Three Weeks In South Africa

This journey began long before we departed on January 8th of 2016. We talked about going to Africa for years. We talked about it more after a friend moved to Cape Town. And with our 30th anniversary coming we decided to take the plunge (and when I say plunge I mean financially!). We spent months planning, talking to our friend there and talking with a travel agent. And less than two weeks after our 30th anniversary, we took flight.

It’s incredible when you take a journey like this. You want to see so much and when it seems like there’s so little time, you cram so much in. Every aspect of this trip had its merits. I’ll talk more about what we’d do differently later.

After 20 hours of flying time (Toronto-Amsterdam, Amsterdam-Johannesburg)which included some spectacular views of the endless desert in the heart of the continent, we arrived completely exhausted at 10pm local time. Up again at 5am to catch our ride to our first destination we discovered the meaning of the phrase “Africa Time”. The front desk of our hotel said our ride had arrived and was waiting on parking level P2. So we went down two floors and there were several doors to the parking garage and not a soul in sight.

We went back to the desk and she assured us he was down there. So we wandered aimlessly and ran into a hotel worker. Explained the situation and he took us to where he was sure our ride would be. After 10 minutes he left us at the airport arrivals area attached to the hotel. I checked all the signs for people looking for us and nothing. Keep in mind we’d had 3 hours sleep at this point after a relatively sleepless flight. So we finally decided to go back to the hotel desk one more time.

The manager looked at me as I came back in and said “You’re still here?” Seemed rather obvious. She pointed at her security screen showing the van parked down on P2. Where is that exactly, I asked. She said just outside the glass doors. So back down we went again. This time I noticed a hallway off the side and we went down there to discover, you know it, glass doors! Joyous we walked outside to find, you guessed it, NO VAN and NO VEHICLES AT ALL! Yay us! So we wandered outside for a while, pretty much dazed and confused. Finally we came back to the doors and yes, the van was there! But, NO DRIVER!! At least we had a vehicle with our tour operator’s name on it and ran inside and found the driver. An hour late, we finally hit the road.

I’ll apologize for no pictures at this point. We had a 4.5 hour drive and basically were in a state of suspended animation. Johannesburg is a big city and the thing that we found most mind boggling was the endless array of shacks the poor lived in. Corrugated steel roofs over what mostly looked like 6×6 wood walled hovels. Scary really to think people live this way. Scarier still to think SO MANY people live this way.

The other amazement from the drive was the sheer number of nuclear power stations and coal mines dotting the countryside. It was quite stunning. And I wished I’d taking a few shots.

Hippo Hollow

As the name would suggest, we expected to see hippos here.  We did not.  It was a lovely hotel.  This was as close as we got:

The bottom of the pool

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One of the beautiful areas near this hotel which we wanted to check out is called God’s Window.  We had booked a tour there which naturally left two hours after we arrived.  because we have endless stamina hahahahhaahhaha.

We were picked up by our guide in his personal car and he brought his wife along, asking “I hope you don’t mind she hasn’t been here”. Ummm, what if we did?  We didn’t obviously.  So we drove off and when we got to the first spectacular spot called The Three Rondavals, this is what we saw.

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Yes, it was cloudy and rainy and yeah.  So we left to go the official site called God’s Window.

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Sadly, that was the best picture as we were inside a cloud after walking up 125 steps.  But we did get to see this in the parking lot!

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As we were starting to head back the sun came out so we headed back to the first spot.  And we were glad we did.

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It’s kind of interesting being above the clouds like that.  The pictures do not do the area justice.  It is quite spectacular.

We had dinner at the hotel where we sat outside waiting for the hippos to arrive.  We asked the waitress and after a couple of tries she finally stated that they don’t show up that often.  So that was disappointing.

After our first semi-decent sleep we were up and excited as we were heading to our first safari destination, Kapama River Lodge!  It was only a 90 minute drive but seeing the countryside change as we headed deeper in was pretty cool.

