Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Thoughts on our South africa trip

We booked the trip with Gate 1 because they had offered a groupon and reviews on the internet seemed OK. I would use them again. There are the obvious disadvantages of group travel; being herded from one thing to the next, having to stay as a group, having to compromise (not get enough time at the things I want and too much time at the things I don't) and the occasional annoying person, but overall it was a good experience and we traveled with some lovely people. Our primary reason for taking a group booking was safety and we did at all times feel safe and could see that on our own it would have been riskier. Gate 1's itinerary was extensive and varied. The tour manager, Renier, was excellent. The bus and hotels were all first class and had great food and amenities

Chris and I were labelled the "Safari Junkies" because we just could not get enough of  seeing these exotic (for us) animals in their own environment. They are animals I love to see at the zoo but even more so when they have the space and climate to be totally natural. We are both planning how we can go again.

South Africa has so many contrasts. The huge modern cities with industries and skyscrapers and the mud and thatched huts with goats, chickens and cattle. The rich behind their self built prison walls and the millions of poor in their squatter townships. The gentleman who drove Chris and I to our last safari was happy to chat about his life. He saved 6 years for his wife's "bride price". He had the cows to pay for her but she was from a nearby country and he couldn't drive his cattle across the border, so had to pay her father for her in US dollars. He still has the cows, in his "home village", as a status symbol, but he and his wife live in an apartment in downtown Johannesburg and he drives tourists and business people for a living in a sleek BMW. He doesn't currently plan on getting another wife, "they're expensive, and we want to buy a house".

Democracy and human rights are relatively new concepts for the country and its people and they struggle with poor education, poverty, high unemployment, racism, corrupt politicians and lack of control over their rich natural resources. The rely heavily on tourism.

A final note on the Big Five. We saw them all but I have posted no pictures of the Rhinos. We were asked on the game drive when we first saw Rhinos to refrain from posting the pictures on social media as the poachers (that kill 2 Rhinos a day in South Africa) monitor it for hints as to where to go. It was mentioned that my camera might have a GPS locator so I haven't posted any pictures in case the picture files could be used to locate them. Elephants and Rhinos are killed extensively for their tusks. One game guide said we may be the last generation to see them in the wild.

I am going to finish my South Africa blog posts with pictures of monkeys that Christine took on our last day. They were hanging out in the trees near the parking lot where we finished our game drive;

Siesta time.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Gate 1, South Africa - Day 10, one last Safari.

As we weren't leaving until midnight, Chris and I decided we wanted one last game drive. Jason and Tessa opted to go to a spa and then relax at the hotel pool. Kristen and Noah went to the Cradle of Humanity, the cave and museum where the oldest human remains were found.
We were up at 5, picked up our breakfast boxes at the hotel reception and were met by David, our driver in a very swish car. He drove us the 2 1/2 hours to Pelanisberg Game Preserve. There we boarded a bigger vehicle than we were used to. It could hold about 25 but there were 14 of us.
The scenery was different from the previous 2 game parks; more open grassland, dryer and scattered with small lakes. This shot has, in the distance,  a herd of elephant running towards the lake. We had just missed seeing them cross the road.
Our driver said he thought he could get to another road and see them before we got to the water. He drove like a maniac, on dirt roads, with Chris and I, in the far back seat, holding on for dear life (great fun). He did get ahead of them and parked so they broke around us. With that many people in the vehicle it was more difficult to get good pictures and I had decided to spend more time enjoying watching the animals and less time looking at the camera screen.
I was also enjoying the group of young people in the vehicle (from the US and Mexico) who were on their first game drive and so excited, especially about getting "selfies" with the animals behind them.

A Springbok. National animal of South Africa but this was the only one I saw.
Lots of Wildebeest  and Zebra herds in this park.
Including a baby.
One of the other tourists pointed out that the markings on their tails makes them look braided.
Another young one.
We had driven around to the other side of the lake and this elephant had been down there and was making her way back up from the shore.
We realized there was more, a herd, making their way through the brush
and, coming from the other direction, another herd. Our driver said that the different colouring of the 2 herds was because they had been spraying different coloured dirt on their backs. It made it easy to differentiate between the 2 herds.
As they met they trumpeted and entwined trunks. I had expected to hear more noises from the animals but the snorting/honking from the impala the night they noticed the leopard and this trumpeting were the only sounds we heard.
They continued to mill around each other for a while
and then moved on, in their respective directions, the grey ones, down towards the lake and the brown ones away from it.
It amazes me that we were able to be this close, watch the interaction and they totally ignored us.
Not alot of zoom on this shot, you can see the roof of the vehicle.
We took a short bathroom and snack break and then were back on the road.

This was something we hadn't seen before

a baby hippo.
I think he is a Marabou Stork
So impressive that I had to try a video....

Back in the parking lot I saw what I thought was a squirrel but may have been a Mongoose. Chris had to be dragged away from taking pictures of baby velvet monkeys (I'm surprised there have been none up on her blog yet) for the return drive to the hotel and our flight home.

