Thursday, August 6, 2015

Getting Ready to Go 

Planning for my May 2015 trip to South Africa began about two years earlier.  I was to have gone on a photo safari with a group from San Miguel in 2014, but a new San Miguel friend, Phyllis, wanted to go too, and she was already booked for a trip to China then, so I went to Morocco instead (see my blog about that trip at http://reportfrommorocco2014.blogspot.com, and click the little word "Morocco" under the orange banner with the big word "Morocco!" in it), and we set our sights on South Africa in 2015. 

From the beginning, Phyllis and I had a few requirements:  we wanted to break up the long trip to and from the African continent, and we didn't want to spend all of that money on airfare and do all of the damage to our bodies that a long flight guarantees just to go on safari, as extraordinary an experience as that turned out to be.  We wanted to learn about the culture and people of South Africa by adding on visits to major cities such as Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, and Durban.  Finally, since we'd be with other travelers or each other all day long, we wanted and needed separate accommodations each evening.  And Phyllis had a particular yearning to see the San (Bushmen) rock art paintings inside caves in the Drackensburg Mountains and to be spoken to in a "click language." 

We decided on London as the break point in our long trip, and Phyllis, coming from Chicago, and I from Philadelphia, met up at the Renaissance Airport Hotel at Heathrow on the morning of May 8.  We were lucky that there were two rooms available so early in the day at no additional cost.  Because both of our flights were overnight so that we got in early the next morning, and our next flight, to Johannesburg, left at 9:20 p.m. on May 9, we had two full days in London with only one overnight in a hotel.

We cleaned up and rested just a bit, had some dynamite pea soup for lunch in the hotel dining room (the only memorable food we had in London, except for their Indian buffet on my return trip), then took a local bus to the Underground station nearby.  It took nearly an hour on that conveyance to get into central London, but the price was right compared to a faster mode that would have cost $75 USD round-trip each -- per day!  

With some difficulty, we found the hop-on, hop-off bus for which we had bought tickets from the concierge at our hotel.  The bus tour was a comedy of errors with us having to change buses frequently and wait for changes of drivers, so we missed our planned Thames River boat ride and just rode all around the bus' route, noting the places we knew from earlier trips or had heard of.  We were given ear phones for the excellent commentary, which could be heard in about a dozen languages. The traffic was just awful with more buses than I've ever encountered anywhere, and was probably the reason for the workers' time on- duty running out, necessitating replacements for whom we had to wait.  It wasn't the day we had planned, but it wasn't so bad as of course we were exhausted and totally jet-lagged.  

Our original plan was to catch a performance at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre, perhaps purchasing a ticket online for the 1:30 p.m. showing of "The Merchant of Venice" that day.  We opted not to take a chance on that, and we were glad as we would have missed it.  We were determined to at least see the theater the next day, and also visit Buckingham Palace, which we passed on the bus.  Needless to say, it was an early dinner and bedtime that evening.

The next day, the sun was trying mightily to shine through the clouds that had been with us since our arrival (no surprise there, it being London, after all).  We discovered that we couldn't make either the Shakespeare Globe Theater tour or the Buckingham Palace tour because the last ones were at noon on Saturdays, and after a late rising, breakfast, and the hour ride on the Underground, we just couldn't make it.  We did ride the hop-on, hop-off bus again and we did get our free Thames boat ride as part of that ticket.  

Walking from the bus stop to the boat terminal, we saw the Tower of London,

the Tower Bridge, and more tourists than I've ever seen anywhere.  I must add that everyone in the hospitality business whom we encountered was friendly and helpful.

This is what our boat looked like, and that interesting circular

building is London's City Hall.  We were incensed that the windows on the boat were so filthy that any photo-taking was impossible.

Finally, we did get a glimpse of the Shakespeare Globe Theater, complete with thatched roof.  The theater was an over-20 year labor of love by the American actor and director, Sam Wanamaker, who died just three years before its completion in 1996.  He spent those decades fund-raising and doing research, including archeological excavation, on the appearance of the original Globe.  This copy stands just a few hundred yards from its original site, and except for some modern safety requirements, is as accurate a reconstruction of the 1599 Globe as was possible with the available evidence.

After the boat ride, we strolled along the Thames, looking for a place to have lunch.  

We came upon one of the iconic red London telephone booths that are now, thanks to ubiquitous cell phones, just for photo opps for tourists, and we obliged.  This is Phyllis, my traveling companion, a retired astronomer.

We had lunch in this floating restaurant, called the S.S. Hispaniola, and watched the iconic London Eye -- Phyllis especially as she wanted to go up in it, but I didn't; it was frightfully expensive and I'm not a fan of ferris wheels -- on what turned out to be quite a lovely day.

Of course no trip to London would be complete without a sighting of Big Ben.

We returned to our hotel, got our bags out of storage, and made our way on the shuttle to the airport for our 10 1/2 hour non-stop flight to Johannesburg, or as those in the know call it, Jo-burg.

