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Garden Route, South Africa

April 9, 2006 Knysna, South Africa

Today we drove about 90 min to Knysna (pronounced “neesna” or “n-eye-z-na;” it’s one of those two. I was never able to nail it down. The accents here are pretty thick). We spent two days at the Protea Hotel, which were very uneventful. The only thing we did was hang out at the pool and pay $18 per hour for internet access. They seemed to nickel and dime us to death here.

April 10, 2006

April 11, 2006 Plettenberg Bay

Today we drove about 30 min to Plettenberg Bay and stayed at Coral Tree Cottages. A great place with kitchen and two rooms. Brilliant.

coraltreecottage (78k)

April 12, 2006

Monkey Land

We visited Monkey Land (server may be down...) today. Monkey Land is a private reserve that houses all types of primates in a 57 acre fenced area that the visitors can walk through.

But I must confess, I did not know that Monkey Land was about 57 acres in size. I went to their website and I saw that it was 23 hectares in size. I then did a Google search for “hectare to acre conversion” and Google came back with “1 hectare = 2.47105381 acres.” Did anyone else know that Google has a built in calculator and conversion engine built into their search engine?!! How cool is that. You can do any of the following calculations or conversions:

  • 100 usd to South African rand (100 U.S. dollars = 611.168493 South African rand)
  • 25 liters to gallons (25 liters = 6.60430128 US gallons)
  • 25 celsius to Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius = 77 degrees Fahrenheit)

While this feature is incredibly cool, there is a downside:

  1. you need Internet access in order to use it (a challenge for us, at best)
  2. they haven’t incorporated all of the convertible measurements.

For instance, I also typed in the following:

  • 1 Indian ground to square meters (an informal unit of land area in India, especially southern India, equal to roughly 200-220 square meters).
  • 1 gill to pints (1 gill, pronounced “jill,” is roughly equivalent to .25 pints).
  • 1 mole hydrogen to grams (1 mole H2 = 2.016 grams).

So, in order to combat these inaccuracies, I’ve downloaded a freeware program called convert from JoshMadison.com. It’s brilliant.

April 13, 2006

Today we saw rhinos and I cooked ostrich meat. Very manly day, it was.

We drove about 30 min from our cottage to the Rhino Base Camp, a private game reserve that specializes in two hour game treks. This is the lazy man’s version of a safari. We knew that we would be guaranteed to see t he big animals, and we were not ashamed of this. When you come to Africa, you have to see elephants and rhinos, right? It’s the same when you visit North Carolina, USA—you need to see some bluegrass and some rusted cars up on blocks in the front of people’s yards.

When we arrived at the Rhino Base Camp we were met by a young person that was dressed in the typical safari outfit—khaki shorts, the safari shirt with the useless epaulets (what are these for?...), and the cool safari hat with the obligatory boots with non-white socks. Man, I was wishing for my new safari vest that I left back at the cottage….

He led us through a HUGE banquet hall that was filled with stuffed animal heads, skulls and hides. If you look at it from an animal lover’s perspective, you’re in hell; if you look at it from any other perspective, you feel as though you just stepped into a Stephen Spielberg film.

rhinobasecamp (34k)

The actual game drive was a bit of a letdown because the place is a private reserve. Limited space, which means that it’s easy to find the animals, and that’s a bit of a letdown if you think you’re on a safari drive. It was too easy to see the animals, even if we saw them very closely.

rhinos (61k)

One of the cooler things at this camp was the vehicle that we used to get out on the reserve. It's called a Unimog. Engine made by Mercedes; body made by whoever makes really tough-looking, very manly vehicles. It felt very African-safari-like.

Unimog (61K)

Braaing—The Ostrich Meat Incident

A Braai (pronounced br-eye) is the South African version of a barbecue. Like barbecue, the word 'braai' is a noun and a verb. As a noun, it refers to the grill itself and as a verb you would 'braai some steak'. Braai also refers to an event, so in the same way you would host a barbecue, you would also host a braai. The only difference is that where you would generally only hold a barbecue during summer months, the Southern hemisphere climate means you can braii during winter.

Today I braaied some ostrich. It’s very common to use wood to do your braaing—burn your wood, get it down to red coals, then cook your meat over it. It’s a longer process than we’re used to with lump charcoal, but I like the smoky flavor. The wood here was acacia, which is very dense and imparts a wonderful sweet flavor. Similar to oak, but better flavor. And the wood here is very dry so starting it is very easy. Now I don’t usually like to brag about my braai, but I think it turned out quite nicely.

