Saturday, November 11, 2006

Dale and Joe's Excellent Adventure!

This past October, Joe and I travelled to South Africa to visit my grandparents. Along the way saw some old friends, toured the region with a tour guide, saw lots of animals at the Kruger National Park and had a wonderful time doing it all!

[click on map for larger image]

We've been back in the U.S. for a couple of weeks now and being the procrastinator that I am, I'm FINALLY uploading the pictures of our trip. You can't really blame me though; Joe took over 600 pictures! That's a lot to sort through.

So, without further adieu, here's our vacation!

(You can either scroll down and read all about it backwards, or travel with us in order.)

Blog entries:

1. Are we nearly there?
2. We're here! [view photos]
3. Joe tries boerwors [view photos]
4. Visiting old friends [view photos]
5. Let the tour begin!
6. Tour day 1: Mpumalanga [view photos]
7. Tour day 2: Kruger National Park [view photos]
8. Tour day 3: Kruger National Park [view photos]
9. Tour day 4: Kruger National Park and Swaziland [view photos]
10. Tour day 5: Swaziland and Hluhluwe [view photos]
11. Tour day 6: Driving to St. Lucia
12. Time with Granny and Boboy [view photos: 1 | 2 | 3]

Each blog entry has a link to the corresponding photos.

You can also view the entire photo collection.

Time with Granny and Boboy

St. Lucia
View photos of St. Lucia.

While in St. Lucia (we were there for the weekend) we took a drive through a small game reserve to Cape Vidal. Joe and I walked along the beach and dipped our feet into the Indian Ocean. It was chilly! On the way back to the resort, we stopped at a hippo viewing site and saw a bunch of hippos hanging out in the water. St. Lucia is known for hippo and crocodile viewing, so we were pleased to see both while we were there.

View photos of Hibberdene.

From St. Lucia, we drove to Hibberdene, where my grandparents live. While we were with my grandparents, we took a few trips up and down the coast to small beach towns, but unfortunately plans to go camping with them were hindered by bad weather.

Oribi Gorge and Leopard Rock
View photos of Oribi Gorge and Leopard Rock.

On our last full day there, we took a drive up (or was it down?) to Oribi Gorge and Leopard Rock. Oribi Gorge is home to the world's largest swing (fancy word for modified bungee jump) which Joe really wanted to try. So, after lunch, we drove up to the jump site and watched as Joe got harnessed up and jumped into the gorge. He had a great time jumping and I was nervously happy for him.

The next day we left South Africa and began our long 17 hour flight home. We were sad that our vacation was ending but glad to be going home to see our dog, who had been staying with Richard and Joanna while we were gone.

We came home to cold weather, red and orange leaves on trees, a green backyard (the grass seed Joe planted a few weeks before we left had bloomed while we were gone) and two houses practically in our backyard (the lot directly behind our house is still empty, though not for long I'm sure).

All in all, a fabulous vacation, one that I will remember for a very long time. I am glad Joe had a chance to see where I'm from, to put faces to names (of people, of places) and to experience a few of the things the country has to offer.

Tour Day 6

We drove 1.5 hours to St. Lucia, a wetland ecosystem along the coast. This was where we were meeting my grandparents. And thus ends our drive from point A to point B.

Tour Day 5

Leaving Swaziland, heading for Hluhluwe
View photos for this entry.

We left Swaziland and along the way out, stopped at a glass factory and a candle factory. Our final overnight on the tour was at a region called Hluhluwe, which offers another game park, though not nearly as large as the Kruger National Park. We stayed in a cute little bungalow and from our window, spotted a small group of nyala (they look like smaller kudu but with slightly different markings). That evening, Joe and I dined at an outdoor feast - the park folks drive you to a clearing in a wooded area where they've set up tables, chairs, and all kinds of tasty food! What a wonderful way to end the tour, drinking wine, eating good food, all under the beautiful African sky.

Tour Day 4

Leaving Kruger and heading to Swaziland
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We left the Kruger National Park and settled in for a long drive to our hotel in Swaziland. My impressions of Swaziland: an odd little country with the BEST dinner and breakfast buffet!

Tour Day 3

Our second day in the Kruger National Park
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Since we had so much luck spotting 4 of the Big Five the day before, I wasn't going to push my luck, but I put it into the universe that I'd like to see a rhino before breakfast, which would bring our tally to 5. That said, we set off down a road on which Pierre pointed out he doesn't usually see a lot of animals, but what he does see is good. Fair enough. Before too long, I spotted 4 of something in the bush. Pierre backed up the car a bit and we spotted 4 buffalo. Before too long, we were literally surrounded by a herd of probably over 200! We just sat there watching them as they watched us. There was not another car in sight for probably 20 minutes. It was fantastic!

Not far down the road, we saw a group of parked cars watching something. A pack of wild dogs, just lounging by the side of the road! We counted 9 dogs, a few of which we only spotted as we saw their tails flicker in the bush, swatting flies. What a sight! We just sat and watched them sleep -- and after all the warnings (they're rare, you won't see them, they're shy), here we were, watching a PACK!