Polokwane (May 10-11)

A word here about the unique nature of the safari on which we were about to embark.  It is run by the Polokwane Rotary Club in the province of Limpopo in South Africa as their way to raise funds for their many worthy projects.  Because the trips are run by a non-profit, they are very reasonably priced.  They do five or six a year and have been running them for 20 years now.  They limit themselves to 8-10 guests at a time so as not to over-tax their resources and their members, as they do all their own planning and logistics and self-cater at the first camp.  After all expenses are subtracted from the fee we paid, the remainder goes to Rotary.  Weeks after we were all back to our home bases, we received letters attesting to the amount of our donation to Rotary International, which we can deduct from our taxes.  A win-win if there ever was one!  

Polokwane is the capital city of Limpopo, which borders Botswana and Mozambique.  Eighty percent of Kruger National Park lies within Limpopo Province.  Polokwane is the fastest growing area in South Africa.  Eighty percent of the world's platinum is mined there, also copper and phosphorus.  It reminded me of San Miguel:  similar temperatures, lack of water, the warmth of the people, and the lack of health care, education, jobs and opportunities for poor people.  Much of the scenery was dry, low shrubs, and included cacti, with mountains in the background.

How did I find out about this safari?  The mover and shaker of the safaris is Charles, the South African brother-in-law of my San Miguel landlady's best friend, Natalie.  It was her safari honeymoon with her late husband, Derrick, that inspired the Rotarians to use the safaris as fund-raisers, and Natalie has brought a group to South Africa every year for 20 years since then. 

We were met at the O.R. Tambo airport in Jo-burg, as promised, by a member of the Polokwane Rotary, Efiong, born Nigerian, but now a U.S. citizen living in South Africa.  Before his retirement, he was sent to bring McDonald's to his adopted country.  I aked him if we should be glad about that or not.  We were joined by a couple, Dick and Lynda, who had also been on our flight, who had gone on the safari five years earlier and liked it so much that they wanted to repeat their experience.  Five of the other six travelers, all of whom live in or had visited San Miguel, had arrived a day earlier from Victoria Falls, and were on a tour of Pretoria.  We would all meet up for dinner that night.  

We recent arrivals and Efiong were invited to a buffet lunch at the home of another Rotarian couple, Anne and Roy.  After lunch, Charles arrived to escort Phyllis and me to the Plumtree Lodge, a charming B&B with private cottages, owned by -- you guessed it -- another Rotarian, where we would spend the next two nights.  Dick and Lynda, who knew our lunch hosts from their last trip, stayed with them. 

When we were dropped off at Plumtree, we were given safari-style "goodie bags," which contained Polokwane Rotary Safari baseball caps in the official safari color (beige), a map of Limpopo, an itinerary for the safari, a lovely vibrant blue and white tablecloth with images of South Africa's guinea fowl, two kinds of mosquito repellent, and some chocolate bars.  The gifts were thoughtful and useful, and I can't tell you how important an additional large bag became as the trip continued.

A nap and shower were overdue.  We were told to be ready for a 5:30 p.m. pick up as we would be taken to an "Into Africa" bush braai (barbecue) dinner with entertainment in a lapa (thatched roof event space) at the Polokwane Game Reserve.

When we were picked up, we met four of the other participants -- Robert and Wing, and Denise and Ruthie, who had been on the Pretoria tour and were also staying at the Plumtree.  Natalie was staying with her brother-in-law, Charles, and his wife, Lois, and we would pick up Denise's son, Will, in a day or two, as he had passport problems and couldn't join us on time.

We arrived at the lapa to see dozens of folks, Black and white, sitting in chairs around a camp fire with drinks in hand.  These were the other members of the Rotary, 28 in number, and some students from a school for the blind run with funds earned from these safari trips.  The students entertained us with about a half dozen songs (some religious), drumming, and a trumpet duet.  There was not a dry eye in the place.  Before the nuns shepherded the students back to their van to return to school, after turning down our invitation to stay to dinner, one student recited an impassioned speech, which I recognized only weeks later at the museum at the Nelson Mandela Capture Spot, as words of that great man.

Several of the Rotarians were cooking an astonishing amount of chicken thighs, kebobs (they pronounced them kebabs), and beef sausage on grills over wood fires.

You can see from Charles' get-up that he is a clown -- a widely-read, knowledgeable, extremely well-organized clown -- but a clown nonetheless.  Throughout the trip, he had us in stitches.

The traditional call to a meal in South Africa is the blowing of the horn of a kudu (a type of antelope).  After Charles blew it, Wing had to give it a none-too-successful try.

We went into the lapa, which was huge with an arched thatched roof.  We saw lots of these thatched roofs over the next few weeks and they fascinated me.   

The space was set up with small tables, linen table cloths with over-cloths in a zebra pattern, real silverware, stemware, and china plates.  This is a class operation! 

To accompany the grilled meats, there were several lovely homemade salads, fresh bread, etc., all prepared by the Rotarians themselves.  We were heartily welcomed to the kick-off of our safari.  We were encouraged to spread ourselves out at the various tables and not all sit together so as to meet as many of the Rotarians as possible.  Everyone was friendly and welcoming, and there was spirited conversation about the political situation in their country.  One big surprise to me was that polygamy is legal, and even the president of the country has multiple wives!