April 14, 2006

Today is Good Friday. Everything in South Africa closes on Good Friday. Chalk this day up to poor planning because we had barely enough food/drinks for this day. And it was raining in the afternoon, so we didn’t do much today. Except curse our poor planning. But it dawns on me that we haven’t acknowledged the elephants in the room, namely Apartheid and AIDS in South Africa. Many of the people, especially the US Department of State, respond with shock and awe when we say we’re going to visit South Africa. The idea of touring South Africa is akin to touring war-ravaged Iraq-- You need to hire an armed guard, wear condoms all the time, get shots for any and all airborne diseases, and watch your pockets for thieves.

Every country/city/state has its bad areas and you need to avoid those. But the country of South Africa is incredibly beautiful; the people are extremely friendly; the atmosphere is one of safety. For the most part, people here are well-educated, well-fed, and very healthy. Yes, as in every country there are places that even the locals won’t want to visit/drive. But these are few and far between, as in the states, and the poverty rates drive the crime as in every country in the world.

During most of the 20th century, South Africa was ruled by a system called Apartheid, which was based on the segregation of races. The term comes from an Afrikaans word meaning 'apartness'.

The term Apartheid was introduced during the 1948 election campaign. The United Party actually gained the majority of votes in the 1948 general election. But due to the manipulation of the geographical boundaries of the country's constituencies before the election, the Herenigde Nasionale Party (HNP) managed to win the majority of constituencies and took power. In 1951 the HNP and Afrikaner Party officially merged to form the National Party, which became synonymous with Apartheid.

Over the decades, various forms of legislation were introduced which extended the existing segregation against Blacks to Coloreds and Indians (these are three separately recognized racial groups in South Africa. Blacks have very dark skin; Coloreds have the lighter brown skin, like Halle Berry; Indians are descended from South India). The most significant acts were the Natives Act of 1952 (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) which, despite its title, led to the rigid application of Pass Laws.

During the 1960s, racial discrimination applied to most aspects of life in South Africa and Bantustans (territories designated by the government as tribal homelands created for the blacks in South Africa). The system had evolved into 'Grand Apartheid'.

In February 1990 President FW de Klerk announced Nelson Mandela's release and began the slow dismantling of the Apartheid system. In 1992 a whites-only referendum approved the reform process. In 1994 the first democratic elections were held in South Africa, with people of all races being able to vote. A Government of National Unity was formed, with Nelson Mandela as president.

Regarding AIDS, it’s rampant here because of the poverty and the extremely high unemployment, currently around 30%. A mother would rather sleep with someone for food for her children and risk contracting Aids than let her children go hungry. The delta between the extremely rich and the extremely poor is huge. And the Townships are everywhere.

One of the things that we’ve really wanted to do but haven’t been able to schedule is to take a tour of one of the townships. Townships are underdeveloped residential communities created by the influx of people post-apartheid to a new democratic South Africa. During Apartheid, these communities were reserved for non-whites only. During the Apartheid Era Non-whites were usually evicted from properties that were in areas designated as "white only" and forced to move into townships.

There are two different types of townships—government created, and self-created.

The government created townships are hundreds/thousands of cinderblock-built houses that look to me to be about 10’ x 20’ in size, certainly no larger than that. They have electricity and many have indoor plumbing. They look to be clean, the dirt streets well-kept, and there may be thousands of them in blocks/rows to a single township.

The self-built townships are hastily created shacks that are built from spare parts. Corrugated metal roofs or plywood are held down with tires or cinder blocks, tarps for walls, certainly no indoor plumbing. BUT, they do have electricity and they are recognized by the South African government as legitimate housing. Go figure. These are usually built on private property owned by local African chiefs.

Although formal racial segregation ended with Apartheid in 1994, new township-like areas for low-income persons were, and continue to be, developed

Township Video

Note: if you can not see the video, download QuickTime and view the movie with it.

quicktime logo (4K)

April 15, 2006

We went to the local market this morning. Not knowing what to expect, we kept an open mind and a hopeful heart. The market was very small with some local artisans and some local food. It was pretty uneventful and pretty short. We were left with trying to figure out what to do with the rest of the morning.