In the video you can see many houses which often have shacks on the same grounds.  We were told by the driver that families stay together even though one member might be struggling and one doing better.  You can also see a fire in the background as well as the Drakensberg Mountains.

So we arrive at Kapama River Lodge. Our room is beautiful and we feel very much like we are in Africa now!

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While Beth has a quick nap, I’m sitting on the balcony enjoying the view and trying to adjust to this new world we’ve entered.  As I’m standing there I see something in the trees off to my right.  I see what looks like spots up in the tree so I’m wondering if was a big cat in the tree.  I soon came to realize I had that completely wrong.

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I ran and woke Beth up.  We couldn’t believe our eyes.  We’ve been there for an hour and there’s giraffes a hundred yards away munching on tree leaves!!  Note the warthog in the second and third shots.

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That was an exciting start to our safari adventure!  To get a sense of the beauty of Kapama here’s a view of the entrance and lobby area:

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Game drives happen morning and night.  The morning drives are early and they give you coffee/tea and a snack before departure.  The game reserve is massive and the vehicles are fun with seating for nine plus ranger and tracker.  Everyone at the lodge is assigned a vehicle, ranger and tracker for the duration of your stay (not to mention waiter!).  Our ranger was a woman named Chané and our tracker was a man named Stanley (appropriate for an African adventure, no?).

The ranger is a constant source of information during the drive and she seemed to know EVERYTHING!  It was really something.  She also joined us for dinner each night to answer any questions we had from the day and talk about life in the wild.  The tracker is literally that.  Constantly scanning for sights and interestingly, watching the dirt roads for animal tracks.  The rangers talk to each other over the radio so if there are particular animals or situations of interest, you can get there.  All the roads are named though I have no clue how they remember what is where.as there are no street signs (duh!).

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There’s no better way to tell the story than pictures of what we saw.  The infamous watering holes where animals gather have rather ignoble beginnings.  A puddle is visited by warthogs.  The puddle expands as they roll around in it.  As it grows larger animals continue to expand it.  So when what we see here happens on the road, they have to come fill them or the road will be cut off.

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These lions having lunch courtesy of a caught buffalo was something to see.  Sorry if you’re squeamish but this is how life in the wild looks.  It was an exciting moment filled with all the crunching and tearing noises you’d expect.IMG_0353

And you’ll notice the very satisfied customer on her back there as well!IMG_0371

Guinea FowlIMG_0395

I thought I’d throw in a video of our night drive.  Didn’t see anything but looked quite cool!

Birds nests hanging from the trees.IMG_0441

Impala herd leaping – so much fun to watch.DSC_0242

Ever seen a dung beetle.  This one took its life in its hands with this lion.  Rolled over to her belly.  Then decided to stand on top of the dung ball to get its bearings, moved up to its front paw at which point I felt sure there was disaster coming.  Oddly the lion lifted its paw and let the beetle roll away!IMG_0437IMG_0429

There are many kinds of antelopes in South Africa.  This is a male kudu.IMG_0417IMG_0412

These silverback monkeys greeted us at breakfast each morning.  And sometimes ran into the restaurant and grabbed stuff off the tables!IMG_0408IMG_0406

JackalIMG_0401IMG_0444

In the evening at dinner, the kitchen and wait staff come out and sing traditional songs.  This was very, very cool.  Sorry I didn’t get them dancing around while singing!

And a less than traditional version of another song!

