Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lion in a Tree

We had read great things about the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve but only decided two nights before going that we should squeeze it into the road trip. We spent 4 hours driving to Mtubatuba where we stayed the night. We woke very early, getting to the park when the gates opened so that we'd have sufficient time there before our drive to the mountains. We were amazed by how much we saw in the 6 hours we drove ourselves around. Immediately we saw a mammoth white rhino, several giraffes and zebras. Then a nice man told us that in the bush were two male lions just beginning to grow their manes. We were very close to one lion lounging in the shade before we suddenly realized that his brother was 5 feet above him in the tree! This man in the neighboring car was some kind of lion expert and said he'd never heard of a lion climbing a tree, so this was quite rare. It seemed the lion was a curious teenager who enjoyed not playing by the rules and we enjoyed every minute of watching him.

Soon after, we saw a herd of white rhino nibbling on the grass and sending us glances. They all looked to me like they were wearing gray sweat suits because of the gray folds in their skin. We loved watching the peaceful giraffe whose bird friends helped pick bugs off his long neck. The impala had the same friendship with these birds. Later we pulled up to a magnificent cheetah lounging in the shade. We stayed long enough to see him get up, scratch himself on the tree, look around and then resume his napping. In the few strides we could sense his elegance and strength.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Aliwal Shoal

Since we landed in South Africa I had been looking forward to diving at the Aliwal Shoal, a huge coral reef just south of Durban which is said to be one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. I signed up for two dives, one in the morning and one around midday. It had been a few years since my last dive and I was a little unsure of myself when getting instructions from my dive master Kenny, a young blond guy. After a drive to the beach we boarded a small inflatable dingy that required us to wear lifejackets, strap our feet into the bottom and hold on to a rope on the side in order to make it out to the reef. Hitting huge waves at full speed was very fun and an unexpected thrill for all but my dive buddy Andrew. Andrew, a young guy from Jo'burg, was doing his first ever ocean dive and immediately became sea sick. He would feel better once he was in the water. On the count of three we fell backwards into the water and before I was ready everyone was sinking except for me. I didn't have enough weight on my weight belt to take me down. Great. I signaled the driver of the boat who helped me put two more weights in my BC and pulled me over to the buoy attached to Kenny down below. Of course this whole sudden and unexpected situation frayed my nerves and I had to take a few breaths before my descent. I went down and calmed myself so that I wouldn't use us my oxygen up too fast. The first thing I saw was a small reef shark which was cool but I had to find Andrew.

When I found him we traded hand signals to indicate we were both okay. Then it was time to enjoy the scenery. There were incredibly colorful fish everywhere. The reef was intensely complex and colorful. Some of our companion divers had underwater cameras and Kenny pointed out some rock fish, scorpion fish and a lobster. When Andrew indicated he was at his minimum oxygen limit I said lets go up and I would just tell Kenny. I had been following him closely, knowing it was him by the cord he was carrying which led to the buoy on top of the water. I tapped on his shoulder and an older bearded man's face turned around. That's not Kenny, how strange. We came up and this bearded man laughed and said Who are you and Why have you been following us for 20 minutes? Just great. We'd lost the group. At least we hadn't lost each other, I thought. This group's boat went to go get our driver while we sat in the open turbulent water laughing at ourselves. Our driver came over and helped us out of the water. I was embarrassed but relieved once I saw that the same thing happened to another pair, apparently when this other group intersected ours which was about the time of my late descent.

This shook me up a little but I was determined to go on the second dive so I'd have a better experience. We went out a few hours later and Andrew braved the even rougher seas. I had a liter of water in my ear from the gigantic waves crashing on me but at least I wasn't throwing up on the side of the boat. So we went down this time all together and it was not as crowded with other groups as the previous dive. We landed on sandy ground at the bottom, looked for sharks teeth then moved on to the reef. The different shapes and sizes and colors of fish were amazing. Trumpet fish, paper fish, blow fish, florescent purple fish, blue polka dotted fish, angel fish. I stayed very close to Kenny this time and followed him into a cave where a white tipped reef shark was sitting. They are only about two feet long and not threatening. We moved on and came across a large rag-toothed shark which was the biggest thing I'd ever seen under water. It definitely looked more threatening and we were quite close but it luckily didn't feel threatened by us. We peered into more crevasses seeing eels and rock fish and then I heard a chirp like a dolphin. I swam up and heard someone grunt. There, 20 feet away, were schools of dolphin swimming by singing and encircling us. It was awesome. They seemed to be smiling at us as they swiftly flew past in small groups. When we surfaced and climbed back on the boat the dolphins were all around jumping completely out of the water and swimming really close to us. It was a magical experience to see them underwater and then above. I smiled as waves pounded my face all the way back to shore.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bulungula Lodge