Good thing we have pickup sticks and Parchesi…

Parchesi (49K)

April 16, 2006

Today was an all-day Easter celebration at a local polo club. I highly recommend polo as a sport to watch. Great fun. Like soccer or hockey, but on horses. The animal factor is always fun in a sporting match. A buddy of mine said his cousin got a scholarship to a school that plays lacrosse on horses. I don’t know what that’s called, but it seems to me that there’s a trend of taking a legitimate sport and someone says, “Hey, let’s play this game, only let’s do it on horses/camels/elephants. ”It’s only time until someone says, “OK, water polo on horses.” We can be so silly at times.

The Easter celebration was great. The gates opened at 11am and the festivities started promptly at 11:30. First was authentic African singing and dance. Both were great, but a little jaded by the fact that two of the women singers held brand new mobile phones during their singing (one actually received a call during the singing), and 3 of the dancers had logo t-shirts on advertising “Billabong,” and, “Vodacom.” This took a little bit of wind out of the sails of the “authentic” African song/dance, but it was great to experience anyway.

Skydivers were next and each of the five divers dropped a bag of goodies onto the polo pitch. Sorry to get all polo-technical on you. The field is called a “pitch;” the match is broken into six “Chuckers,” each one being 8 minutes long.

Dom_Cat_Face (35K)

After all the kids ran onto the field to scavenge for the goodies, then the organized fun started. Egg-on-spoon races, then three-legged races, then apparently a non-scheduled event, the “male of the human species race to the bar to stock up on beer” race. Yeah, South African men aren’t too dissimilar from North American men…

Easter Egg Hunt Video

One of the weird things about polo is that they change sides of the field after each goal. So you, as the spectator, are pretty clueless as to which team is headed for which goal. This is actually a good thing because, in your beer-induced stupor, you have no idea who you’re rooting for because the pitch is the size of Rhode Island. And I swear they change numbers several times during each chucker. We need Fox Sports to come here and put that little computer chip into the ball so we can see where the heck that thing is.

April 17, 2006

Driving day. Four hours to the Addo Elephant National Park. We stayed in a forest cabin, which is exactly what it sounds like. Very small (marketing people call it, “cozy”), four separate twin beds (marketing people call it, “separate sleeping arrangements”), and apparently self-catering here means, “we have 4 cook tops and two sinks that are shared among 10 cabins.” So things here were more rustic than we’ve been used to, but it was great fun.

Forest_Cabin (48K)

It rained all day which is good for a travel day. But we arrived at the park around the 1pm check-in time and we could enter the park for a self-guided tour. This means that we can take our own car and enter the “wild” of their 170,000 hectares of land to interact with the animals. This was a novel and exciting idea for us, despite the continued rain. We know the following animals are somewhere in this park and we’re excited to see them all:

Lions

Elephants (ie. You DO have elephants in your Elephant Park, right?...)

Black Rhinos

All types of antelopes (kudu, eland, springbok, and wildebeest)

Water buffalo

Zebras

Wart hogs

Meerkats

So we were very excited to see all of these animals. And it was raining. And we saw some wart hogs and some ostriches and one of the types of antelope.

Then we got stuck in the mud.

We're Stuck in the mud Video

Most of the park roads are paved; some are not. The main rule in the park is DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR CAR. This is hammered at every turn/intersection. You sign a document stating that if you get out of you car at approved water areas, you do so at your own risk.

We happened on one of the unpaved roads during the drizzle and barely made it up the hill because of the mud. Then we got stuck along with six other cars. Very Jurassic Park, eh? As we’re looking at the terrain and all the men are pretending to know what to do (one dude even popped his hood and began fiddling with his engine to “fine tune” it to mud driving), I couldn’t get the movie out of my head. I figured that rampaging elephants or a pack of hyenas would spring out of the bush and attack us at any given moment. So I kept hanging around two of the older men there because I figured that I’m faster then they are. Remember, you don’t need to be faster than the hyena—you just need to be faster than the hyenas’ prey. It’s the old joke:

Hiker 1: Oh uh. There’s a bear ahead and he’s running towards us. I’m outta here.

Hiker 2: (Bends down to take off his hiking boots and puts on his running shoes.)

Hiker 1: What are you doing? Bears are really fast. You can’t outrun a bear!

Hiker 2: I don’t need to outrun the bear; I just need to outrun you.