As Charles drove us back to the Plumtree through the Polokwane Game Reserve in the dark, he had one hand on the steering wheel, while shining a high-powered flashlight into the bush with the other.  We saw two wildebeests, an impala, and two birds that we don't have in the U.S.  The fiery-necked nightjar flies only at night and with its mouth wide open, just sucking down insects.  The other one is called thick legs.

The next morning, after breakfast at our B&B, we were picked up at 8:30 and driven way out to a rural area to the Makotse Women's Club, which is partially funded by the Polokwane Rotarians.  There we met up with Nic, a Peace Corps worker, whom we had met at the welcome party the night before. 

This center had many facets:  a bakery,

a sewing room with state-of-the-art machines

which turned out items such as pleated skirts used in traditional dances, modeled here by Ruthie, every flick of the hip energizing the multiple pleats,

graduation gowns,

and traditional dresses and aprons.

There was also a day care center to which we were welcomed by the head of another program of the center, outreach health-care. 

We saw the children preparing to receive their lunch,

a gelatinous corn porridge.  One student's dish flipped over and we were amazed to see that the porridge stayed in the dish and did not fall on the ground.  The red-head on the right is Sandy, a Polokwane Rotarian who volunteers at the center.

We then went on to meet the outreach health-care workers, assembled at the Women's Center to report to their superior, and of course we had our photo taken with them.  I am in a light denim jacket standing just right of center.

That is Nic, the Peace Corps worker, with Jillian, his girlfriend and a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, who came to South Africa at the same time he did.

Our last stop was to the drop-in center, which is basically a soup kitchen.

We were surprised on the way out to see that the Embassy of Japan had funded the vocational training part of the Women's Club.

We then went to see Nic's village nearby.  He had a cute cottage with an extra window at the top that the surrounding cottages did not have.

The interior, small and cozy.

A showroom for sales of crafts.

These women were sitting in the blazing sun (at least they were wearing hats) scraping kernels from corn cobs.

Topiary and farming are taught.  The fields were fallow as it was the beginning of winter when we visited, but ready for the sowing of seeds in the spring.

Then it was back to Plumtree Lodge for a delicious lunch in their lapa, which also featured a thatched roof.

You can see the thickness of it and that it is made of the same extremely strong material brooms are.  The roofs have to be replaced about every seven years, and yes, things live in them and occasionally drop down, but happily, we avoided that occurrence.

After lunch, we were taken to the Gemco African crafts gallery, owned by yet another Rotarian, a fabulous store where we all spent lots of time and money.  In addition to gifts for the family, I bought the black and white giraffe scarf hanging on the right, and wore it constantly to many compliments.

These are ostrich eggs, some of which are perforated in patterns and made into lamps, and others are decorated in various ways and displayed on little stands.

That evening was the regular weekly dinner of the Rotary Club, and we enjoyed another fantastic meal provided by the members.  The annual Lee Harris award was given to Natalie "in appreciation of tangible and significant assistance given for the furtherance of better understanding and friendly relations among peoples of the world."  Because it was Mothers' Day in the U.S., all of the women were given giant Toblerone chocolate bars, a nice touch.

At Long Last, Off on Safari!

We left Plumtree Lodge at 8:45 a.m. on May 12 in several vehicles, one of which pulled a little trailer behind which contained everything we'd need for the first part of the safari.  A local experienced driver was hired to manage that vehicle.  The staggering amount of planning, work, logistics  -- and indeed love -- that go into these safaris is truly mind-boggling.  Think of the shopping for three gourmet meals a day, plus snacks and beverages for 10 guests and the four Rotarians coming with us on our three days in Letaba Camp within Kruger National Park.   We were accompanied by Charles and Lois (the latter a local politician), and Malcolm and Celia.

Here are fellow travelers Denise and Wing -- hamming it up -- as we watched the experienced Rotarians pack everything up expertly.

It was a ride of about four hours to Kruger, now 110 years old, broken up with bathroom and coffee breaks and a lunch break in a blind (also called a "hide") just inside the Phalaborwa gate into Kruger.  

This sign at the gate was my first knowledge of the very serious problem of rhino poaching within the park.  Poachers kill rhinos and take their horns, which are sold primarily in China and Vietnam as aphrodisiacs.  In 2014, 1400 rhinos were killed by poachers.  Remarkably, almost the same exact number of rhinos were born that year, so the balance was maintained, but if poaching continues at that rate, there may be no rhinos for our grandchildren's children to see.  We were told that Warren Buffett gave two helicopters to Kruger for this anti-poaching effort.

While we ate, one of the Rotarians went to pick up Will, Denise's son (the one who had passport problems, since resolved), at a small, local airport.  When Will joined us, he explained that he had been refused entry onto the plane in London bound for Jo-burg because he had less than six months remaining on his passport.  He had to pay mightily to get a new U.S. passport ASAP, but was lucky that he was able to join us just as the real safari part of the trip was starting.  Will told us that British Airways had to pay a fine of 4,000 GBP (British pounds) for allowing him on the plane in the U.S. heading to London in the first place.  Ouch!