We ended up driving to a rest stop for breakfast, where, while Pierre was waiting for our food, we spotted a rhino off in the distance a bit, across from a small river that ran along side the rest camp. Technically spotted BEFORE we ate breakfast, this guy brought our total of the Big Five to the Big Five! Unheard of in my experience at the park as a child.

Before we left, Pierre spoke to another tour guide he knew at the rest stop who told him of a leopard sighting not too far away. This leopard had made a kill and had dragged the body up a tree. Excellent! Luckily we weren't the only ones who'd heard of this sighting, as I'm not sure we would have seen it without the group of cars to clue us in. This leopard was also a fair way off, but if you listened closely, you could hear the sound of breaking bones as he ate.

Two leopard sightings, two lion sightings. What an amazing time! leopard sightings, two lion sightings. What an amazing time!

That night, as we did the first, Joe and I went on a night ride before dinner. This time we headed back to where the lions were seen earlier (the ones sleeping on the road). This time the whole pride was out. We counted 9, including a few young males and some younger lions (no real cubs, per se, but definitely young). We sat with them for a while as they lounged on the road, and then followed them for a while as they walked up the road. It was so neat to see the matriarch leading the group; when she moved, they moved, when she stopped to rest, they stopped.

Tour Day 2

Our first day in the Kruger National Park
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We traveled into the Kruger National Park where we hoped to spot the Big Five. I warned Joe that I didn't remember seeing all the Big Five as a child and that we'd be really lucky to see just a few. With that, we started driving through the park.

Note: I was really hoping to see an African wild dog, but was under the same warning: they're very rare, most people don't see them, they're very shy, etc.

The Big Five: Rhino, Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Cape Buffalo

The first thing we saw was a kudu. Then some baboons playing on top of a huge rock group. Pictures of the baboons were a little difficult to get as they were quite a distance off. I won't bore you with a long list of animals we saw, but will do my best to wow you with all the pictures.

So, we're driving along, slowly, towards our evening destination: a rest camp called Skukuza. When I booked the trip, I was told we'd be staying at Pretoriuskop, so was surprised to find they had moved us. I was told that the park was full and the only place to stay was at a 2 bedroom "house" which we'd share with our guide. When we got to Skukuza, we were told that there had been a mixup and that we were in fact staying at Pretoriuskop. No problem. Back in the car for the long drive back the way we'd just come.

Our tour guide, being park savvy, took a different road back and when we were halfway back, we spotted a group of cars up ahead. (You learn to look out for wildlife AND parked cars, as that's usually an indicator that someone has spotted something in the bush.) I peered through the front window (Joe and I were backseat drivers) and practically freaked out! A wild dog! He was walking down the road, just trotting along. He walked right past our car before disappearing into the bush. To see just one of these beautiful animals was worth the entire trip! I was so happy! I had really wanted to see one, but had resolved myself to the fact that I probably wouldn't, to be happy with what I did see. After that sighting, I was on cloud nine! And yes, I think they're beautiful and I think the babies are terribly cute, although some folks think they're not so cute.

At this point in the day, we'd seen the one of the Big Five… and elephant. Better luck tomorrow.

So, we're about 5 minutes from the gate of our rest camp and Joe's peering through the bush and suddenly asks Pierre to back the car up a bit. We see a leopard, walking right towards us through the grass. We only got one picture of him as he was a fast walker and wasn't out of the bush for very long. Once he walked back into the grass, he was gone.

So, two of the Big Five in one day: definitely not too shabby, especially considering one of our sightings was of a leopard, which I had never seen on any of my trips as a child! Before dinner, Joe and I took a guided night drive in an open-air vehicle. It was freezing outside, so we were thankful for the blankets they provided.

As for our night sightings... a leopard hiding in some brush, one lion and a small group of buffalo, bringing out final count of the Big Five to four!

Tour Day 1

Touring Mpumalanga
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We traveled from Pretoria to Hazyview by way of Pilgrim's Rest, Blyde River Canyon, the Three Rondawels, God's Window, Bourke's Luck Potholes, and Lisbon Falls. I'd been to these sights as a child, so was so excited for Joe to see them.

Let the tour begin

At 7:30 Monday morning, our tour guide, Pierre, arrived at Fiona's house to collect us. We were doing what I described as a glorified cab ride. Essentially, Joe and I needed to get from Johannesburg to my grandparents' house just south of Durban (roughly 7 hours away). We found a tour group that offered just that: pick up in Johannesburg and drop off in Durban, with 5 days of sightseeing in between. We were able to change the pick up and drop off a bit, which was a huge help and worked out tremendously!

Visiting old friends

"You haven't changed a bit!"
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On Sunday we visited with my friend Mandy and her family. They came over to Fiona's house for a braai (bbq). Mandy and I have known each other since at least 1983 as we went to primary school together. She, Fiona and I were also friends in high school.