Driving to Bulungula Lodge might be the most unforgettable part of our South African road trip. Our journey began on the N2, the highway that runs from Cape Town to Durban. Even though its the major highway in the Eastern Cape, there are signs that read "No Fences for 20 Km" to warn drivers of the cows crossing the road, sometimes alone, sometimes in herds of 20. After dodging cattle we turned off the N2 onto a small black topped road that quickly turned into a pothole minefield. I felt like Han Solo steering the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid field. We dodged the tire-flattening holes for 37 km before coming to the turn-off where our map for the lodge picked up. We confirmed with locals that the building to our right was Nocollege Store and, therefore, the road next to it the way to Bulungula. For 2 rand he said we were heading in the right direction. Pulling away I had a feeling that we might be asking too much of our Hyundai Accent. Although the region is in the middle of a three year drought it had rained the night before turning this dirt road into a mud track. As I drove down the first hill I quickly realized I was sliding. Temple said, "stay to the left." I had to inform her I wasn't in control. The map said continue on the road for 20 km. After 30 minutes the odometer said we had only traveled 1.9 km. But we pressed on waving at every local we saw thinking that at any moment we would be requesting assistance in the form of a tow or a place to sleep for the night. All returned our greetings with broad smiles and waves.

Our strategy of slow and steady was paying off. The kilometers continued to be conquered. As we continued, the opposite of what we thought would happen occurred and the road began to improve although our perspective was a little skewed. The road just got less muddy and the potholes were smaller. We received the unsolicited help of a group of young boys driving a pick-up in the direction of the lodge. We followed closely behind until they pointed us towards the patch of trees where the Bulungula Store was. We pulled into the parking spot where we'd leave our car. The road ahead was only passable by 4x4. We thanked the Hyundai for getting us this far and only asked that she get us out in a few days. We hiked the final 3 km through the traditional Xhosa (pronounced with a click at the beginning) village of Nqileni where hills are dotted with rondavels and animals graze freely. When we saw the Bulungula Lodge sitting at the meeting point of the Xhora river and the Indian Ocean, we knew the journey was worth it.

Immediately, we met the charming Liesel and Albert as well as villagers that worked at the lodge. The village owns 40% of the lodge and all of the activities are run by members of the community so they receive 100% of the proceeds. Albert showed us to our beds in a turquoise rondavel. On the day we arrived the whole village was celebrating the opening of the new school built with the help of the lodge. That evening we had a delicious traditional Xhosa meal with fellow travelers. Some children and parents had gathered around the main area to play drums and listen to music. An adorable 7 year old boy took the floor and busted some incredible moves. Soon there were more participants and we had a good time with locals and tourists shaking hips in the dance circle.

The next day we rose at 5:45 for sunrise pancakes. We walked along the beach with our new Belgian and Dutch friends. Although it was cloudy and started to rain, we enjoyed the views of crashing waves but even more so the delicious pancakes. A few hours later a nice villager who spoke only a little English walked us over hills to another part of the Xhora river for canoeing. We enjoyed rowing through the quiet landscape, seeing the occasional goat or farmer on the riverside.

That evening we had the pleasure of a visit by the sangomas (traditional healers) of the village. A middle aged man led the dance and chants while two older women and a sangoma apprentice danced with him. A lot of children and people of the community were gathered around to watch, drum, sing and chant. Some of the women had white clay painted on their faces, typical of the Xhosa people. The singing and dancing was energizing and we felt blessed be be a part of such a special ceremony.

The next day a nice 22 year old girl from the village gave us a tour of the area. First we visited one of the older female sangomas who we had seen dance the night before. She wore white beads which are traditional for sangomas and a headdress. Some things were lost in translation but her goodwill was obvious. We saw inside of her home where a relative was spreading mud on the floor of the rondavel, which is done every month or so for purification. It was interesting to see the inside of a real rondavel and how the people cook, sleep on mats and keep warm. We met some other nice villagers, saw the two schools, the old silos and the new community center.

