Where in the world are we?

Where in the World are We?

30 April 2011

Two Days in Jo'burg

After our excursion into the wild for game viewing we traveled to Johannesburg for our last day and a half in South Africa. Our only plan was to visit The Apartheid Museum and gather more information on this time in the country that only recently ended in 1990 with an announcement by then-president FW de Klerk. We arrived in the city on Good Friday, which is the day South Africa celebrates the Easter holiday and is one of only two holidays that closes the museum (but we knew that from planning ahead). We were able to find an open ginormous grocery store and got what we needed to eat for the next two days and then just spent the afternoon relaxing since nothing was open. On Saturday, we traveled through the city to make our way to the museum.

The museum documents historical events in South Africa and how Apartheid came into effect as well as provides anecdotal tales and historical records showing life during this period for all South Africans. It was an important stop on our tour of the country and is a museum not to be missed. It is just this year that a class of primary school students will graduate who has not lived through Apartheid and strict separation policies.

The tour begins when you purchase your ticket and the computer randomly categorizes you as either non-white or white. We were split and had to enter through our designated entrances: ginnie in the whites only area and Anthony in the non-whites only door. Apartheid's list of 150 laws made the country a sign-filled space to ensure that whites and non-whites (further split into three groups: blacks (those with the least opportunities), coloureds (a step above black, we never really could figure out who fit this category - and with the identification system that was entirely arbitrary and up to the whim of the official working that moment probably means nobody actually knew), and Asians (a classification added to include the Indians and Chinese in the country, many of whom had been brought in for gold mining or came for opportunities). ginnie found in her entrance hall that whites were split between European and non-European and she didn't know under which sign to pass since she has both in her background.

"To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." ~Nelson Mandela

We saw giant poster-sized replicas of the passes citizens had to carry that showed their racial classification - which they were given by the assigned official who did not necessarily have any formal education of background. A question about what happens to coffee when milk is added led to a man being demoted from coloured status to black status. It's truly unbelievable to both of us that this was able to exist for so long. We learned that the list of laws kept growing as anti-Apartheid activists continued to find ways to fight the system.

Sadly, the impetus for establishing this system came from political leaders representing poor white farmers, boers, who were concerned about losing opportunity to native Africans and other non-whites. They felt they had been given this land by a supreme being and it was there's to do with as they pleased. Much like in the USA, these Europeans took native people's lands and relegated the local people to small portions, often not truly able to own the land outright. The Apartheid government strictly controlled the media and propaganda so people did not always fully understand what was happening (though it's hard to comprehend how one could not notice groups of people being evicted from their homes and moved into townships or that the signs everywhere made it clear they could not mingle; even white people suffered from this in some ways). People were not allowed to mix for any type of relationship and there were groups who would look through the windows of mixed race couples to see if they violated the law by engaging in intercourse. It was serious and intense.

We are both impressed by the many people who would not stop fighting against this injustice. There are people, both non-white and white, who consistently stood by their beliefs and accepted prison time or even lost their lives (mysterious poisonings and such) because they would not sit idly by as the government mistreated a large portion of its population in favor of another (a minority in reality).

It is really not possible to go through the museum in a brief post since it took us over 3 hours to explore and even then we had to start skimming the information. Look at the link to the museum site and take a trip to South Africa to learn more.

ukuthula na-uthando!

29 April 2011

"Poor Man's Serengeti"

Following the adventures in Addo, our safari tour brought us to South Africa’s North West Province and the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. We learned of this park from a co-worker of Mrs. Tarzia who is South African and gave us several great recommendations for our trip. We had been informed from others who’ve visited Africa that it is easy to book a safari once in country and better yet to do so locally with our own transportation or finding a local guide who would come along. We thought we were going to have to do a short and costly safari guided tour with a company, but that was definitely not the case. Armed with a suggested park (once in country we were bombarded with information on game parks, it’s overwhelming, so knowing where to go was a huge help! Also sticking to a South African National Park site is a bit nicer as well) and a rented vehicle (which, by the way, is the cheapest method of transport in South Africa for some reason – no problem for us, we are happy to take care of ourselves) we were on our way to two full days of game viewing.