This inquisitive southern yellow-billed hornbill soon figured out that picnicking was going on inside the blind, and made quite a pest of himself.

The following are some of the animals and birds we saw from the blind and also on our way, for an additional 1 1/2 hours on paved roads through Kruger, to our first stop, Letaba Camp.  We were told that this had been the best sighting of animals from the car in all of the years of Rotary safaris.

An impala.

 An African fish eagle, one of many species of eagles we saw throughout the safari. 

A warthog, surely one of the ugliest creatures on earth.

Letaba Camp, Kruger National Park (May 12-14)

We finally reached Letaba Camp, and the rustic Fish Eagle Lodge, situated in a secluded wooded corner of the camp, with huge bedrooms coming off it on both sides.

That's my room on the far left,

and here's how it looked inside.

The view out my window to the expansive grounds which we had all to ourselves,

which included yet another blind.  Because we had had such good animal sightings, we arrived later than planned, so skipped our sunset game drive in favor of drinks and Indian samosas with a dipping sauce in our blind, complete with a great sweeping bend of the Letaba River down below, which drew many animals for our viewing pleasure.

Captured with my zoom lens from the blind.

The grounds were spacious and peaceful, and included a grill, where parts of several of our meals were prepared.

The late afternoon light in the waning days of autumn was something very special.  The foliage turned fall colors not because of the season, but because of the drought they are experiencing.

When it got too dark to see any animals, we sat around a campfire until dinnertime, and what a meal it was!  We were served an Indonesian rijsttafel, a Dutch word that means "rice table."  There was yellow rice, curried vegetables, minced beef with custard, and six sambals and roti.  For dessert, there was milk pie with chocolate sauce and chocolate dipped figs, all homemade, and Amarula liqueur, made from a local berry, which tasted and looked very much like Bailey's Irish cream.  I became a real devotee of this beverage.  I should note that South Africans call all desserts "pudding," no matter what is on the menu, be it cake, pie, fruit, or even real pudding.

After dinner, we discussed the next morning's bush trail walk we would have with Kruger National Park Rangers.  We'd be awakened in time to dress, have coffee and rusks, and be on our way by 5:45 a.m.  We had to sign waivers (gulp!).  It's important to note that this game walk takes place in an area which rarely is visited by the "Big Five" -- African lion, African leopard, Cape buffalo, Black/White rhinoceros and African elephant.  However, one can never tell where a wild animal will show up.  The term "Big Five" was coined by big-game hunters and refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt.

The end of a perfect day in South Africa!

The next morning, in two groups of five, we rode with our guides in special viewing vehicles to where our walk would begin.  This is Kim, who, as you see, is carrying a 454 magnum rifle and wore huge, metal-jacketed bullets on her belt just in case she had to protect us should we be in any danger from animals.  I am happy to report that at no time during the entire safari did anyone have to shoot his or her rifle.

We went out early, because then and at dusk are the best times to see the animals.  The sun was just rising and quickly burnt off the early-morning mist.  

When we first got to the park, the guides told us that they would both walk in front of us.  We were to follow in single file, walking quite close together, and not to talk.  We took turns being the last in line (gulp again).  While one guide was stopping to point something out or talk to us about something we came across, the other guide would walk somewhat ahead to keep an eye on things.  We were told that in case of us running into a dangerous situation, one guide would deal with the animal and the other would deal with us.  We were assured that they were there to protect us to the very end (OMG!).

The night before, in the dark, after dinner, when this dawn walk was described to us, I was quite leery, but like the camel ride a year earlier in Morocco, I faced my fears and did it.

During our three-hour walk, with one short break for juice and snacks, which the guides provided, we saw, at very close range, an incredible number of giraffes, and an even more incredible number of impala, nicknamed NABIs (pronounced knobbies), as in "Oh, no, Not Another Bloody Impala!"  The impala were rutting, as they do only once a year, so they were extremely frisky.    The impala are prolific breeders and the most abundant mammal in Kruger.

Our guides told us a lot about much of the scat we came upon.   They were able to tell us from which animal it came, whether it was from a male or female, and in the case of some very poorly-digested leaves making up the scat, that it was from an old elephant who could no longer properly chew the leaves due to worn-down teeth, and so they passed through almost whole.  

We were taken to a small water hole where a hippo is frequently sighted, but he/she wasn't in residence at that time.  We were shown where a hippo had lain down recently.  The Rangers were able to identify which animals' footprints were in the soft dirt.  We heard a lion's roar, but our guides could tell that it was very far away.

Near the end of the walk, one guide spotted an enormous elephant and we gave him wide berth.  It takes an elephant a while to smell a human, so we had a little head start.  When it stopped eating, however, the guide told us to pick up the pace a little.  It did start walking behind us, escorting us out of his area in a manner of speaking, but by then we had reached the vehicle.  A bit of a thrill, I have to tell you.

To watch the land come to light as the sun rose, to hear the myriad of bird song, and of course to be that close to animals I've only seen in zoos, and to learn what the earth we were walking on could tell us about them, was a rare treat.  

