting. Are we spoiling the thing we’re there to see? Are we adding a burden on to in some cases the already stressed animal population?

The animals for the most part are very used to humans and the viewing trucks and boats (baboons in some places are very skittish because the locals shoot at them periodically) and so you get to see “natural” activities. Again, with few exceptions, the lodges and park personnel are not feeding the animals (they may be setting out water holes), so the relationship between carnivores and vegetarians (ok, herbivores) and the other animals and plants is pretty much what would happen without humans around.

The economic benefits are there for those in the tourist industry, which again for the most part is employing locals. The poaching is a big problem for tusked elephants and rhinos and the locals who work in the industry; the implication is that the poaching is done by high-powered gangs.

What does THB really think? It’s awesome, the access is great, you can do it fairly economically, and the guides for the most part are extremely helpful and very reverential to what’s on display (again, not all, the guy driving us around Chobe was just awful).

Wait, THB is concerned it is like being in huge zoos, and that there’s something off-putting about watching animals just live out their lives in front of people all day long, except the vast majority of animals in the bigger parks never see humans and the parks are kept relatively free of human intervention. Awkward and elegant?

And, no matter what, the birds are great!!! Go for the birds, don’t think about any of the bigger animals. Birds, birds and more birds! The birds are more endangered from the larger environmental disasters of tainted water and reduced territories, which is pretty much what you might now call human degradation of the planet.
Light Switches: what an odd topic, yet somehow throughout our travels the light switches were rarely in a spot they would be in any other country (true for both SA and Botswana). Across the room from the door (and none at the door), some worked a number of lights at same time in disparate locations, sometimes three small switches together that worked lights in different parts of the room (e.g., one for toilet in separate room and the same switch worked the light in the shower; three in a row for bathroom, shower, and somewhere else entirely). And of course, many hotel rooms came with just one plug for the entire room. Don’t get THB started on electrical outlets.

Townships: Clearly, there is still massive de facto apartheid in SA. Is there freedom of choice on where to live? Is there freedom of choice on whom to associate with? Is there freedom of speech and press? It seems like it though there is no way THB as a tourist can scratch the surface (e.g., THB had only one or two conversations with blacks living here). It’s a start...on a long journey.

Are people of all races mingling in public places? Certainly, though in most public places whites outnumber blacks (and blacks far outnumber whites living in SA). In the V&A mall in Cape Town on Sunday, it seemed like a huge melting pot, with no dominant race. While most of the “service provider” class are black, it is not an “always” condition by any means. What we can’t see is what their home life is like. The townships we could see ranged from shanties to small well-built houses (very uniform, almost all painted beige), with electrical wires strung to all. We did not see any “whites” in the Knysna township. Blacks are often seen walking along major roads, and the “secondary” transportation system of jitneys and group taxis is very evident. 

We did not visit or even see the massive townships around Johannesburg (the haze around Johannesburg is awful, you could barely see anything).

The meals: We drank tap water everywhere in SA. Only at the upscale restaurants the first few days did they try to foist bottled water on us (our fault for accepting, we quickly learned to ask for tap). Food improved after the first few days. Why? THB is not exactly sure. Partly by picking better restaurants, partly the first few days included the Kamieskroon Hotel, which turned out to be way below average (no matter how Alex talked it up), 

partly because we started eating more fresh seafood, partly we supplemented with local treats (biscotti, Neighbourgoods market goodies), partly STSC was outstanding (and not buffet-style). On other hand, THB is definitely buffeted out.

South Africans: The people seemed uniformly friendly to downright cheerful, in a very pleasant way. Almost every waitron was accommodating and upbeat. The only real exception was at the Breakwater Lodge, and they were generally besieged. As Ella said, why not choose to be happy and make the most of your situation. That seemed an almost universal attitude. And, no matter where we ate, nobody was rushed. At times, our American let’s-get-going attitude was challenging (to us), you couldn’t ruffle the S. Africans. While we saw vendors roaming in traffic, we saw only one or two panhandlers (one a 10 year old girl in front of a supermarket in Port Elizabeth; it was so surprising THB asked M if she was panhandling; yes, confirmed M).
Some whites expressed such biased views of blacks that to us it seemed overtly racist. Something we never hear in US. Well, other than from guys who own NBA teams. Clearly it gets said in US, just not with anyone we hang out with.

Non-South Africans: Far less interaction in Botswana and Zimbabwe than all our time in SA, and a mixed reaction. Some very friendly, some surly (Zimbabwe in particular, and lots of street hustlers in Zim).