Pilanesberg is a unique park in that its ecosystem is an extinct volcano which makes it hospitable to several species of animal and plant that normally could not live in the same area since some rely heavily on wetlands and others only survive well in dry areas. It’s a beautiful park and has all the same animals, and more, as some of the more well-known (and more expensive) parks. We loved the park and really explored as much as we could.

This is a much bigger park than Addo, covering 500,000 hectares so we had a lot of space to wander and view not only animals but stunning landscapes. Since it is so large, we learned later in the day to focus on the plain area where we’d have the best chance of spotting lions and cheetah. Of course, it’s some wide open plain, so binoculars would have been helpful.

Cats aside, we saw a lot of animals including our first giraffe! That was a really exciting sighting because ginnie saw something far in the distance which looked like a big tree, but it seemed to move, so we headed that way and sure enough there were several giraffes walking along the plain and stopping to graze from treetops – so incredible, we watched them for a good 40 minutes! We also spotted some new animals on this trek. The photos document our list of the animals we saw while on safari in Pilanesberg for two full days.

FYI, on a safari tour you get a 2-3 hour drive and don’t determine where you go, so once the time is up it’s up and that costs more than driving yourself around for a full day! Also, Pilanesberg is really affordable; we paid less than $25US for the full day at the park. The price will go up on May 1st, but only by R20, which is just over $3US, so it’s definitely a great way to do safari (hence the nickname “The Poor Man’s Serengeti”).

this vervet monkey was our first animal sighting in Pilanesberg

this photo has a funny story; first, it is not our photo, it's from the Pilanesberg website from our first day at the park (20 April). we were driving toward the Mankwe plain when we saw a couple safari trucks and other vehicles stopped. we looked in the direction they were looking, but didn't see anything ahead; the people in the truck were laughing and we thought they were pulling a prank. as we passed the truck (on the left since that's the side of driving in SA) ginnie looked out her window and right there was this elephant with this stick in its mouth! due to park etiquette, we could not stop and block road access and it was so sudden the camera wasn't ready and earlier that day an elephant close like this lashed out and squealed at people and waved its trunk when they passed that close and took photos (we were one of those it lashed at!). there is another pic of the same ellie somewhere in this group, just from a side angle.

at the center of the park is a small watering hole where there is a salt lick that is evidently like sugar or caffeine or addictive drugs to some animals. we observed several groups of animals compete over time at the salt lick. at one point, these giraffe ganged up and booted out some zebra - one even charged it and tried to kick; a giraffe kicking its front legs is a sight to see, it involves some extremely awkward lumbering and maneuvering the entire body. the whole process of a giraffe running is fascinating with the way its neck awkwardly bobs up and down to help propel it forward.

one of our favorite zebra photos of a mom and baby

one aspect we enjoyed was seeing the different animal groups grazing together; here we have a wildebeest and giraffe

here's that elephant from earlier

the grey mass is in fact two hippos; they really don't move much at all

Pilanesberg is home to a LOT of bird species; we don't know what this is, but it is beautiful and looks like a sapphire when it flies

we are pretty sure this is a waterbuck - sometimes we had trouble identifying the animals, even with huge posters we referred to, but this fits the waterbuck image pretty well

even turtles are seen on safari!

white rhino; the rhino picture in Addo was a black rhino

we know, we took a lot of photos of zebra; how could we not?

springbok; they have the most graceful leap and seemingly flew through the air across the road as they passed us

ginnie decided to take photos of animals crossing the road in front of us; or coming at us or walking ahead. one of them, the one between the giraffes on the right-hand side, being a black mamba snake, widely considered the world's deadliest snake! it spanned the length of the road when we came to it, but the shock of seeing it delayed the reaction in grabbing the camera, so all we have is its last quarter.

the best we could do with this fast-moving aardwolf that Anthony somehow spotted peaking out from behind a rock. he was much better at finding small animals than ginnie!

we saw a lot of wildebeest both days; the striping along their necks helped us identify them

this black-backed jackal was up to something, we passed this area three times and he was there at each. we're thinking he was hunting something in the space behind him because at one point another car was across from us and he seemed frozen with indecision on whether to turn back to avoid us or stay and keep watch on the grass

warthogs hang out near the roads a lot, so we saw many; they are somehow kind of cute in their ugliness. these two are butting heads over something; it ended quickly with them separating and returning to grazing in their spaces

black rhino with pretty sapphire bird on its back

the giraffes chasing the zebra from the watering hole!

vrede en liefde!