This cheetah just walked out and flopped down in the middle of the road!IMG_0449

We took part in an elephant interaction. This big boy is named Jublani and is the elephant who appears on the labels of Amarula liquor.  The little one’s name is Mambo.DSC_0270DSC_0274DSC_0283

I got to touch his tongue which felt like marshmallow.  Oddly they eat a lot of vegetation like prickly pears which have sharp thorns but it doesn’t seem to bother them.  We were told that despite how rough the skin feels an elephant can feel a mosquito bite.IMG_0473IMG_0489

This is a termite mound.  The bigger they are, the older they are.  We were told this one is probably 30 years old.  The queen is about 15cm long and white.  Did you say ‘ewwww’?  Yes you did!DSC_0293

Morning safari drives involve a coffee and tea break.  Afternoon game drives involve stopping for what they call a sundowner.  Yes, you can see what the options are.  In the tins at the front they have dried meats generically called biltong.  They are often beef or antelope.  And yes, delicious.IMG_20160112_183414

Traffic jam Kapama style!  We are told before we go out the first time to never stand up in the truck and never get out.  The animals ignore the vehicle but if you stand or get out, you won’t last long.IMG_0518

We also went on an elephant safari.  We got to ride an elephant for an hour through the bush.  They assured us these elephants are rescued orphans and they do NOT use bull hooks to train them.  They use treats.  Because there is a lot of push to stop doing these types of rides since many places do use bull hooks, Kapama has voluntarily decided to stop the program once their current batch of reservations have been honoured.  The program will end in 2017.  I understand why.  We were still glad to have had the experience.IMG_20160113_062714IMG_20160113_073254

As we rode through the bush we saw a bunch of zebras running and make this awful noise.  Then we saw one was bleeding from its back end.  Turned out a lion was chasing them and that terrible noise was them warning others.  At dinner later another table mentioned they saw lions eating a zebra.  Didn’t take much to do the math on that one.IMG_20160113_073338IMG_20160113_183701_hdr

How cute is that?IMG_0595

This prehistoric brute is a stork.  It poops on its own legs for sunscreen.  Which made me very glad we don’t.IMG_0616IMG_0625IMG_0626

The thorns on these bushes are nasty.  More than once when we went off road we had to duck and twist around some of these.  You can hear them tearing at the material on the truck.IMG_0633

Our ranger and guide.DSC_0395

Of the Big Five, we hadn’t seen a leopard.  Until our last game drive on our way back to the lodge, just a few minutes away from the end.  This one had cubs they hid before we could see them.IMG_0699

Kapama was a beautiful place we would go back to in a heartbeat.  In retrospect we should have spent more time there and spent more time relaxing.  When your expectations are this is literally ‘once’ in a lifetime you really want to see and do as much as you can.  There’s a price for that.  You live and learn.

After 3 nights at Kapama we hopped a short flight from Hoedspruit back to Johannesburg and another short flight from there to Port Elizabeth which is situated basically at the bottom centre of South Africa.  We got our first glimpse of the Indian Ocean here.  From the airport we had a night ride to Kariega Game Reserve (which is pronounced properly as Kare-eeecchhha or rather Kare-phlegm-a.  We got in late and exhausted and decided to skip the morning safari for some much needed sleep.  There were animals in the property when we got in so that made for some fun and being a U2 fan we found out room assignment and safari vehicle rather amusing! We were staying at Ukhozi Lodge on the property so the room number was Ukhozi 2.

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If the landscape at Kapama was pretty much how you picture Africa (and we did), Kariega was a whole different world.  It was wetter, cooler, more lush, more hilly.  As we found out as we travelled around South Africa, never the same is the norm!

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We liked it here but we didn’t love it.  It wasn’t quite as nice as Kapama but it was still interesting.  We had a bit of safari burn out getting here.  I think we were too exhausted to get the most out of it.  Still, we had some fantastic viewing.