So during our one hour wait for the park rangers to pull us out of the mud, I hung around the older, frailer looking men. Never let it be said that I do not want to propagate the Rousseau genes.

We didn’t see any elephants today.

April 18, 2006

The Addo Park has an interesting history. In 1919 a famous big game hunter Major Jan Pretorius was asked to exterminate all the elephants that often emerged from the Addo bushveld to demolish the crops of local farmers. In the space of one year he shot 120 elephants until only 15 remained. In the face of a national and international outcry, the hunt was called off and later the elephants' survival was assured when the area was proclaimed a National Park in 1931. The numbers of elephant have gradually grown over the years to well over 450 now.

We found out that children less than 6 years old are not allowed on the guided tours the park offers. Hmmm… Would have been nice to know that up front, but we had an out. We could hire a private tour guide that would travel with us in our car. Perfect. And his name was Fabian.

The first thing Fabian does is point out dung beetles. I knew that these guys were critical to the ecology, especially one in which each elephant excretes 100 kgs (that’s 220 lbs to you and me) of dung a day, but these little critters are really interesting. Not only do they feed off of dung, but they use dung to house their eggs. Poop is their life. They take the poop, roll it into a perfect ball, pop their eggs inside and bury it, and out pops more baby beetles. PLUS, the dung contains undigested food and seeds (an elephant only digests about 40% of its food), so in burying the dung, the beetle also spreads seeds, natural fertilizer, and undigested food into the soil. They are Nature’s little recycler. AND they’re a protected species within the park—they have the right of way on the roads.

Dung_Beetle_Large (46K)

So Fabian was great in giving us the poop about all the animals we saw (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Then we saw our first elephant. A lone bull (ie. Male) about 100 yards away, walking directly towards us down an access road. Very cool site. Then he turns left and we head in his direction because the guide knows that there is another access road about 50 yards down the road. Sure enough, the elephant comes out of the brush and turns and starts walking towards us again. This keeps happening until the pachyderm is about 30 yards away and then he hides in the bush. But the hunt was excellent and the view was great.

Wart hogs: the bumps on the side of their faces are actually warts. They are not bony protrusions. A male has four bumps; a female has two. When they run their tail goes straight up in the air. This is to show other wart hogs where they are in the tall brush so they can stay together.

Males of the antelope family have horns; females do not except the Springbok. The Kudu’s horns grow a new curl every other year, so you can tell their age by the number of curls in their horns.

African and water buffalo are the only true buffaloes on the planet. Our North American Bison are not related to them, despite Americans constantly calling them buffalo. African buffalo (used to be called Cape Buffalo but were recently renamed) are also one of the most dangerous animals in Africa because they do not advertise their attacks. Most animals will show some sort of aggressive behaviour before attacking—elephants will toss their heads and splay their ears; rhinos will paw the ground and give a couple fake charges; Hillary Clinton will pretend to like you then say very bad things about you in front of Congress. The buffalo will just ignore you until you feel yourself impaled upon their curved horns, or trampled underneath their sharp hooves.

I loved talking with Fabian. I found myself falling prey to what I call, “Tour Guide Einsteinism.” I will explain.

By their very nature, tour guides hold great knowledge of their subject. This spills over to other subjects when people ask questions, so the respect of a good tour guide raises the more he/she imparts knowledge. It doesn’t matter what kind of tour guide it is—whether it’s a guide at the Elephant National Park or the Kango Caves, a tour guide exudes confidence and knowledge. So I always feel like testing their knowledge—do they really know everything, or is it just deep knowledge of the subject at hand? I want to ask them questions like:

  • I need to diversify my 401(k) investments, yet want to focus on environmentally safe technologies. What are your opinions?
  • Do I really need to change my oil every 3,000 miles, or is this just an oil-company based limit to maximize consumer demand for oil?
  • Why are manhole covers round?

Let’s see how smart they really are…

He actually did lead us to two elephant sightings, both very impressive and exciting.

Elephant_Road (34K)

The first was a lone bull that was walking down a service road. We captured it on video here.

It was great fun because it was a big bull, it was walking towards us, and we could follow its path through the road and bushes.

April 19, 2006

Our two night stay inside the Addo Elephant National park ended today and we moved to Happy Lands B&B. This is a citrus farm owned by Mike and Nita, native South Africans. It’s a really interesting place to stay because they’ve turned their land into a beautiful English garden that’s situated in the middle of citrus trees everywhere. We awoke to the smell of freshly roasted coffee, made from raw coffee beans that Mike roasts in his popcorn popper every morning. He plans to take his coffee-making to the next level by planting some coffee bushes and harvesting his own beans. Mike and Nita really made us feel at home.