Afterwards, we said goodbye to our new friends. We hiked through the village towards the Bulungula Store where our trusty automobile awaited for a long drive out.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

We Won't Forget You Either

Our first encounter with The Big Five came at Addo Elephant National Park where - you guessed it- we saw a ton of elephants. But the park has a lot more than just ellies. They also have the flight-less dung beetle.

We arrived at the park at 6:00 am when the gates opened and drove ourselves around for a few hours before our scheduled game drive. Immediately we saw elephants on the side of the road. We also saw ugly but endearing warthogs, elegant ostriches and beautiful kudus with their meter long spiraling antlers. You can get amazingly close to these gigantic animals. They just continue chewing on the closest bush and sometimes cross in front of your car.

I was excited to leave the driving to someone else and climb into an open air Land Rover for our safari drive through the park. Our driver was not afraid to pull right up to the elephants. The excitement level kicked up a notch when we heard there was a lion down the way. We hurried to get there stopping only to see some elephant babies with their moms. We sped past antelope and ostriches and took a right at the buffalo carcass. And there she was, about 200 feet away just sunning herself and checking us out. After a crowd gathered the lioness headed back into the bush.

Back in the Hyundai we sat for a while at a watering hole watching a family of elephants nap, nuzzle and assert their masculinity.

Heading out of the park, we rounded a corner and saw a huge male elephant walking on the dirt road. It wasn't the first elephant we'd seen in the middle of the road but this one was marching directly towards us. I quickly hit the car in reverse to give the alpha male some space. Our hearts were racing as he continued to advance on us. Finally we got to a part in the road wide enough to pass him. 'What a great way to end the day,' we thought as we continued towards the gate. Not even two minutes later, just as I said the word 'awesome,' an enormous male kudu bounded out of the bush landing almost on top of the car. I slammed on the brakes and it was already back in the air jumping over the hood and landing on the other side of the road, before jumping out of sight. That is why there are speed limits in African National Parks.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tsitsikamma Jump

By 10:00 am we were done with bungee jumping and not sure if the rest of the day could compete. With our hearts still racing, we headed to Tsitsikamma National Park where we began the coastal Waterfall Trail hike. After about an hour and a half we arrived at a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole not 100 feet from the Indian Ocean. We were the only people there and the water looked inviting. The second jump of the day was as memorable as the first.


We were already wearing our harnesses when we walked out onto the catwalk on the Bloukrans Bridge. We looked down through the metal grates at the lush river valley we would soon jump into. Bloukrans Bridge is the highest commercial bungee jump in the world and we were the first jumpers of the day Clay, J1, and Temple, J2.

As our ankles were being tied together we were both surprisingly calm. I hopped towards the edge. Temple said "I love you" and waved goodbye. "Hang your toes over" was the command. That was the hard part, the rest gravity took care of. The crew then showed me the camera hanging six feet in front of my face and they began counting down from 5. 4-3-2-1- and I jumped as far out as I could. The feelings that followed are difficult to put into words. It was very primal.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Southern Tip of Africa

After clearing up where the true southern tip of Africa was, Cape Agulhas not Cape Point, we made our way there. Although it's the southern most point in Africa it's off the beaten path. At the tip is a stone platform that reads Indian Ocean with an arrow pointing east and Atlantic Ocean with an arrow pointing west. We both climbed up to reach across two oceans. Legend has it that if you pee where the oceans meet its good luck. I arrived with a full bladder to get as much luck as I could. The lighthouse that overlooks the cape was one we had to climb. We went up four large wooden ladders to the top. It was difficult to open the door to the outside because the wind was so strong. We ran around for while before seeking refuge from the gale.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Right Whales, Right Now

Not a far drive from Cape Town is the town of Hermanus where every spring brings very special visitors. Southern Right Whales swim north from Antarctica to calve and spend around three months nursing. You can spot them from shore and Hermanus' rocky outcroppings are the perfect spot to sit and watch as the whales breach, surface and sail. After Hermanus we went to De Hoop (pronounced Whoop in Afrikaans) Nature Reserve where in front of a coast of white sand dunes we saw 8 whales at a time. We fell in love with these gentle giants.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Saber the Flavor

Franschhoek doesn't feel like South Africa but a piece of France. That's exactly what the French Huguenots wanted when they settled here over 300 years ago. Now it is one of the leading wine producing regions in the country and it still maintains its old European feel.