English: Everyone spoke English (at least, everyone we talked to, DUH!). Even the three year olds in the pre-schools in the townships are learning English. The English in foreign schools is not just a second language that no American can understand, it is fluent English complete with idioms. And, thus, it is the common language for just about anyone (world-wide) under 40.

Planning: D took on the lion’s (and elephant’s and hippo’s) share of the before and in-trip planning work, and was genial and open to making changes as we went along. What a treat!! He also did way more than half of the driving (and not just from self-preservation after watching THB stay left...hmmmm, actually maybe it was self-preservation). Much appreciated by M, DB and THB.

Misconceptions: We did not understand how beautiful the first half of the trip would be! The binoculars got quite a workout, and we brought heavy self-focussing ones...very justified, and easy to share. That’s without big game. And, the vistas (outside of haziness of the Kruger area) were awe-inspiring. Point Lobos may be the the prettiest state park in America; it can no longer claim to be the prettiest state park in the world.

Tourists: the obvious: schools are back in session and so we see almost nobody between ages 5 and 22. THB thinks the largest groups of tourists are Germans (we do some random research, this was confirmed by everyone in the tourist industry we asked) followed by Dutch and British Commonwealth types, then maybe Americans and French. Again, almost impossible to tell since one foreigner speaking English sounds pretty much like another to THB.

Companionship: Other than the first two nights and the last night, THB and DB spent just about every waking hour (and some dozing hours) for over 3 solid weeks with M and D. We met almost exactly 25 years ago when they spent two weeks at the same spot in Bordeaux we did; LB and KB were 8 and 4 and CB 10. Through the years, we’ve visited them in the Yorkshire Dales and they us for maybe a total of 10-15 days. 

Amazingly, the best description of how it worked out: we are highly compatible (and THB is sure both couples wondered ahead of time if it was going to work out for this intensive a trip). What can you say: they laughed at (and even repeated) some of THB’s jokes, what could be better than that!

At Sausage Tree, one of the other guests asked how we have stayed friends for so long with such little contact and THB replied: THB sends them thousands and thousands of words and pictures every year (i.e., the blog) and in return THB and DB get a very nice hand done Holiday card from M and D: perfect!

Conclusion: SA is more a first world county than third world country if you are a tourist. Things are cheap here. Transportation is good. Food is good. The sights are terrific. People are very friendly and accommodating, and open and generous of spirit. If you’re not a tourist? THB thinks SA is on some continuum that looks like progress and yet can’t be sure: lots of crime in Johannesburg, mostly separate education and transportation enforced by the existence of townships, what the health support is like (two-tiered?), how blacks are treated in white areas?

A great trip! Highly recommended

Pied crow
African penguins
Dorpa sheep
Ostriches (coupling)
Rock hyrax
Cape Cormorants
Cattle Egret
Black oystercatcher
African Sacred Ibis
Blackheaded heron
Right whales
"Executioner" - Fiscal Shrike:
Black plover
Bottlenose Dolphins
Bright emerald bird
African elpephants
Egyptian Geese
Vervet monkeys
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Red Necked Spurfowl
Hadeda Ibis
Blackwinged Stilt
Red Hartebeest
Blue-checked Bee Eater
Yellow-bellied Greenbul
Cape Buffalo
Fiscal Flycatcher
Blackback Jackal
Southern Masked Weaver
Glossy Ibis
Red Bishop
African Fish Eagle
Wire tailed swallows
African Jacana
Grey CrownedCrane
Red billed Oxpecker
Red Lechwe (deer)
Marabou Stork
Sable Antelope
Yellowbilled Kite
Monitor Lizard
Blacksmith Lapwing
Puku (antelope)
Goliath Heron
Striped Mongoose
Southern masked Weaver
Rainbow Koppie Skink
Cape Glossy Starling
Dung Beetle
Spur Winged Geese
Tree squirrel
Whitefronted Bee Eater
Black Rhino
African Skimmer
Side-striped Jackal
Pied Kingfisher
Dwarf Mongoose
Southern Bald Ibis
Freetailed Bat
Fruit Bat
Flap Necked Chameleon (1 of 2 types in Kruger)
Southern Whitefaced Scops owl
Sharpe's Grysbok
Wahlberg's Eagle
Go-away bird
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill
Bluehelmeted Guinea Fowl
Greyheaded Bush Shrike
African Harrier Hawk
White-backed Vultures
Magpie Shrike
Red-eyed Dove
Hamerkop Heron
Lilac-breasted Roller bird
Redcrested Korhaan
Southern Black Tit
Red-headed Weaver
Dark-Capped Bulbul
Bearded Woodpecker
Grey Heron
Pel's Fishing Owl
Brown-hooded Kingfisher
Crested Barbet
African Hawk Eagle
Brown Snake Eagle
Three Banded Plover

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Day 26-27 Hoedspruit to Johannesburg to London to SFO

Day 26-27 Hoedspruit to Johannesburg to London to SFO, Monday and Tuesday, Sept 22-23

Somebody tell me what's the word?
What’s the word: Johannesburg!