28 April 2011

My First Safari - Addo Elephant Park

From Nature's Valley we travelled to Addo where we stayed in our ideal safari lodge room, it even had a piano, to rest before embarking on our first African game drive at Addo Elephant National Park.

Enjoy our stories of our first safari experience and a few of our favorite photos of the animals we spent the day observing. By the way, it was really hard to narrow down the photos, so enjoy your own voyeuristic safari journey through this post! :)

Ginnie: I awoke before dawn eager and excited for our first safari. I really didn’t know what to expect; however, when I saw lots of trees and bush and green I felt like it wasn’t what I imagined. I guess my mind had images of a more barren landscape from watching National Geographic specials. I wondered what we would see among all those trees, but soon after entering we saw two elephants on either side of us grazing away at the treetops. It was so surreal to be that close to these wild elephants. We traveled on into more open plains where we saw our first zebra! I was looking forward to seeing zebra and giraffes (I knew this park did not have giraffes so was on the hunt for zebra). It’s fascinating to simply sit and watch the animals as they go about their daily lives.

Throughout the day we kept coming across new animals – buffalo (an entire herd was on the plain at one point and not 30 minutes later they were all gone!), lots of kudu, many more zebra, two meerkats, more elephants, warthogs, and a little favorite – the flightless dung beetle who works really hard to form perfect balls of dung, which is its own mini-ecosystem. I could just drive around all day looking for animals. The moment you suddenly spot something in the distance or around a curve is exciting and as you get close and see what it is it’s like a fun game of seek-and-find and the reward is the impressive and huge wild animal just meters from you in many cases. It is really difficult to verbally describe the experience.

Not wanting to leave any area unchecked, we headed to the southern section of the park after a picnic lunch (big surprise, PB sandwiches and a local flavor of Lay’s chips; side note: Lay’s has some delicious flavors of chips around the world and I really wish I could get them in the US since I never really liked potato chips but these flavors make them delightful!) where loops are longer. When we first entered, we saw a lot more tall grass and had a feeling fewer animals would be around since clearly the grass wasn’t being eaten. After a long stretch with no sightings, we decided to pick a small loop and if we found nothing, we’d return to the northern main camp. Just as we came around the corner in front of us was a stopped vehicle, generally a sign of a spotting; just to our left was a black rhino, happily grazing on a huge stretch of land all by itself. It was an amazing scene since the park includes a portion of the sea (hence being a game park that includes sharks and dolphins) and we could see the ocean behind the rhino as he grazed on the green grass of the plain. Once the rhino moved on from our view, we continued along and found ourselves alone on the trail.

As we slowly entered an area surrounded by woods, a buffalo popped out ahead on the left. More buffalo followed and we could hear a great deal of rustling in trees. We found ourselves stopped by a herd crossing to the other side of the woods. It was exhilarating, if a bit tense at moments. Every buffalo (except for the babies) who exited the woods looked directly at us for a second or two, decided we were nothing special, and carried on. One had a tree branch stuck between his horns, when it fell it blocked the only potential path we could take should there be a brief opening in the herd. We closed the windows (the safari rules state that since animals see the vehicle as one unit if a body part comes out of a window it can be taken as threatening or simply scary, either of which can incite a reaction out of the animal) and just figured we’d wait it out. Ant pondered whether or not the vehicle could move in reverse fast enough should it be necessary and then realized that was not an option as we were also blocked by a portion of the herd behind us – we hadn’t noticed them. We simply sat in awe at the realization that we were sitting in a tiny vehicle all alone surrounded by a herd of buffalo and we’d be there until they were ready to move along. I never really felt a sense of danger from the buffalo, but I was always conscious that they could damage the car pretty well should they decide to.