We visited Haute Cabriére vineyard, well known for its varieties of champagne. Our sarcastic and gregarious host Takuan von Arnim guided us through his family's cellars which are built into the mountainside. He gave us a history lesson about Napoleon's troops and their favored post-battle past time of sabrage- the opening of a champagne bottle with a saber. After the tour he selected Temple to wield the blade and pop the first bottle of bubbly for tasting.

Temple held the silver sword while he demonstrated that with a light stroke the cork comes off neatly with the neck of the bottle still attached. Before we knew what was happening POP the cork went flying across the lawn.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Power to the Peaceful

On September 13th, 1989, 30,000 Cape Townians of all races took to the streets in a peaceful protest against apartheid and the holding of political prisoners.

The Cape Town Peace March is viewed by many here as the beginning of the end of apartheid and white rule. Twenty years later, we were lucky enough to be in town as marchers, activists, and religious leaders reunited to remember the march. They looked back on all their accomplishments and discussed the challenges that South Africa faces moving forward. St. George's Church where the march began was filled with historical photos and music. Old friends greeted each other and shared stories of the struggle. In the crowd were young children who will never know a day of apartheid and elders who so recently only dreamt that one day they'd know freedom. Carol Carlos remembered 20 years ago calling for "freedom in our lifetime" and not knowing if it would become a reality. Now, two decades later, she reminded the assembled group how much they had changed and that if they all worked together none of South Africa's problems were too large to solve.

It was a moving day after a moving week of visiting the Apartheid Museum, District Six Museum, and Robben Island all which reinforced the presence of injustice in the world and the power of people to overcome it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Robben Island

During apartheid, South Africa's national rugby team the Springboks were a symbol of white oppression. Rugby was a white sport while soccer was the preferred sport of black South Africans. But in 1995, newly elected President Nelson Mandela changed that. During the Rugby World Cup finals which were held in Johannesburg, Mandela donned a Springboks jersey as he walked onto the field in front of 65,000 Afrikaners, many who still believed he was a terrorist. But soon the entire stadium was chanting the new president's name. Mandela felt that making South Africans of all colors Springbok fans was one of the first steps in healing the nation.

So it was fitting that 14 years later we would watch the same two teams battle for another trophy, this time the Tri-Nations Championship. Standing in front of the Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island watching the jumbotron at 9:00 am, the bar was filled with faces from the new South Africa. People of every color were pulling for the green and gold. Just like in 1995, the Springboks defeated the All Blacks in a thrilling match that went down to the last second.

From one former symbol of white oppression to another. After the game we headed to Robben Island, the political prison were Nelson Mandela, lovingly called Madiba by most South Africans, spent 18 of his 29 years in prison. Just like the Springboks, a past symbol of hate is now a memorial to the strength of the human spirit. Former prisoners give tours of the same cells that used to hold them. The tours are living history as the actors in the drama remind visitors from all over the world of their struggle for freedom.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Climbing the Table and Lion's Head

Table Mountain and Lion's Head are icons of Cape Town. Days don't get much better than the one we had climbing both.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Mama Africa

In Cape Town, Long Street is the spot for nightlife. We headed down on Thursday night in search of live African music. We found it at a bar called Mama Africa. The band was rocking when we got there and the place was packed. For a few songs we were smashed against the cigarette machine but then we saw a Scottish couple sitting at a table on the front row with two open seats. We asked them if we could join. We were among the band as they continued to jam on large wooden xylophones, a variety of drums and a horn section. The Scots couldn't have been nicer as we talked to them during a set break. The band returned and played more traditional songs along with some Marley and soul.

We can only imagine that each night they pull an unsuspecting tourist on stage to make them dance and look like a fool. Tonight, it was going to be different. At first, the small lead singer asked the Scottish girl to come up but she declined. Temple could barely contain her excitement as she knew she'd be the next choice. She eagerly accepted the offer and was quickly on stage in between two men she was easily a head taller than. The music started and the three began swaying back and forth. Soon they started putting Temple through the paces. Each new move they showed she was right in step, looking as if they had been practicing for weeks. I wasn't surprised by this but everyone else couldn't believe their eyes, especially the band. The moves got more challenging and complex but Temple didn't missed a step and if she did she'd freestyle an even better move.

As I sat there watching her dance it took me back to the earliest moments of our courtship, how amazed I was by her moves, spirit, and laughter. I tried to put myself in everyone else's place seeing this amazing force for the first time. Like I was at Deborah's wedding and 18th Street Lounge, everyone was smiling ear to ear.