We returned to Fish Eagle Lodge a little after nine, had showers, and then had a brunch not to be believed:  fresh fruit, yogurt and granola, mimosas or plain OJ, three different kinds of fresh, homemade bread, smoked trout on one kind of the bread with Hollandaise sauce, scrambled eggs (done in an extremely shallow wok over an open fire), and about the best bacon I've ever tasted, cooked in a similar pan.  Coffee or tea, of course.  And we ate outside.  Then we got one of the employees to do our laundry, so we could all take a much-needed nap.  Tea at 2:30, then an evening game drive at three.  We had to leave that early because the park gates close at 5:30 to protect the animals from drivers at night as there are no lights, of course.  It was late fall, so the sun set pretty early, and because we were very close to the Tropic of Capricorn, there was very little dusk; it went from light to dark pretty quickly.  

The photos below are from that evening's game drive.

The baby waterbuck can distinguish its mother's white rump marking from all of the others!

This is a huge crocodile.  Frequently from far away, we mistook stones for crocodiles and soon got to calling them "rockadiles" to much hilarity.

These are Cape buffalo, one of the most dangerous animals in the park,

and this a black-headed oriole.

After a leisurely cocktail hour, hosted by bartender extraordinaire, Malcolm,

dinner was another gourmet experience:  individual salads with smoked trout on baby greens, beet root jam, and avocado, all with a sensational dressing.  A braai of beef filet with Hollandaise sauce, chicken kebobs with a garlic sauce, roasted potatoes with bacon wrapped around them, and grilled pineapple.  For dessert ("pudding"), there was homemade vanilla ice cream, lots of cut fresh fruit, and homemade lemon curd.

After this feast, we received instructions for the following morning, which involved being awakened at 5:15 to begin a long car drive to another part of the park, Olifants Camp, which has different soil, more vegetation, and usually much more water in the Olifants River, although now it was also quite low from the drought.  Of course we would be viewing game from the car along the way.  We would breakfast at Mugg & Beans restaurant at Olifants Camp, overlooking the spectacular river gorge.  After that, we would visit the Amarula winery, returning to Letaba Camp around 1 p.m.  Our last game drive at Letaba Camp would be that evening.  The photos below are from our car drive through the park and also from our evening game drive.

This is a hyena, another very dangerous animal in the park.

Impala lilly

A baobab tree.  I was struck repeatedly by the majesty of the trees we saw.

We stopped frequently for spectacular viewing in the Olifants River Gorge of large numbers of hippos, elephants, and many wonderful birds.

 Mama and baby hippos.  One of my favorite sightings.

 Egyptian geese.

 An impala.

Can you spot the hidden giraffe?  It was incredible to me how easily they could hide themselves.

A tawny eagle.

A kudu.

Those are hippos bunched together in the middle on the land, not rocks.

When we returned to Letaba Camp, I visited the free Elephant Museum, 

shopped for gifts in the well-appointed camp store, walked around the camp to see the other types of lodgings possible, 

then rested until high tea at 3:15, followed by the evening game drive with rangers.  

When we returned in the dark, we saw a helicopter shining lights down in search of poachers.

Our farewell dinner at Letaba was another culinary masterpiece:  individual salads of baby greens with biltbong (a thinly sliced beef jerky, which is enormously popular in South Africa), beet root jam, and peppidew stuffed with patĂ©.  I found I very much liked the peppidew, somewhat like tiny sweet peppers which had been pickled.  We had small ostrich meatballs in a red wine reduction sauce on a bed of orange sweet potato mash with lots of grilled veggies.  All of that, plus the other self-catered meals we'd so enjoyed, were prepared by this dynamic duo, Lois and Celia.

They also set the most imaginatively attractive tables out on the verandah.  The large and small lanterns are from the Amarula winery.  We all wanted to buy some, but, unfortunately, they've been discontinued.

The Second Safari Site:  Kings Camp in Timbavati Private Game Reserve (May 15-19)

This safari business is not for those who like to sleep late or who need a lot of sleep.  We are up before dawn every morning, either to go on a game drive or to leave for the next camp.  In the case of this morning, we are departing Letaba Camp and going to the exclusive Kings Camp, which is a privately-owned five-star safari resort in Timbavati Game Reserve.  It takes only 20 guests at a time.  

The story of how Kings Camp came to be is an interesting one.  There were five owners of contiguous private game land who went into business together, pooling their land.  Although this land parcel is next to Kruger National Park, there were fences between the two land masses until recently, when the private owners agreed to take them down to allow the animals to roam the entire territory.  There are seven different luxury resorts on this parcel of land.

With lots of hugs, we bid adieu to our now dear friends Malcolm and Celia, whose work for us was finished.  They would return to Polokwane and Charles and Lois would continue on with us.

On our five-hour drive to Kings Camp, we passed many termite mounds, which are fascinating.  There can be as many as 33 pounds (millions) of termites in a typical mound.  In an average year, they move one-quarter of a metric ton  (about 550 lbs.) of soil and several tons of water.  They "farm" a symbiotic fungus that occupies eight times more of the nest than the insects do.  They take 4-5 years to build, and can reach a diameter of 30 meters, but can be ruined quickly in a heavy rain storm.