After that intense experience we continued our loop and took one of the long ones to make our way back to the main camp. This loop was again pretty bushy and the most we saw were gigantic human toddler-sized spider webs looped between large trees and bushes. Back at the main camp we had one loop we skipped in the morning as we were following other animals so we decided to take that before we had to leave the park at 6pm. With the sun setting, we knew there was a chance for the cats to come out but had no expectation of seeing any lions at Addo since there aren’t many in the park and cats are cats no matter the size, so they are not typically out and about without purpose. Just as I was thinking about how we probably wouldn’t see a lion but how neat it would be, Ant turned a corner and said “what is that in the street?” Before I could formulate a response or really see in the glare of the setting sun, he said, “Are those lions? They’re lions!” Two lions were directly in front of us! It was insane, totally unexpected, and completely surreal and indescribable.

We immediately took photos, I even sort of took some outside my window when they were still kind of far, but as they got closer, I knew that was not a good idea, so I rolled up the window and made due with through-the-window shots (which came out fairly well, thankfully). My heart was racing with the adrenalin, the excitement, the nerves, and who knows what else. It was just unbelievable that these elusive hunters were walking right toward me. As we watched in awe, a third lion came out of the woods, so we just sat by as the three (two males and a female) sauntered past. The first male sprinted past the car, but the female and second male sauntered slowly by. They are such huge animals – they came up to the height of the window. They were so close, I could have touched them as they walked by; I thought they were going to rub along the car like cats do when walking around and rub onto people and furniture. It was absolutely amazing, no words can describe it. The entire day was incredible and that just really topped it off. For my first safari experience, it was truly unforgettable and made me excited for more adventures in game viewing. There truly is nothing like the experience of observing animals in their natural environment simply living their lives.

Anthony: Waking before the sun rises above the horizon is something I reserve for days when traveling to a distant land on an early plane flight or watching the sun climb above ancient ruins. Today we had arrived at Addo National Park, in South Africa, a distant land that had for so long remained a dream to me. We were in a place where some of the planet’s wildest and most beautiful creatures roamed freely in their natural habitats…so, I thought it may be worth the effort to skip out on some extra sleep.

As we entered the game park under the morning mist and yellow-lit sky, we were immediately greeted by a pair of enormous African elephants that were easily 3 times the size of our miniature car rental. Each of them was about their daily business, chomping away at the lush green leaves that covered the dense bush along the road. Slowly moving down the road, I had to smile as I glanced at the first of what would be many road signs that read “Caution, lions in area, alight from vehicle at own risk” I decided to stay in the vehicle at this point and opted to venture out later when the right time arrived.

Continuing on through the park we encountered a number of additional animals including zebra, kudu, more elephants, rhinos, herds of buffalo, turtles, dung beetles, jackals, meerkats, more hoofed animals than I can remember, and a number of large and small birds.

As the day wound down and the excitement of what we would see next continued to build, we were graced with our first sight of lions. There were 2 males and 1 female. Each of the males wore a large bushy mane and the female walked alongside, stopping every couple of minutes to yawn showing her enormous incisors (yeah a bit scary). We stopped the car and waited almost breathlessly. As we sat shooting pictures, watching, sweating, giddy with excitement, we realized that this small pride of lions was actually heading right toward our vehicle. I thought back to the many times that I had seen large cats in zoos and other animal parks, but the size of them walking past at less than a foot’s distance was absolutely incredible. The experience is one that I will never forget, and instantly catapulted itself into my top ten.

The Addo Park was definitely a life-changing experience as I watched the wild animals in their own natural habitat, killing when hungry (as demonstrated by the carcasses on the side of the road), living their lives as nature intended them to each live, without cages, bars, or human interference. We all have images in our minds of what places, people, and things will look like; I guess at first I had this National Geographic idea of a safari, of Africa, and each of the different animals, but as I leave the continent, I have to admit, being so close to nature definitely gives one an appreciation for our amazingly diverse planet and why it is so crucial to protect it.

And... more photos from our first game drive:

Ant's great spotting caught this meerkat in time to snap a quick photo

black-backed jackal; always seen alone

kudu; love the spiral horns. we saw a LOT of these in Addo

ostriches are also found throughout the park

zebra are just so photogenic!

sizing us up

beautiful plains of Addo that overlook the Indian Ocean

it was such an amazing day, we couldn't stop smiling either!

ukuthula na-uthando!