For a second it felt like the song would never end, but it did. The place went wild. And after a few bows Temple made her way back to the table. The amazed Scot said with his jaw on the floor, "you've done that before!" Temple's dance instructor came over to give her a hug and told her "most nights I do that for me, but tonight that was for you."

To The Point

The drive from Cape Town to Cape Point feels like you're heading down US-101 as the highway runs in between the raging coast and rising mountains.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

African Penguins

Our first stop on the drive down the Cape Peninsula was The Boulders, a rocky beachfront home to one of only two mainland penguin colonies in the world. The little African penguins were gathered on the boulders, relaxing in the sun or the shade of a bush or waddling around in the sand. They looked right at us and were very adorable in their handsome tuxedos. Some of the birds were molting, which is when they shed old feathers and grow new ones. There were some fluffy gray babies too. They were mostly quiet but would suddenly all wail like donkeys (which is why they used to be called Jackass Penguins). Their human characteristics were fun to watch. In a line on the rocks they followed each other one by one into the water, sometimes giving apprehensive glances to friends before jumping in. Several of them waddled on their own and sometimes looked forlorn but mostly they were a happy bunch. After visiting for a while, we marched our happy feet onward to Cape Point.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Kirstenbosch Gardens

Outside of Cape Town lies the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, a large spread of native South African flowers that covers the lower east side of Table Mountain National Park. Nice trails take you through the different species of flora and signs explain the rare and distinct fynbos which means 'fine bush' in Afrikaans. These flowers dot the landscape of the Cape Peninsula and many are only found in the Western Cape region. The pincushion flowers were my favorite, in several colors and great names like scarlet ribbon which perfectly described its petals. Kirstenbosch was the first botanical garden to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Shosholoza Meyl

We boarded the teal, yellow, and purple Shosholoza Meyl in Johannesburg for an overnight ride to Cape Town. Our cabin, 4F, was a four person sleeper and we lucked out having it to ourselves. We quickly got comfortable and took naps as the train chugged out of town. A young waiter stopped by to see if we wanted anything to drink. He got to telling us about his true passion, journalism, and said he was working towards going back to school. We wished him luck. Soon our tickets were checked by two jolly fellows. We were still rolling through the Jo'burg suburbs when we met our neighbor in 4G, a cute and very quite boy named Sedu. He would peak in our window or stand at our door staring at us before ducking out of sight or busting some dance moves. As the South African landscape passed by our window, Temple did a lot of research to plan out the coming weeks. When dinner time neared we walked up two cars to the dining car. We felt pretty classy enjoying our meal with a glass of red wine on the rails. Later, we made our way back to our cabin which was now set up for sleep with heavy blankets that we would need in the unexpectedly cold night. The next day we continued making our way to Cape Town slowly and around two we pulled into the station. It had been one of the smoothest trips of the journey so far.

Friday, September 4, 2009

South Africa is Great But

There is no wifi. We have many adventures to share. The posts are ready to go and we'll put them up as soon as the signal's strong enough. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Girl Swam Ipanema

Our nights in Rio were filled with seedy barrios and samba music. At a hidden bar in Lapa, walls are painted with images of legendary local musicians. We watched from a perch above the patio as musicians sat around a table playing all types of percussion instruments: the pandeiro, cavaco, tan tan, bongos, metal tipped drums, and one we called the wikky wikky for the great noise it made. Sharing each others company, they were oblivious to the hip-shaking crowd gathering around them. The next night we went to see Bossa Nova at Rio Scenarium, a three leveled club with a bohemian feel. We watched the band play before joining the lively crowd on the dance floor.

Our days were spent on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. Copacabana is a massive curved beach that sits under the Pão de Açúcar mountain. On the other side of a rock fortress is Ipanema beach, a stunning setting with Rio's green mountains in the background and cool turquoise water that was hard to leave. The beach was packed with groups of people playing soccer and showing an unbelievable amount of skin. We had to pull ourselves away from the sandy paradise to go to Rio's 200-year-old botanical gardens with plant life from around the globe. From the gardens we spotted Jesus overlooking the city and knew that was where we needed to be for sunset. After taking a bus to Corcovado Mountain, we hopped on a trolley going up a large incline to get to the giant Jesus with his arms spread over the city. The view was an amazing panoramic of Rio sprawling over different hills and peninsulas. As the sun set, Jesus turned orange and we enjoyed the last few moments of daylight before heading down for another night of music.