The mounds serve the respiratory needs of the subterranean colony below the mound.  The termites are forever remodeling the mound in response to changing conditions.

There are three types of termites within each mound:  the workers, all completely blind, wingless, and sexually immature; the soldiers, whose job it is to defend the colony from any unwanted animals; and the reproductives -- the king and queen.  The queen can produce hundreds of millions of eggs in her lifespan of up to 15 years.

The termites plant tree seeds, which when mature, shade the mound.

Of course, we continued to see a wide array of animals.

Because of the drought, tanks of water have been put out for the elephants in strategic spots.

I include this photo to demonstrate how very close we were to the animals, whether in our cars on the paved roads or in the Land Rovers off-road.

Here is the main gate for entrance into the resorts of the Timbavati Game Reserve.

Kings Camp is somewhat like Downton Abbey goes on Safari.  We were housed in individual thatched-roof suites, luxuriously appointed and tastefully decorated in the colonial style.  For example, there was a decanter of sherry with two glasses and a plate of fresh fruit on the table, shortbread cookies on the coffee bar, and chocolates on the pillow at night.  There was air-conditioning -- which was sorely needed during the day -- and an outdoor shower room (as big as some apartments in NYC) open to the sky but totally private.  It had two shower heads and shampoo and body wash in dispensers on the wall, plus a bench to sit on.

Outside each suite was a little sitting area with hammock and, not shown in this photo, a tiny watering hole, so that visiting animals could quench their thirst within your view.  I never saw an animal there, but then again, I wasn't in my room much except to sleep.

There were a lounge, where we met for drinks each evening before dinner, a thatched observation deck, complete with monkeys, where you could go to observe visiting animals or try to catch an elusive Internet signal, a lovely little shop, and an extremely friendly and accommodating staff.

When we first appeared and any time we returned from a game drive, we were met with a different, delicious beverage.  Here is what awaited us the first time.  (Other evening drinks included Pim's Cup and cream sherry.)

We had an orientation to the grounds and facilities, and some simple, common sense instructions about the boundary between the resort and the bush.  Everything that was on green grass belonged to the resort, and everything not green, over the line marked by bricks, was part of the park.  Because animals could freely pass that line, anytime it was dark and we needed to move between spaces, we were instructed to call Benjamin, the night watchman, on his cell phone and he would come to accompany us. 

Some harmless visitors having a snack on "our" side of the line.

Wing had a visit from an antelope with a huge rack of antlers on the way to his cottage.

You could schedule a massage in this hut (complete with its very own termite mound in the distance),

have a swim in the eternity pool, or just lounge. One did have to share the space occasionally with an uninvited guest.

We usually ate breakfast and lunch outdoors, but the monkeys became more and more aggressive at pilfering food from our plates, so we took some meals in the dining room.  The wait staff told us that they had a closet full of devices (sling shots, water pistols, etc.) to scare away the monkeys, but all to no avail.  I wondered if monkey chasing was in any of their job descriptions.

Our first game drive from Kings Camp took place that afternoon. We met our driver, Dean, and our tracker, Albert, and took seats in the special open Land Rovers, which we rotated each time, so that each person would have an equally good view over many days.  Our groups stayed together in their same vehicles with their same drivers and trackers, since they knew what their passengers had already seen.  Phyllis and I wound up in different vehicles, so it was fun to swap sighting stories at meals.  

We were instructed early on to dress in only three colors:  loden green, beige, or brown so that when the animals saw us, we would "read" to them like the landscape.  The animals in Kruger and in Timbavati have never been hunted, so they are not afraid of people, and they are quite used to the vehicles.  We were also instructed to dress warmly for both drives, as it is cold in the mornings and evenings before and after the sun makes an appearance.

You can see -- again -- how very close we were able to come to the animals without them being the least upset.

Surprisingly, it was the baby elephants, like this one, in some show of bravado, who sometimes trumpeted and fanned their ears -- warning signs -- but then when none of the grownups followed up, they slunk away.

Burchell's starling

Each evening, when we were about two hours into the three-hour drive, the two vehicles would rendezvous in an arroyo and we would be treated to "sundowners" (cocktails, orders for which were taken at lunch) and hors d'oeuvres.  That's Dean on the left, and Albert.

 Here I am, with drink in hand, and wearing many layers of my approved-color safari clothing.

We were a fabulous group, no divas among us.  We were punctual, friendly, funny, and sharing the time of our lives together.

 When we returned after the drive, I found that my mosquito netting had been unfurled (just for affect, I think, as we were in the "shoulder season" and I never saw a single mosquito).  The housekeeper also left on my pillow a little booklet about the wildlife and plants in the area.  Other nights it was a chocolate or a cookie.  She also drew a bath with bath salts, rose petals, and tea lights.  It was the exact correct temperature, so the drivers must have called to the resort at a certain point to let them know we were near so that the housekeepers could jump into action.  I decided not to take a bath, however.  Haven't taken one in years, and wasn't sure I could get out and always afraid of falling.