We also did another self-drive through the park and we put our newfound tracking skills to work. We rounded a corner and not 15 feet in front of us was a huge male elephant on the road out for a morning stroll.

Elephant on the Road Video

April 20, 2006

Today was an errand day. We needed to put our attention to the more mundane things of living and travel, like haircuts and clothes washing.

As we ate lunch at a restaurant, I again was surprised by the lack of napkins on the table. I don’t know if I need more napkins than normal human beings, or that our demand for napkins is driven by our children, or that we, as Americans, are just more sloppy eaters than Thai people or South Africans. Regardless, I need my napkins!

April 21, 2006

Since we’re now experts at finding elephants in the Elephant National Park, we decided to do cheetahs and lions today. We visited Daniel’s Cheetah Breeding Park and the Addo Lion and Crocodile Reserve.

As Americans we are used to signing 3 pages of documents signing away our rights of liability. We are used to helmets, 15 minutes of safety training, signs warning us from dangers, rangers spouting their safety warnings, and fences alerting us from our own stupidity. But what’s funny about this is that South Africa does not have any of these helmets nor 'legalese' in their documents. They all have a posted sign that’s quite easy to read that says, “Enter at your own risk. We will not be held responsible for any damage.”

Amazing. apparently, it works quite well for them. We should learn this lesson.

So at Daniel’s Cheetah Breeding Park, which we entered without signing any liability waivers, the girls got to feed a kudu that was rescued, and we got to pet a cheetah. That’s really all there is to do at this park. Kudu-feeding and cheetah-petting is very cool though. So the high coolness factor made up for the lack of anything else to do factor.

Feed_Kudu (68K)

Feeding the Kudu Video

Pet_Cheetah (57K)

Petting a Cheetah Video

Then we visited the Addo Lion and Crocodile Reserve. This was like a tiny zoo that contained crocodiles, lions, tigers, wild boar, and some monkeys. It doesn’t sound like much, but they had about four dozen lions from newborns to adults, and we could go all the way up to the fence and touch them. It was very surreal because the adult cats were stalking Annette and Dominique. Wherever the kids went, the cats followed because they wanted a small, easy-to-kill snack.

Stalking Lion Video

April 22, 2006

Today we went to the Port Elizabeth Oceanarium. Oceanarium = fancy name for aquarium. We saw a dolphin show. When was the last time you saw a dolphin show?! It wasn’t as polished as some of the other dolphin shows that I’ve seen at places like SeaWorld, but it was quite fun anyway. It left me thinking about how difficult it must be for the animal trainers to get the fish smell off their hands after work.

Dolphin (53K)

April 23, 2006

Fly from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg. Drive about 1.5 hrs. to Lesedi Cultural Village. The fight time was changed/delayed by 4.5 hrs. so we didn’t arrive at Lesedi until a little after 8:30pm. We missed dinner and the cultural show, but were able to get some sandwiches and we crashed very quickly.

Odd and Ends

  • Nicky has been home schooling Dominique and she’s learned to read in about one month. It’s only been taking about 20-30 min every morning. Her progress can be measured daily and it’s exciting to see her growth in this area.
  • We continue to experience minor technical challenges during our journey. A daily challenge is to keep all our batteries for electronic equipment fully charged. It only takes one or two times of, “uh oh, my battery is running out and we just started our safari drive” to make sure that charging our stuff is done on a daily basis. Mobile phone coverage is spotty, and Internet access is virtually unheard of in some of the more rural places.
  • South African public restrooms are usually very clean. The doors to the toilet go all the way to the floor and ceiling. Apparently, they like their privacy when they visit the privy. I, too, enjoy a certain amount of privacy when dealing with certain bodily functions.
  • You must pay for plastic bags at grocery stores. It costs 3 cents. It adds up, and I think it’s a good deterrent for plastic-bag-stockpiling. We keep a lot of plastic bags because we have a dog and they make for good poop holders. Plus they also make for good lunch bags and dirty clothes bags (although we try to separate the two). But I can see a company doing it’s good-earth movement by making the consumer pay for the recycling or trash costs. Good for them.

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