Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Warm Heart of Africa

Due to considerably lower airfare options if one chooses to change planes innumerable times, our journey began with a comparative tour of the airport systems of five countries. The Hong Kong airport looked like the future and in true Indian fashion it took an hour to move through a 20 foot security check line in Mumbai.Our destination: South Africa, and later Swaziland and a bit of Mozambique. The travel was worth it all when we finally got to relax on a walk into the hills where Justin was tickled by a chongolo crawling across his palm.
We started off in Johannesburg and then headed quickly out to Hazyview, a town bordering Kruger National Park. Hippos lumbering out of the river, zip-lining through the tree tops, and massive breakfasts!
We stayed in a rondavel, which is a southern African style of house that is made of stones and mud with a thatched roof. It was interesting to compare to our earlier Big Sur yurt experience.

Making friends with the locals.
We then headed into Kruger National Park, which is larger than Wales and one of the biggest game reserves in Africa (and the site of the infamous "Battle at Kruger" video)! When in Kruger you stay in "camp" that is a fenced safe zone (safe from the animals of the park) and at night we could hear the hyenas yipping and the hippos snorting in the river nearby. This is another version of a rondavel that we stayed in.
The ceiling of the rondavel.
I have to admit that going on safari has never been something I lusted for and and envisioned in the way I fantasize about other travel experiences I want to have, however after having experienced it I feel almost addicted! There really is nothing like being out there and stumbling across animals as they are in the middle of their own routines - by comparison, zoo animals seem dead, or props at a nature theme park.

We went on dusk and dawn drives with guides into the park, as well as a dawn hike into the bush.

I learned that cats like to use the roads as their highways because they don't like walking through vegetation that has collected dew (how alike all cats are!) and because they can walk almost silently on a road. We came across a small pride of lions one morning as they were laying in the road, bellies full of the night's catch. We would inch up on them in the jeep until they got uncomfortable (and so did I) and walked a few meters away and laid down again, at which point we would creep up again.

The guide explained that as long as you don't make exaggerated movements or stand up out of the vehicle, the animals tend to view the vehicle as one unit, rather than as a car full of potential lunch. But at one point, a woman in the car with us couldn't resist and stood up for a close shot of a lioness near us and the lioness feinted an attack and I almost peed my pants! Half the time we were near the lions I kept cursing humans for being so secure in ourselves that we put ourselves in situations to purposely make ourselves less secure.
The taking pictures of animals you see on a safari is a little mysterious to me. You can find much better pictures of the same animals anywhere (in gift shops, online, in magazine, etc.) but I guess it makes a difference to take the picture because you were actually there next to that animal. Also, a picture of an animal can never really convey how incredible it is to see them out there doing their thing, full of so much spunk and energy!

I include these two pictures because 1) man! just look at that pattern on the giraffe! Stellar! 2) This bird was sooooo cool! So I guess the taking picture of animals sickness gets us all in the end.

At one point we drove on our own around the park (mines armed guides) and crossed paths with another small pride of lions who were crossing the road and heading into the bush. A few hundred meters later there was a lookout point where we stopped the car and we all got out. By we I mean, not me, because whaaaat there were just lions there and now we're just going to get out of the car and let them pounce us? No way, nah uh.
The best way to experience the park was hiking into the bush at dawn. After riding around in jeeps and harassing animals with the sound of the car, it was great to be on the ground and walk quietly (ok, never quietly because humans are incapable of being that quiet) through the bush in the hopes of finding someone interesting. On ground level you can see all the beautiful flowers and inspect all the kinds of poo (did you know that hyena's poo is often white because they eat and can digest bones?).
Our guide showing us how coarse elephant dung is. He explained that elephants can only digest a little over half of what they eat. They will pass huge thorns through their system and people drive over the dung in the road and get a flat tire and don't know why.

Elephants only have a set amount of teeth and so they run out of teeth by around 60 and die of starvation.

Our guide letting us know it was safe to approach a river.
From Kruger we drove to Swaziland! The change from South Africa to Swaziland could be felt on many levels. Everything and one became more colorful and cheerful and suddenly we began to climb a big mountain range. In Mbabane we stayed with Justin's dad's incredibly amazing friends who live in one of the most incredible houses that I have ever seen (which they built).
Their house was sort of a modern, hippie, art house version of a rondavel and was set in a valley where at night the only lights were all the way in the opposite hills.
I could have spent days exploring nooks and crannies, and we spent hours running around with their daughter Sophia, chasing the dogs chasing the chickens.

A view of Pine Valley from the back of the house.
Outside wall detail.
Swaziland is home to one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, and Sibebe (right across the road from where we were staying) is the largest exposed granite dome in the world.
We hiked around the area - a lot of Swaziland looks like a giant scattered fist fulls of huge boulders everywhere.
It's amazing how when you stay with someone in a new place, your knowledge/impression of that place really is shaped by that person's version of life in that place. For me, Swaziland became a sort of hippie paradise where it seemed that if you had the will you could make any project happen.
From Mbabane we crossed the border back into South Africa and then into Mozambique, where we stayed in Ponta d'Ouro. Ponta is a low key beach town mostly frequented by South Africans and famous for its resident dolphins. We went out one dawn with guides from an NGO who have been studying the areas dolphins for 16 years. We found a pod of wild dolphins and joined them in the water and it was a truly spiritual experience (pictured above). It would be much more accurate to say that the dolphins were investigating and interacting with us than we them - a dolphin would sort of choose you and the two of you would would have a partner swim until another individual or group of dolphins would choose you. They swam alongside me, under me with their bellies up or did circles all around me! So incredible. I could go one for hours with tears in my eyes about it, but this picture basically captures it all. Ha, no but really...
The place we stayed seemed like a remnant from a bygone era, but it had its rustic charm.

Wandering around the market at Ponta.

One "charm" being brown water and a cockroach that ate my soap in the night. But in the evening, the bats that lived in the eaves of the buildings flew out to see and it was a beautiful exodus to behold.
When we were out at sea we saw several beautiful butterflies and our guide told us that the winder winds blow all the coastal butterflies out to sea in the morning and they spend all day chugging back to land. You can be several miles out to see and come across a huge cloud of butterflies slowly fighting their way back.
We drank cider and played bananagrams in the evenings before feasting on fish and prawns.

John looks out at the sunset.

Oh hot African sun, and open spaces! I think come from the States really allowed me to appreciate all the open space, all the wild land. Japan or the UK are packed in comparison.

We drove back for a quick trip to Swaziland where we parted ways with Justin's family and took a van to Johannesburg. The neighborhood of the friends we stayed with - in the right corner you can see the hut for the guard who is stationed on the street. I had a hard time separating my preconceived ideas about Joburg from what I was actually observing, but I have to honestly say that for me it was a city with a very strange vibe. Luckily the friends we stayed with were incredible - walking encyclopedias of African histories, politics and culture. I could have listened to their stories for years and eaten one million ostrich burgers with them and their kids!
But alas, five different airports and Kagoshima called us home. I am still thinking about it all, letting it sift through me and settle as it will, but this trip was huge.