Morning Drive Time

Our morning game drive started at 6:30am – the lodge calls all the rooms at 6am to make sure everyone is up (and the phone is not near the bedside, to force you to get out of bed to answer the call). The weather was decidedly on the nippy side, but we got to see a lot of interesting animals.

Our spotter is named Success, quite aptly – he ensured that we took the right routes on the long roads in the reserve.

I’ll let the rest of the pictures speak for themselves.

Tawny Eagle
A herd of Cape Buffalo
Baby Cape Buffalo
Female Cape Buffalo
Burchell’s Starling
Male Cape Buffalo
Fork-Tailed Drongo
Impala in flight
Grey Heron
Baby Elephant under mother
Wildebeest (aka gnu)
Waterbuck with impala

Greater Kruger National Park

We left the Fairlawns Hotel and Spa at 7:30 to go to Johannesburg Airport for our flight to Hoedspruit and drive to the Makanyi Private Game Lodge. Getting to the airport was no problem – getting through security was. One of my bags was hit by a random search and I discovered that cable ties are a no-no; Diane lost her nail scissors, too. But they didn’t care about liquids, so we brought a couple of bottles of water along with us, just because we could!

The flight was uneventful (though I’m impressed that Airlink could feed us and give us drinks on a 45-minute flight); we were met at the airport and taken to the lodge, which is located in a private game reserve, complete with checkpoint to ensure no one brings anything in or out that they shouldn’t. They want to keep their animals safe, so there are strict driving rules.

We saw a few animals on the hour-long drive to the lodge, including zebra by the side of the road, much closer than the ones we’d seen in Chobe National Park last week.

We were greeted at the lodge and given a safety lecture about the animals who roam the grounds, like this warthog. We’re not allowed to leave our suites after dark without an escort, and we were warned to keep medications locked in the safe because baboons love them!

Lunch was delicious (just assume that all the meals on this trip were delicious unless I say otherwise!), and soon we were in a 4×4 with our guide for the four days we’ll be here, Alfred, and his spotter, Success. It didn’t take long to find our first new species, the red-billed hornbill.

But we were after bigger game – and it was in the offing. A few minutes later, we encountered a small elephant herd, complete with a two-week-old baby elephant and its mother.

We stayed with the elephants for about 15 minutes, and then took off in search of something new. We have three vehicles for our party, and they keep in touch by radio – one of them spotted a leopard, and we headed over there to find him resting on a termite mound.

He stayed there for a few minutes.

But eventually, he caught a scent and took off. We followed.

What’d he’d scented was an impala – he settled down to wait for it to move closer.

But the impala went the other way, and we broke contact. Our next sighting was a pair of hyenas – they were following the leopard in hopes of enjoying his catch.

It was getting close to sunset, and we had to rendezvous with the other vehicles for sundowners, so we left the hyenas behind – only to encounter a couple of rhinos, completing the Big Five.

We snacked and drank and talked with the rest of our group until sunset.

And then it was back to the lodge in the dark. Our spotter swept the road looking for eye reflections, but saw nothing.

We had drinks and dinner with the group, then we were escorted back to our suites for the night.

Live from the bush

We’re taking a drinks break during our first game drive at Makyani Private Game Lodge; most of my photos are on the camera, but I did get one nice shot on my phone.

More later…my G&T just arrived!

Exploring Soweto and Mandela’s legacy

We boarded the bus at 8:30 this morning, en route to Soweto. Johannesburg’s rush hour traffic was awful, so the trip took over an hour. En route, we saw some of the highlights of the former Central Business District, which was largely abandoned at the end of the apartheid era – businesses moved into suburbs like Sandton (where our hotel is).

We passed the Nelson Mandela Bridge and the former headquarters of De Beers, which is shaped like a diamond (and is now a government building) before getting off the highway where we were confronted by a giant vuvuzela in the middle of the street. If you remember the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, you remember the sound of the vuvuzela!

The vuvuzela also marked the beginning of our exploration of Soweto. During apartheid, the non-white population was pushed into very small areas of land, the townships. Soweto is on the southwest side of Johannesburg, hence the name. Much of the land had been used as gold mines earlier in the 20th century and was not considered suitable for habitation – white habitation, anyway. And the apartheid government didn’t feel the necessity to improve the lives of people in the area, so there is very limited electricity, clean water, actual streets, or pretty much any other infrastructure.

The first part of our exploration was on the bus; it was not pretty. There were large areas filled with rubbish and litter (and people trying to find anything of any value in the discards).

Large parts of the area don’t have indoor plumbing of any kind; there are some spots with outdoor running water, where the residents do laundry – I also saw people filling buckets to bring inside.

Our guide told us that people keep goats and cattle to be sacrificed to mark major lifecycle events, such as a child surviving 30 days or a wedding. He also told us that there were more funerals than weddings in Soweto, and we saw many advertisements for caskets and undertakers.

There were plenty of ads pasted up offering abortions and other services, too.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to live in an actual brick building; we passed many areas with nothing but shacks.

It was a nice day, and there were many people outside – cooking, talking, and living life as best they could. The unemployment rate in South Africa is 33.9%, and the youth unemployment rate is 61.4%, so money is tight (the minimum wage is about $1.50/hour for those lucky enough to have a job).