Chris and I fell in love with game drives and both of us vowed to come back and do more.

Gate 1, South Africa - Day 9, Johannesburg

This was the last day of the organized tour and Renier bemoaned the fact that it ended on a "downer", as he called it. He was referring primarily to the Apartheid Museum, which he said he couldn't visit because it was so upsetting and he said the country needed to move on from that.
We boarded the bus again, this time with a local guide. He had been born and raised in Soweto and so was qualified to give us our tour of the area.
First the bus drove through a very wealthy area, where, our guide said

the rich had created their own prisons; high solid walls, security guards, barbed wire and electric fence and security cameras.
We saw the house where Nelson Mandela had lived while he was President, until his death. On the boulevard people had left coloured stones in remembrance.

Continuing on the drive we could see huge slag heaps left over from the extensive mining. This material, left over when the gold was extracted, is gradually being moved back into the empty mine shafts in the hope of stabilizing the ground.

Soweto is where we would spend the rest of our day. The  South West Township, was created when the wealthy decided they did not want the mine workers living close by and had them all moved to their own community, a distance away.

It is the largest of the Townships and home to millions of people

some in the informal, squatter areas
and some in the formal, government housing areas. There are also areas were people have built more substantial homes.
We stopped at the house where Nelson Mandela and his family had lived during "the struggles" (the time spent fighting apartheid).
It was small and sparsely furnished and filled with memorabilia from their time there.
The guide spoke about their living conditions and the constant harassment from government forces (including drive by shootings and bombings)
Next stop was the Hector Peterson Memorial and Museum, named after the first student (he was 12!) to be killed during the Soweto uprising of 1976.
It is located at the sight of the first clash between the high school students and the government forces. The students were protesting that their classes in high school were in Africaans, a new language to most of them, making learning in high school even more difficult. They wanted to be taught in English, a language that would prepare them for employment anywhere. The government forces violently opposed the peaceful demonstration and the protest spread resulting in more deaths, arrests and finally, the attention of the United Nations. This put international pressure on the government to revise its apartheid approach. The museum was quite disturbing, I cried, the videos of the clashes and first hand accounts of the students were graphic.
Somehow the Apartheid Museum didn't affect me as much even though it was extremely well done. Very interactive, multi media approaches and lots of photos and first hand accounts. I was able to get through it all in the 2 hours allotted though I could certainly have used more time. There was an area depicting Mandela's life and another that examined the rise, maintenance and fall of Apartheid.
It was Sunday and, driving away, we saw many gathered at outdoor church services. All dressed in white and the church marked by a ring of white stones that can be moved further out to allow for an expanding congregation.
To cheer us up, Renier had us dropped at a flea market at a mall parking lot. Retail therapy.
There was an arts and crafts section where I did finally succumb to a wooden bowl souvenir. This man was making small punch needle pieces and he was surprised that I knew what it was and let me try his technique of punching with it held stretched tightly over a cup.

The market had an extensive food area, clothing, housewares and string art furniture (?)
We ended the day at a farewell dinner at a restaurant close to the hotel. The next day people were catching planes at all different times so it was our last chance to chat, exchange e-mails etc.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Gate 1, South Africa - Day 8, travel to Jo-burg

Today was a travel day, from Kruger to Johannesburg. A long day in the bus but there was enough room to stretch out and some fabulous scenery and stops.
The stop at "Gods Window" was a chance to hit the washrooms and stretch our legs
unfortunately  the walk up to the lookouts
didn't reveal the views across the Lowveld, at the start of the 16 mile long Blyde River Canyon, as the morning mist had not yet burned off.
From the bus we caught glimpses of the canyon as well as huge forests of Pine and Eucalyptus trees, sugar cane, pineapple and macadamia nuts.
Our next stop was Bourke's Luck Potholes. It doesn't look like much, walking down from the parking lot and, in Canada anyway, potholes have a bad name.
But it was lovely.
Two rivers
meeting and swirling
created these natural
It was the first time that it had felt really hot, with the sun beating off the rocks
But the presence of the water cooled us. Tessa posing for a picture.
Noah in the hat Kristen hated and his Gate 1 lanyard that we all hated.
Christine taking a picture of me, taking a picture of her.
We could have stayed here longer than the allotted time but had to get some major mileage done today, so, back on the bus.

The next stop was a lookout with amazing views. This panorama shot doesn't work well on the blog but it was a view meant for panorama pictures.

It was another stop
were I would have liked
more time.
After every stop Renier would walk down the bus giving each of us a squirt of antibacterial soap. Part of his effort to keep us all healthy. I asked him to pose with the bottles like a gunslinger, that's not his usual expression.
The rest of the drive was through an increasingly industrial landscape; factories, coal fired power plants and the squatters, informal settlements. There was less and less of the subsistence farming; small plots with small round houses (some of them mud and thatch), chickens and corn. We drove into an area of Johannesburg called Melrose Arch which is a gated area full of hotels, restaurants, bars and retail. This was where our hotel was. Renier said it was a safe area and that most of Jo-burg was not. High unemployment and high crime rates.