While I'm sure there was competition among the drivers and trackers for who could show their passengers the best sights, there was also much cooperation.  When one driver came across something interesting, he would call to the other drivers -- even those from other resorts -- to describe the find and give coordinates.  Dean could speak several local languages and used them on the walkie-talkies just as much, if not more, than English.

On one evening drive, the passengers in the other vehicle got to witness a female leopard kill a kudu.  By the time we could get there, a male leopard had stolen the kill and run with it up a tree.  Hyenas had smelled the blood and were gathering around the base of the tree.

I hope you can see the leopard up in the tree.  The  carcass of the kudu is hanging off a branch just below him.  You'll see a better photo in a moment.

This vehicle from a different resort came in to photograph the sight, and each of the passengers must have had at least $10,000 worth of camera equipment on them.  We quickly lowered our cell phone cameras and point-and-shoot Canons into our laps, and Dean and Albert made some rude remarks about "compensating."

The next day was extraordinary.  We drove to a water hole where we witnessed a large herd of elephants drinking and watering themselves and the babies.  Then from the other side, another large herd came in.  They actually greeted each other, intertwining trunks.

I'm not sure what is going on here, but it sure is cute!

Here come the others.

And everyone mingled beautifully.

Of course mid-drive in the mornings, too, we stopped for a break.  Those who needed a bathroom just walked away from the gathering spot, men in one direction, women in the other, while drivers and trackers poured coffee, tea or hot chocolate and passed biscotti and other treats, then joined us in warming up and admiring the rising sun and its effect on the landscape.

Unfortunately one of the vehicles got a flat tire, but again, there was much cooperation to fix it in no time at all.

Verreaux's eagle owl, also known as the giant eagle owl.

Back at the lodge, after a bountiful breakfast, we did what I thought was the only ill-considered thing on the whole trip.  On an extremely hot day at high noon, we went for an optional guide-led walk that was supposed to be for only an hour, but stretched to an hour and a half, and nearly did me in.

This is a communal nest, something I'd never seen before.

I feared that the red in this pond was blood from a kill, but in fact it's algae.

The shell of a huge land snail.

 I had to rest, cool off, and rehydrate for quite a while before I had the energy to change into my "swimming costume," as it's called there, and take a much-needed swim.  I had a little competition for the pool, however.  And after the swim, I cleaned up in the outdoor shower for the first time.

Each day at breakfast and lunch, you could order from a variety of smoothies, which I invariably did.  

This eggplant tower made a scrumptious, but not too heavy lunch.  It was so good that I ordered it again a few days later.

Each night at dinner, we ordered from a short menu (three choices for each course).  Let me give you an example of the sensational offerings by listing my choices one night:  arugula and baked chick pea and grape tomato salad with a lovely vinegary dressing, sea bass on a bed of steamed snow peas with a delicious light sauce, and baked Alaska for dessert (my first time having it ever!).    (Other course choices I remember were calamari, filet, a cheese plate.)

On that evening's drive, we saw warthogs foraging on their knees, which have a protective layer on them from birth.

And then, we saw two female lions having a siesta and a sunbath.  The other vehicle saw a family of lions, including the mother, father, and four cubs.  I never got to see them, but what a sight that must have been.

By this time, I'd seen all of the Big Five except for a rhinoceros, but was rewarded with the sight of a mother and baby.  Our driver and tracker were completely surprised by this sighting.


Now that is some rump!

 I so loved the trees in the park.


We returned to the tree where the leopard had sought refuge from the hyenas and the female he'd stolen the kill from, and found the carcass much reduced after the leopard had gorged himself and was sleeping it off.  He looked like he'd gone on a bender.  Notice his belly hanging over the branch.

We pretty much resigned ourselves to eating indoors because of the monkeys' thievery.  This is what each morning's spread looked like, and this was in addition to a full printed menu of omelets, breakfast meats, etc.  I stuck to my usual yogurt, fruit, and granola.


For our last day at Kings Camp, having seen all of the Big Five, instead of a morning game drive, a trip was offered to an animal rehabilitation center, which almost everyone elected to go on.  Phyllis and I, however, wanted to fulfill another dream, to visit Blyde Canyon, one of South Africa's most remarkable geological features, several hours away.   The Kings Camp staff made arrangements with a tour company, and bright and early in the morning, we were picked up by Johnnie, a most delightful and well-informed guide.  We told him that we wanted to be back by 3 p.m. latest so that we could go on the last evening game drive with the rest of our group.  

"The Blyde River Canyon is in the province of Mpumalanga on the eastern border of the country, and forms the northern part of the Drackensburg escarpment.  It was at this point that the ancient super continent Gondwanaland broke apart and Madagascar and Antarctica tore free from Africa some 200 million years ago.  The broken edge of the continent was gradually tilted upwards by the weight of a vast shallow sea stretching west to beyond Pretoria. 