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We went on a walking safari.  Our ranger had no gun so we were following his lead.  He said as long as you didn’t walk directly at anything they’d leave us alone.DSC_0414

It felt pretty strange traipsing through the bush but very cool when we got near the giraffes!DSC_0411IMG_20160115_104104IMG_0730IMG_0770

A bit of a heart pounding moment, despite being in the truck, this rhino came out directly towards me in this open vehicle.  Thankfully he turned!DSC_0439DSC_0441DSC_0443

Wildebeest IMG_0741

Bontebok – we were told sometimes bugs infest the white area on their nose and it swells up quite a bit.IMG_0767

Baby rhino!DSC_0427

How often do you get to take an elephant selfie?IMG_20160115_171713IMG_0798IMG_0801

Such a peaceful, happy face!IMG_0843IMG_0854DSC_0511DSC_0514IMG_0880IMG_0858

Baby wildebeestIMG_0864

Waterbuck and their ‘follow me’ sign on their rump.IMG_0904

Secretary birdIMG_0906IMG_0908

Probably the only ostrich shot we got at Kariega.  Every time the ranger saw one one he’d mumble in his Afrikaans accent “Schtupid birds”.  He told us a story about flooding in the park.  A mom, a dad and babies.  First the dad walks up to the rushing water and walks right in and is instantly swept away.  So the mother walks up to the edge and stops.  walks away.  Suddenly comes running back and right into the water and is too swept away.  The babies following their mother did the same.  The ranger just shakes his head. IMG_0912

We got to take a river cruise as wellDSC_0550

Jackal on shore having leftovers.IMG_0932

Lots of monkeys playing along the shoreline.IMG_0938

Like Kapama, we had some evening entertainment which made us very happy!

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This was abut the best moment.  A herd of elephants in the bush.  So many of them and lots of babies too.  Could have watched them all day.DSC_0578IMG_0965

This guy was on the wall of the dining room while I was grabbing my 32nd cappuccino of the day.IMG_20160117_062858

So after another round of amazing and exhausting game drives we headed off to a different adventure.  From Port Elizabeth airport we got picked up for a 4 day tour of what is called The Garden Route which basically follows a route to Cape Town.  If it had been winter there we would have stuck more to the coast (which I would have preferred anyway) and we would have had some whale watching.  We stuck inland more.  And though our travel agent said ‘there may be another couple along for this part’, she was WAY off base.  We ended up on a bus.  A big bus.  A big bus full of seniors which included, as I grew to call them, ‘the damn Dutch’.

Needless to say this was not the romantic ride through stunning scenery we had hoped for.  That said, we made the best of it after telling the tour guide to let us eat alone as much as we could.  We met some nice people but this was not what we wanted.  At all.  I’ll stop whining now!

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My beautiful wife in a beautiful moment…IMG_20160117_133626IMG_1102IMG_1103DSC_0603DSC_0626DSC_0623DSC_0624DSC_0634IMG_1141

Me being me and having to dip my toes in the Indian Ocean.IMG_1181IMG_1185

Shacks in a town we drove throughIMG_1214IMG_1216

In the town of Knysna, our hotel, Knysna Hollow

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The thatched roof of our room.  Our first room we noticed all these black dots and thread on the bed.  Turns out the black dots were bugs and the thread was an inchworm.  They had fallen from the roof.  We moved.IMG_1221IMG_1228

We took a boat ride to The Featherbed Reserve.  A beautiful spot on a cliff overlooking the ocean.DSC_0659

Apparently Oprah has a house over there.  We don’t.  Try not to be shocked!DSC_0669DSC_0674DSC_0691DSC_0695DSC_0715DSC_0718

Dinner at Drydock in Knysna.  One of the best meals on the trip and just a wonderful evening.IMG_1318IMG_1319

Our waiter who was the happiest person on earth.  He spoke the click language (Xhosa) and he sang while he worked and just enjoyed life.IMG_1328IMG_20160118_201839IMG_20160118_201954IMG_1329IMG_1335

Our next stop was the town of Outdshoorn.  We went to Cango Caves and an ostrich farm.  Neither was something we would have ever picked.  The caves were cool and the farm was not.  That said, another experience in the many different lands that are South Africa.

