The South African Safari Begins

Getting There is NOT Half the Fun

Wildebeest

Wildebeest

September 20, 2013, San Francisco- After a year of planning and anticipation Cathy and I were off on our next adventure. At about 6:30 pm we boarded a British Airways 747 for the first leg of our trip. In just a few short hours (10) we would arrive in London. After a brief (6 hr) layover we would be whisked away for our swift (11 hr) flight to Johannesburg. I won’t whine further about the travel conditions. The trip was largely uneventful. All I will say is that even Cathy found the seats on British Air to be confining!

After a 27 hour journey we arrived in Johannesburg. We met up with Ed and Pat Nahin who were on our flight and whom we met in London. Ed and Pat were part of our small group going on safari. After collecting our baggage and getting through customs we caught a shuttle to our hotel.

Upon arriving at the hotel we noticed something unusual. The entire property was surrounded by  high fence and the entry had a guard and security gate. It turns out that Johannesburg is not the safest city in Africa. Unemployment is 25% overall and over 50% for young males. The US State Department’s website states

“visitors should be aware that criminal activity is prevalent throughout the country and can be violent…. violent crimes, such as armed robbery, carjacking, mugging, “smash-and-grab” attacks on vehicles, and other criminal acts are still common and do affect visitors and resident U.S. citizens.”

So much for arriving early and touring the city.

However, that is exactly what we did. Our hotel, the Protea, hosts a travel desk for a company called e-tours. They offer a wide variety of day tours. We signed up to take a tour of Johannesburg and Soweto. We were the only ones to sign up so we had a private driver to take us around the city.

Our driver was a very amiable black man and was well versed on the history and culture of South Africa. It was also clear that he was well versed in public relations as he consistently put a positive spin on any discussion of crime, race relations, and the economy. None-the-less he gave us a great tour.

The situation in Johannesburg is a bit dicey. All the nice homes in the city are surrounded by block walls or iron fences and topped with either razor wire or electric wire. As we entered the downtown area we saw that the city was alive with people everywhere. All the sidewalks were jammed with street vendors. However, overall the city was very dirty and dark. There were virtually no white people visible anywhere downtown.

It was a surprise when our driver pulled the van over to the curb, parked and started to get out. He opened our door and guided us to a shop across the street. He wanted to show us a traditional African chemist’s shop. As we went inside we saw that the walls were lined with bins containing herbs, roots, bark, animal parts and much more. Still more items hung from the ceiling along with items such as drums, bowls and staffs used for ceremonies. Our guide explained to us the role of the healer in traditional African tribal medicine. If you were sick you went to see the healer, who, based upon an examination and discussion with you would prescribe/prepare a potion for you. You would take the potion home and follow the prescribed course of treatment. If you got well you would return to the healer and pay him. If you did not get well you owed no payment. That sounds like a pretty good system to me.

Our visit to the chemist’s shop was a fascinating  look at another culture. However it was now time to move on to Soweto.

Soweto township is the site of the June 16, 1976 protest by 20,000 high school students that lead to a riot in which police eventually killed about 176 students. The students were protesting the government mandate that the schools must teach 1/2 the curriculum in Afrikaans, the German/Dutch language of the white minority. The Soweto uprising gained worldwide attention, led to the empowerment of the African National Congress (ANC) and ultimately to the downfall of apartheid with the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994.

Today Soweto is an interesting town. Although there is still extreme poverty, the mood is calm. Development is taking place. We were comfortable walking the streets in Soweto and got to see the original home of Nelson Mandela as well as the home of bishop Desmond Tutu. (Two Nobel Peace Prize winners who lived on the same street.) Nelson Mandela’s wife Winnie owns a restaurant across the street from their home. We spent about 45 minutes visiting a museum dedicated to the Soweto uprising and watched many newsreels of the events. Very interesting indeed.

Time to Move On

On Tuesday, September 24th we moved to a different hotel to meet up with the rest of our group. The Peermont D’Oreale Grand. OMG! This place was so over the top it was unbelievable. It’s like the designers went to Las Vegas, copied the plans for Ceasar’s Palace and built it in South Africa. They even bill it as the “Vegas of Africa.” There is a huge central casino, Forum shops and restaurants, four hotels and beautiful grounds. Unfortunately, since neither Cathy or I like Vegas we weren’t that thrilled with this imitation version either. However, it provided great contrast to the rest of Johannesburg.

The next morning we were finally on our way to our first camp, Londolozi. Londolozi, located just west of Kruger National Park, is famous for it’s leopards. And that’s what we came to see. In our previous trip to Kenya we were shut out. No leopards. We wanted to see leopards and hopefully leopard cubs!

To get to Londolozi we flew a 19 passenger Beechcraft 1900 airplane to a small airstrip at the camp. We were greeted by the camp staff and taken to the camp about a mile away.

The camp was beautiful and the staff very warm and helpful. We checked in, went to our rooms to clean up and then had a wonderful lunch. Meals were served on an open covered deck surrounded by trees. Wildlife was all around us with vervet monkeys, nyala and bush buck immediately apparent.

Each day we would have two drives. One beginning at 5:30 am and one at 3:30 pm. During the middle of the day the animals sleep and hide from the heat. After a quick break for coffee and biscuits we were off on our first game drive.

The camp provides Rangers and Trackers to drive the Land Rovers and track the animals. Each photographer had his own seat row, so there was plenty of space to lay out our gear and to move around and shoot.

The afternoon game drives would run from approximately 4 to 6:30 pm. Sunset was at 6 pm, thus we were typically out until dark. Our Ranger was Richard and our Tracker was Like. (Africans often translate their names from their native language to English, thus coming up with names such as: Like, Remember, etc.) Londolozi is a private reserve. This restricts the number of people and hopefully improves the viewing experience and reduces stress on the animals.

So off we went for our first drive. During the next 3 hours we saw grey herons, impala, water buck, lions, hippos, a blacksmith lapwing, Egyptian geese, giraffes, oxpeckers, Bateleur eagle, wildebeest and rhinos. Not bad for the first drive.

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