Joe tries boerewors

A day trip to Sun City
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Saturday: We took a day trip to Sun City. Sun City is a large casino, or should I say, used to be a large casino. In the early days, it was mostly a casino and a venue for foreign (aka British and US) performers. This was where my parents saw Queen and Rod Stewart in the days of apartheid when foreign performers would not perform in South Africa. Sun City used to be in a small "country" called Boputatswana; since apartheid has ended, it and other small "countries" (which I learned really weren't countries but tribal lands) have become part of South Africa. And since gambling became legal in South Africa over the past 10 years or so, Sun City has had to shift its focus - it now offers a huge water park aimed at families and children.

We spent the day at the "beach" (large wave pool complete with sandy beach) surrounded by the "South Africa's Best Boerewors" contest. Boerewors is a type of South African sausage. Joe had not yet tasted boerewors, so I thought it funny that he got to taste it at at the "best of" contest!

Before we ate dinner that evening, we walked around the grounds, through an aviary, and stopped for the feeding at the crocodile farm just at the entrance to the resort.

We're here!

All the old familiar places
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Friday: We were met at the airport by my friend Fiona, who had graciously offered to have us stay at her house for the weekend. Fiona and I were friends for two years in high school before I left South Africa. We were 13 years old when we met and have only seen each other once since I left in 1990. I visited with Fiona in 1995 when I traveled to South Africa with my mom to attend another friend's wedding. Since 95, Fiona has gotten married and had two children.

After being picked up at the airport, we headed to Benoni, the town where I grew up, so I could show Joe all the "old familiar places." We went to my primary (elementary) school, high school, drove past old stores we used to shop at, and then went to see my old house. I was determined to go inside, or at least see the backyard, but we could see no way to ring a doorbell. Since my last visit, the owner of the house has installed a large security gate from one side of the property to the other, thus removing any access to the front door. While I was speaking with the neighbor, who agreed to allow us to peek over the wall from her backyard, Fiona and Joe managed to get the attention of a renter who is living in a small add-on flat in the front yard. She spoke with the maid who somewhat reluctantly let us into the house. I explained to her that my family used to live in the house when I was a child and when she saw me burst into tears (once I was inside), I think she felt ok that she'd allowed us inside.

Being inside the house was very overwhelming. It felt smaller than I remember, but then again, I'm sure I'm bigger than I was when I was 15! Not much had changed, which was nice to see. I was expecting to go in and explain to Joe what it looked like, but for the most part, much of the house was the same. The same tiled floor, the same kitchen cabinets, counters and tiled walls, the same light fixtures. It was nice. We went outside and I saw that some things were different; the new owners had added a fireplace in the living room and built a canopy that covered the entire patio area. I will always remember playing in the yard and was glad to see that the yard I remembered is mostly the same.

On our way out, I pointed out that the security gate at the front door was the same and how I remembered having to jiggle the key to unlock and lock the door. The maid laughed and told me she had to do the same thing.

Are we nearly there?

We start at the airport, where most international vacations usually begin. I spotted the tail of what I guessed would be our plane and Joe ran off to get a shot. We flew South African Airways, which was exciting as I'd never flown SAA (they've only recently been allowed to fly into the US, and only recently into Dulles, where this photo was taken). My grandfather also used to work for the airlines, so it was special for that reason also.

While we waited to board the plane, Joe found himself some beer from OldDominion Brewery. We don't get their beer in NC, so Joe was thrilled to be able to enjoy a local brew before flying. As was typical for our trips to the brewery, I got stuck drinking water.

While enjoying our beer/water, I noticed this CNN news bit about "babymooners" - folks who take pre-baby vacations. Mmm…

Celebrity sighting! While Joe was off photographing the airplane, he spotted a celebrity! Samuel L. Jackson was also flying to South Africa – on our plane! We saw him standing a few feet in front of us in line and I took a peek at the computer screen behind me (where the airline lady was working) and confirmed: Jackson, S. Of course, he flew first class and made it through customs a lot speedier than the rest of us. The perks of celebrity. Turns out Mr. Jackson was in SA to attend the birthday celebration of Desmond Tutu. I wonder if Oprah was there also...

And now we fly!

Joe and I were lucky enough to sit in the emergency aisle seats which translates to LEG ROOM! When sitting upright, I could stick my legs out and barely touch the seat in front of me! (Unfortunately, we were not so lucky on the return flight. Note to travelers: you may request the emergency aisle seats but ONLY when you check in on the day of the flight.)

As far as flights go, it was pretty normal. We had a lot of food, some sleep time (when they turned out the overhead lights), lots of movies to watch on our individual TV monitors, and an hour layover in Dakar, Senegal . Seventeen hours later, we arrived in Johannesburg.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

We voted!

Just got back from the polling station - up the road at the nearby fire station. Total time to vote (including the drive to and from our house): 14 minutes. One of the perks of living in a smaller town - shorter lines at the polls.

We're now sporting our nifty "I voted" sticker and are slowly drying off from all the rain. I wonder if the rains kept a lot of people away today. When we added our votes into the machine (we filled our votes out on paper, ala scantron, and then fed them through a machine), it counted ours as 778 and 779.

Hope you voted too!