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A very cool cave paintingDSC_0750DSC_0758DSC_0761DSC_0767

And yes, this did not turn out.  Or did it?  DSC_0779IMG_1416IMG_1418IMG_1425DSC_0781IMG_1434IMG_1475

We stopped at an endangered species zoo.  Despite some cuteness below where we got to pet baby cheetahs, overall it made us kind of sad.DSC_0817IMG_1510

Ahhh bats.IMG_1519

The best part of Oudtshoorn for us was the hotel.  It was just beautiful…

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And our final run to our final week, in Cape Town.  The scenery changes all the time.

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Took us two weeks to take a half decent selfie but we got there.20160120_032235IMG_158020160120_03330820160120_033642IMG_1588IMG_1596IMG_1601IMG_1603

You can guess who’s who…20160120_11215420160120_04454020160120_045704

The tour guide mentioned formations like this are where South America broke off from where it was connected to Africa back when we had a single continent called Pangea (I think that was a few years back!).20160120_05013520160120_050937IMG_20160120_121502IMG_1640IMG_1642IMG_1643IMG_1644IMG_1641

This winery was awesome and their wines were only about $3 a bottle.IMG_20160120_123720IMG_1680IMG_1681IMG_1705

At last we arrived in Cape Town and ditched our seniors tour!  Believe it or not we saw some of them again.  And again.  We dumped our bags at the hotel and headed to the famous Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, affectionately referred to as either ‘The V&A’ or simply ‘The Waterfront’.  It is a whole bunch of things including a mall, masses of restaurants, hotels, art, bars, concerts and on and on.  It is a spectacular locale with more spectacular views and you could spend a very large amount of time exploring.  We were lucky our hotel was just a short walk from it.IMG_172620160120_175319

We had to take this picture.  Had to.IMG_1729IMG_1730IMG_1732

The famous Table MountainIMG_1733IMG_1734IMG_1737IMG_1738

Relaxing…IMG_1740IMG_20160120_195138DSC_0867

Smart marketing!DSC_0870DSC_0871DSC_0874IMG_20160121_154451IMG_20160121_171315IMG_20160121_171318

There was a much ruder version of this shot.  I’ll leave that to your imagination!IMG_1758IMG_1761IMG_1767IMG_1768IMG_1770IMG_1744IMG_1749IMG_1755

There seem to be a million beautiful beaches in and around Cape Town.  This place was gorgeous between the sand and the mountain and the clouds which swept over the top like a river and disappeared.  This is Camp’s Bay Beach and the series of peaks along the mountain are called The Twelve Apostles.IMG_20160122_104853IMG_20160122_120650IMG_20160122_120817

This Bentley, as you can imagine, was NOT our car!IMG_20160122_131542

This, however, was our car.  And yes, I drove on the left and it was a massive adjustment requiring constant concentration with a tendency to be too far to the left side giving my poor wife a variety of heart stoppages.  I got better.  Never got comfortable.  Just easier.IMG_20160122_131553

We had lunch with friends here in Hout Bay.  And yes, I did stick my feet in the water!DSC_0898IMG_20160122_153616

Our friends used to live here.  Behind the corner of the mountain there is a shanty town.  Criminals used to come over the edge of the mountain to rob the nicer homes facing the beach.  No wonder they moved.DSC_0906

This is a market in the Woodstock area of Cape Town.  In the city there are people roaming around with orange vests who like to assist you in your parking.  You give them a dollar or two and it is plenty.  Not a big deal though not something we are used to in Canada.  Anyway, the GPS said we were getting close and I see one of these guys waving me in so I though, okay, fine.  Well we go down a side street and then into an alley which looks like industrial area and we get a spot.  Making me a bit nervous but not too bad.  I had no change so the guy had to get me some.  I had the equivalent of $10.  So he gives change and runs off the the remaining $5.  Nice.  I was NOT going to give chase.IMG_20160123_090800

Note the meat choices.  Kudu is antelope.IMG_20160123_093547IMG_20160123_093643IMG_20160123_093822