Until a few years ago, all you’d have seen on this tour was what I’ve shown so far – and passengers would leave thinking that Soweto was a lost cause. But that’s not the case any more; we got off the bus and met Thulani Madondo who led us through a small segment of Soweto.

Many years ago, Kliptown, the area we were in, was bustling with small businesses – then some shopping centers opened near enough for the residents to go to, and the businesses died. And the area deteriorated.

Making art is a universal impulse. If all you have is beer bottles….

About 15 years ago, Thulani and a few friends decided to make a difference in the lives of the children of Kliptown, and they created the Kliptown Youth Program. It’s very much a “by your bootstraps” endeavor; they started with very little but energy and a place that children could come and learn.

Bit by bit, they became better known – tourist groups started to visit, and they started to receive donations. A few years ago, AmaWaterways added Kliptown to their itinerary – the visitors are impressed (as were we) and want to help.

A couple of years ago, one visitor from San Francisco was so impressed that they donated $2.1 million for KYP to build an actual modern center for their programs – and today was its opening day.

Thulani gave us a quick tour of the facility – even though they’re opening it today, the construction isn’t quite done (some things are the same all over the world!).

They have an actual playing field for the kids – it may be the only one in Kliptown.

Used tires are fraught objects in Soweto. Protesters have used burning tires to blockade traffic routes for decades; more poignantly, necklacing (immobilizing someone by putting a tire around their arms and neck, then setting the tire on fire) was used to execute traitors to the anti-apartheid movement, and is still used against murderers and rapists. Thulani is trying get the residents to turn used tires into a vehicle for art instead of anger, starting with a few brightly painted tires in the KYP center.

Thulani left us to take three students for job interviews; we had a chance to talk with them briefly, and I was impressed by their poise and eagerness. I wish them well.

We left KYP encouraged, and keenly aware of our luck in being born where and when we were. Thulani and his team are trying to bring some luck to Kliptown, and I felt privileged to be able to help, even in a small way.

We took a much shorter route back to the bus and left Kliptown behind – but only physically.

Our next stop was a brief driving tour of Orlando West, a much richer section of Soweto. We saw Winnie Mandela’s house on the way to Vilakazi Street.

Both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu lived on Vilakazi Street, making it the only street in the world to boast two Nobel Peace Prize winners. We didn’t stop, so I didn’t get any interesting photos.

We drove on to the Hector Pieterson memorial; he was a 12-year-old student who was the first person killed by police during the 1976 Soweto student uprising, even though he was not participating in the protest. He was driven to the hospital by Sam Nzima, a journalist, who had taken a photo of Hector being carried after being shot. The photo went viral and helped spark worldwide protests against the apartheid regime.

I would have liked to stop and walk around the area and learn more of the history, but we had another appointment – lunch at Sanctuary Mandela, which was Mandela’s home between 1992 and 1998. It’s in Houghton, an upscale area, which was all white until Mandela had the government buy the house for his use. Today, it’s a five-star boutique hotel and restaurant.

We ordered from a special menu; the dishes on it were supposed to be some of Mandela’s favorites. Diane and I both had the peri-peri chicken – the presentation was interesting.

Sanctuary Mandela says it’s “surrounded by an aura of contemplation.” That may be the case, but it’s also surrounded by an electric fence for protection (look carefully above the wall in the photo below).

And that sums up what I learned about South Africa today: it is a land of contradiction. Extreme poverty and extreme wealth, just a few minutes away from one another. Corruption and selflessness. Despair and hope. It’s not so different from home, even if it’s 10,000 miles away.

A modest cottage

Today was another travel day. We didn’t have to leave until 10am, so we slept a bit later and enjoyed the view of Victoria Falls from the terrace at the hotel.

Then it was onto the bus for the trip to the airport…no, that would have been too easy. It was onto the bus for the trip to the border with Zambia and two more passport stamps; there we got on a different bus for the short drive to the Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport for our flight to Johannesburg.

There wasn’t much scenery on the way, but there were a few surprises on side of the road. We passed a sign for the Railway and Gateway Jewish Museum, which seems like an interesting combination; we also passed Fawlty Towers, which gets surprisingly good reviews on TripAdvisor!

We checked in, dropped our luggage, got through security, went through Passport Control (another stamp!), and into the very small Departures area. I wondered why the boarding pass didn’t have a gate number until I found out that there’s only one gate in the International Terminal! We killed time by looking in the shops and at the posters on the wall. I’m curious about this one – Vietnam doesn’t even have an embassy in Zambia, so I wouldn’t think there’d be enough Vietnamese visitors to warn about illegal wildlife transport.

We reached Johannesburg a little early, collected our luggage and one last passport stamp for the day, and got onto the bus for the Fairlawns Boutique Hotel and Spa. It was originally built as a weekend getaway cottage for the Oppenheimer family (gold and diamond moguls) and was converted into a hotel in 1997. It is, to put it mildly, distinctive.

From what we’ve seen, our room is fairly tame.

The upstairs common area is enormous and comfortable.

Of course, the rooms and the property have all modern conveniences.

The service is amazing, too. We needed to get a couple of drugstore items; they took us there in a private car and waited for us to do the shopping!

It’s a shame we’re only here for two nights.