"Blyde River Canyon is one of the largest canyons on Earth, and it may be the largest 'green canyon' due to its lush subtropical foliage.  It has some of the deepest precipitous cliffs of any canyon on the planet.  It is the second largest canyon in Africa, and is known as one of the great wonders of nature on the continent" (Wikipedia).

We followed the Panoramic Route, which starts at Graskop, 

and includes God's Window, a name with which we were charmed, and Wonder View,

the Pinnacle, a single quartzite column rising out of the deep wooded canyon,

 Bourke's Luck Potholes, a geological phenomenon formed by erosion at the meeting point of the Blyde River (a Dutch word pronounced "Blah-day" which means "joy") and the Treur River (the River of Sorrows) which has created strange cylindrical sculptures carved by swirling water.

and The Three Rondavels (or alternatively, the Three Sisters), huge spirals of dolomite rock rising out of the far wall of the Canyon which are reminiscent of thatched roof huts. 

Here is the delightful Johnnie with a personality as big as the stretch of his arms.

Some other shots from this magical day:

Johnnie pointed out this rock that looks just like a bear's face.

Yes, we walked over this bridge.  Those who know me well will marvel.

As Johnnie walked right past this sign, I pointed it out to him.  Yes, he knew about the sign, but he said the best viewing spot was on the other side of it, and so on we went.

As good as his word, Johnnie returned us to Kings Camp at 3 p.m. precisely, at which point Phyllis and I ran to get changed in time for the 3:30 game drive.

I must have taken about 50 shots to get this photo of the cheetah's tongue lapping up the water,

and then its grooming afterwards.  Really, it doesn't get any better than this!

Somehow, both Kings Camp vehicles got right in the middle of a herd of elephants crossing the road we were on.  Probably 40 elephants were all around us in very close quarters.

One of my very favorite shots.

Obviously, these folks from another resort didn't receive the memo about the proper safari colors to wear.  In a group we saw another time, there were two women in hot pick tops and another in neon orange.

For our last night at Kings Camp, a very special surprise was planned for us.  Instead of the usual sundowners in the arroyo, the entire staff, the women in animal print clothing, was awaiting us in a torch-lit area with a lamp-lit bar and little tables with snacks.  To say it was magical is to do the scene an injustice.

On our last morning drive, we experienced a somewhat gruesome sight.  A pack of hyenas had made a kill and were fighting over who got to eat first in a pecking order that we were unable to decipher.  There was much screaming, as hyenas do, and fighting, and when one upstart moved in to eat before his time, another hyena bit down onto his ear and held on, and I've never heard such a blood-curdling scream of pain.

Note the jeep to the left, whose passengers were getting a great view of the carnage.

The hyenas would put their heads right inside the carcass and come out with bloodied faces.

 And then there's always this guy to finish picking the carcass when the hyenas have had their fill.

 I am writing this blog shortly after the killing of Cecil, the beloved lion with a black-fringed mane in Zimbabwe by an American dentist, who after the kill, chopped off the head and skinned him.  After having been in such close proximity with some of the magnificent wild animals of Africa, I cannot fathom this behavior and am sickened by it.

This safari was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I was so very privileged to be a participant in.  Every part of it exceeded my expectations, and to have been able, through my enjoyment, to donate to the Polokwane Rotary for their extremely worthy projects, makes it even more so.  A hearty thank you to all of you out there who made this possible for me.

Part II will be about where Phyllis and I traveled in South Africa for two weeks after the safari ended and all of the amazing things we did.  I will be sure to alert you to when it is up and ready for your viewing.

If you liked this blog, perhaps you would enjoy some of my others:
Elderhostel trip to Alaska (2005): http://alaskaelderhostel.wordpress.com
Elderhostel trip to Copper Canyon in Mexico (2008): http://coppercanyonelderhostel.wordpress.com
My first winter (2009) in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: http://hidalgohussy.wordpress.com
My second winter (2010) in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: http://secondyearinsanmiguel.wordpress.com
My third winter (2011) in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: http://Iamaregularinsanmiguelnow.wordpress.com
My first autumn (2011) in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: http://firstautumninsanmiguel.wordpress.com
My fourth winter in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (2012):  http://cynthiainsanmiguel.wordpress.com
A trip to Chiapas, Mexico, with Vagabundos (2013):  http://mytriptochiapas.wordpress.com
A trip to Uruapan, Michoacán, Mexico, for the annual Palm Sunday artisans festival (2013): http://uruapanartisansfestival.wordpress.com
My trip to the state of Hidalgo, Mexico, with the Audubon Society (2013): http://audubontriptohidalgomexico.wordpress.com
My tip to Morocco (2014): http://reportfrommorocco2014.blogspot.com
Day of the Dead in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (2014): http://dayofthedead2014.blogspot.com
Tour of South Africa after the safari (2015): southafricapostsafari.blogspot.com
Day of the Dead in San Miguel de Allende , Mexico (2015): http://dayofthedeadSMA2015.blogspot.com

Dead of the Dead in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (2016):  http://dayofthedeadsma.16.blogspot.com

A Trip to See a Tree (2017):  http://atriptoseeatree.blogspot.com

What a Storm! (2017):  http://whatastorm.blogspot.com