We decided to take a drive and make our way down to Cape Point (aka Cape of Good Hope – the very southern point of the continent of Africa CORRECTION: This is not the southern most point, my mistake – turns out it a ways away at Cape Agulhas).  Some place I’ve always wanted to go.  Along the way we run into this beautiful spot.  This is Noordhoek.  There’s equestrian centres nearby if you want to ride on the beach.IMG_20160123_132305DSC_0908

Traffic kept stopping on the road in mostly because these guys like to come out and sit on the road.IMG_1952IMG_1954

When you get to the observation tower you have a great view down to the point.  As well, you are constantly watching clouds move below you.DSC_0944DSC_0946DSC_0949DSC_0958DSC_0960IMG_2007IMG_2019

Meanwhile, back in Cape Town.  You can guess who moves.IMG_20160123_193959IMG_20160123_194636

One of my favourite shots from the V&A.IMG_20160123_194650IMG_2091IMG_2096

Near Cape Town is a place called Boulders Beach.  Strangely it is known for its boulders!  Oh, and its penguin colony.  You can get very close to them, especially in the water. Dup File Names (122)

We stopped for dinner in Kalk Bay in an intriguing spot called Cape To Cuba.IMG_20160126_172144IMG_2180IMG_2188IMG_2189

We also had high tea at this fancy little place called the Mount Nelson hotel.Dup File Names (69)IMG_2200Dup File Names (51)Dup File Names (53)

Stick bug anyone?  Our friend’s son found this in the yard.IMG_20160126_192932

Our last day we decided to go up Table Mountain.  There’s a cable car to the top.  Unfortunately the deck of the mountain was completely enveloped in cloud so we didn’t go.  Still, pretty amazing view of the city.20160127_075210Dup File Names (24)IMG_2195

A final shot of this funky shop in the V&A.DSC_0868

So that’s it.  It was an amazing, intriguing and utterly exhausting trip.  20 hours of flying added to the fun.  As did poor Beth getting sick right at the end.  Was it worth it?  You bet.  What would we do different next time around (or for anyone else’s first time)?  First off, focus on what is really important to see.  As different as the two game parks were, they were also very much the same.  We wished we’d stayed at Kapama a few extra days and had more down time.  And a massage!  We literally travelled from the east side of South Africa to the west.  It’s a lot of ground and we lost a lot of time in moving around.  I would have rather driven the garden route and did more things we wanted to do.  We were in a strange land and you never know that when you haven’t gone.

The trip is quite an education in the differences that still remain post-apartheid.  There are still townships and shanty towns as well as masses of gated communities.  We never felt unsafe but from our pretty protected world in Canada, the life there is an adjustment.  There is such poverty and despite a lower cost of living by far, there is still so much to do to bring all people to a better way of life.  Nothing comes easily.  It will take generations.

There were so many incredibly nice people.  There are endless sights and sounds.  You will not regret a visit to South Africa.  You can focus on the game facilities.  You can focus on the incredible cities.  Cape Town is special in so many ways.  Neighbourhoods of all ethnic varieties.  Music everywhere.  Markets, shopping of every price and style.  Architecture, mountains, beaches.  We would love to spend 3 months or more (donations welcome!).a year to just relax and explore.  If you ever get the chance, do not pass it up.  You can make it as expensive or as cheap as you care to dare.  Everyone should see this place.

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5 Responses to Three Weeks In South Africa

  1. touchaku says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Larry! As always you’re a great writer and this was really enjoying to read. I share your interest in the world and this was also educating. I could not agree with you more in that it’s too easy to take on too much. We have been guilty of that on our Japan trips. It’s just too easy to underestimate the energy required to get around. – Mark A.

  2. Robert Wood says:

    I enjoyed reading this. What a ride!

  3. Eric says:

    Enjoyed reading about your African adventure! Sounds like an awesome trip, and something I hope to do one day. Thanks for taking the time to share all your photos and videos and adding the interesting text! Good stuff!

    • larrylootsteen says:

      Thanks Eric! Let me know when you get serious about it. I have lots of thoughts and things you might want to consider.

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