Weather:  Very nice, 60s and a slight breeze, lovely for a guided drive in the morning.

THB wakes up around 5am, perfect for being more alert before the 6am morning departure. Not so good: we’ll be in E-ville tomorrow afternoon and when we got to bed at 9pm or so it will feel exactly like 6am body clock time.
Another selfie with Germans in way back

The drive is very dull for the first 2.5 hours, apparently none of the drivers are finding anything anywhere. 
Rhino tracks

Then Liam spots one of the two types of chameleons in the park and gets up on the step ladder to pull it out of the tree. Cute (the chameleon, not Liam), and it takes a great photo.

Matching outfits?

Then a call comes in and we buckle in (except we don’t have seat belts) and Liam pushes the truck up to 25mph (normal speed is 5-10mph) and when we get where we are supposed to be it is a black rhino mom and three month baby, the first one born in this part of the park in something like 200 years. So, even on the last day, there are thrills to be had on what seemed a very quiet finish to the trip.

DB got this shot of nuzzling between mom and baby

More pics from the morning:

The winch

It is $375/night for two at STSC, includes all meals and snacks and two three hour plus guided drives per day (two guys per drive for as few as six people). An amazing value and terrific spot. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The Germans rented this car for around $15/day!!
We’re shuttled to the park gate and D&M are there waiting for us, another 20 minutes to the airport and this time no problem getting the correct boarding passes printed. This leaves plenty of time for DB to shop with our extra rand. Flight to Jo’burg pretty much on schedule.
On way to Jo'burg

In Jo'burg airport

Lousy dinner spot

We’ve lots of time to kill so we have an early meal at Ocean Watch, which came recommended by T&T. No draft beer (it’s on the menu), can’t get sushi (the one sushi chef is really backed up), can’t get fish and chips with the better fish (kingsklip), can’t get this, can’t get that, so we all have grilled kingsklip with chips or veggies and two bottled beers in the wrong size (they don’t have 330ml or 550ml, they have 440ml which is not on the menu) and then you can’t get the check. THB is only slightly worried that Ocean Watch doesn’t understand that all their diners have flights to catch.

Not a problem, there’s still plenty of time for DB & M to shop while THB and D chill out. The last of the rand is parted with, and now we’re in the BA lounge awaiting our flight to London (“attention, attention: the wifi is now working again, the wifi is now working again”).

Now in BA Heathrow lounge, somehow we ended up at a different one this time or are so jetlagged we can’t remember much. What THB can remember: we had to go back through security even though we are on two BA flights in the same terminal. And, secure it is: they took a half hour to decide that our small liquids were okay to take on to the next flight. Well, that only took 3 minutes, first they had to decide if small knitting needles were ok, and on and on and on for practically every person flying, almost every bag got routed into special search area.

Book Review1: All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu (novel): Morose, two intertwined stores as told by what THB would call mild depressants. THB loved a prior book by Mengestu, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, read that one instead of this one. Neutral (at best)

Book Review2: Redeployment, Phil Klay (short stories): For you astute THB followers, you’ve already realized THB pretty much never reads a full book of short stories. THB thinks he somehow missed that this was a collection when reading the review. Good thing; this is an excellent book, stories that ring true (like THB would know) of the individuals caught in the impact of for the most part in combat in Iraq and a bit of Afghanistan. Recommended

THB gets lucky: He’s loaded his Kindle with just enough reading to get to the last book with a little under 5 hours of flight and BART time left...phew!

No BART, we're early enough we decide to cab home, $85

Bottom line: Because we shared expenses (as appropriate) with M&D, THB kept track of most of the cost of the trip. Overall, from when THB and DB hit Cape Town to 25 days later leaving from Johannesburg (so everything but the SFO to/from flights), the average per day cost was something in the $425-450 range for the two of us. That included the internal flights (to Chobe and Hoedspruit), tours (wine country, Vic Falls helicopter, private boat in Chobe, etc.), two different car rentals (shared by two couples), park entrance fees, and on and on….

All because D had local contacts, researched like crazy, and we avoided the big ticket American type tour costs, opting for intimate and cozy over big and flashy, maybe 3 or 4 star hotels over 5 stars. In effect, we traveled more like upscale S. Africans than wealthy Americans, this turned into a very affordable trip with all the thrills we could handle.

Awesome, dude!!!