Saturday, June 15, 2019

Pilanesburg, Day 2: Elephant Adventure

We took off Saturday morning at sunrise, knowing we would not see a bed for 36 hours. Not our favorite, but we had upgraded tickets so it could be worse.

Our first hour and a half we saw nothing except these rocks in a pool. But then one of the rocks snorted, so we figured maybe they weren't rocks. But I won't push to be out at dawn next time.

After breakfast back at the lodge, we loaded our bags and began a slow meander toward the southern exit of the park, Bakubung Gate, near Sun City. Still somewhat disappointing game viewing and we were starting to wonder if the game population had gone down since our years in South Africa.

Several people we approached in our cars told us there were lions ahead. When we asked where to look, they said, "You'll see the cars." We did--backed up on both directions as some people just sat and watched. You must understand that the Hardys lived in Africa for ten years before we saw our first lions--in Pilanesburg, July 1996. (The date is written in my game identification book.) It got to be a joke that word went out in the game parks that the Hardys were coming and the lions should hide. We even paid for a guided drive once and the guide assured us we would see lions. He was pointing out chameleons by the end of the drive! I felt sorry for the others in the vehicle who didn't get to see lions because the Hardys were along.

But this time we did see lions, although I doubt we would have spotted them lying low in the grass if the road hadn't been blocked by cars. This one got up and walked away so she was easier to see.

Our Toyota Camry was too low to get a better view.

As we approached our planned picnic area, we noticed a whole string of elephants crossing the hillside to the east. (Look two-thirds of the way up in this photo, just above the green trees. One is clear on the left, but there are others all along that line.)

They kept coming by, far up there on the hillside, while we grilled the last of our boerwors and cleaned out the salad and yogurt. We gave the end of the charcole to some of our fellow picnickers, and headed down the asphalt toward a dam on the map. Evidently that was where the elephants were headed too--50 or 60 of them! Before long it felt like dejavu only instead of one elephant blocking the road, there was a whole string of them.

For a video of the ones in front, check this YouTube.

Then there were the ones coming up behind us.

We couldn't go forward or backward and neither could anyone else. I was pretty nervous as this one came striding past us.

We felt surrounded. Eventually we made it to the side road we had planned to take and cut back on the other side of the lake where Steve mentions in the video seeing the giraffe. You can see the back up of traffic on the far side where we were in the two videos. We had planned to loop around and pass the lake again, but when we started meeting cars trying to avoid the backup on the main road we opted for going out the east Manyane Gate instead.

View from one of those hides I enjoy so much

The area between Pilanesburg and Pretoria used to be a native "homeland" in apartheid days--an area where Blacks who didn't have a job that gave them permission to live in an urban township (still segregated) were dropped off to fend for themselves. Mostly there were shacks or simple cement block houses. With the rising middle class, there is a lot of construction and development. Much of it uses a similar style of pillared porches that I anticipate someday will be referred to as "early-21st-century African."

The pillars are mass produced--like you could buy them at Menards. I saw a place with a line up of different styles. Some of the new houses are really big and fancy.

We drove back to the airport on a major expressway, remembering the culture shock we used to experience leaving the high development of South Africa for the potholed streets and crumbling facades of Maputo in the late-1980s. There is so much that we didn't have time for this trip--the Garden Route along the southern coast, the mountains of the Winelands, the desolation of the road into Nambia, Etosha National Park, the baobabs in the north... I guess we will just have to come back.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Pilanesburg, Day 1

Steve had a great three days at his conference. He really likes the other guys who were teaching, both Africans he has known for years and they are all on the same page in what they have to say about theological education. One Canadian guy and his wife didn’t make it due to a plane delay that meant they wouldn't arrive until after their sessions, so Steve taught an extra one. Fortunately, he does this kind of thing a lot and all his material is in his computer, so it wasn’t hard to pull something out of his hat.

This morning we took off after breakfast for Pilanesberg, a smaller game reserve in an ancient volcanic crater northwest of Pretoria. We have been there many times, but not recently and the area has developed a great deal over the past ten years. In the end, we got confused with the GPS and ended up coming in the northern Bakgatla Gate instead of the eastern Manyane Gate where our resort is located. Not a big deal. It was about 10:15 when we came in. We drove a convoluted route to a picnic spot on a hill overlooking a “dam” as South Africans call the lake created by a dam. I had charcole left from Kruger, so we bought boerwors and buns and chips at a grocery in town on the way and made a fine lunch.

This is late fall in the Southern Hemisphere, and although there are no flaming maples like home, we have enjoyed the russets we see in various places. The greens in most pictures are trees that stay green all year around even though they don't have needles.

Being midday we didn’t seen a lot, but we found a rhino lying in the dust just off the road, and several giraffe. Two elephant cows and calves. More rhinos and a herd of zebra and wildebeest with some impala mixed in.

Impala were walking across the yard between the parking and our chalet when we arrived.

We stretched out for a rest and then headed off to watch the dam at sundown. Never made it to the dam. We did see more rhinos, hippos in a pool we weren’t heading for and then a huge bull elephant eating his dinner while totally blocking the road.

You do NOT want to anger an elephant, so I got out my mug of tea and we prepared to sit for a while. Except then he started toward us. By this time another car had pulled up behind us. Steve started backing, but the elephant kept coming. He did step off the road to our right, but kept heading toward us. He was no longer blocking the road, so Steve floored it on the rutted and rocky dirt road. The elephant looked startled, but didn’t charge, and a moment later the other car joined us on this side of the elephant. We learned later that was NOT the right thing to do. We might have frightened the elephant into charging us or the car behind.

For a video, go to YouTube.

Not sure if this is the lone cheetah in the park or a leopard (both rare sitings, at least for the Hardys), but it wandered across the road, and we got there in time to catch this before it disappeared into the grass.

Dinner and breakfast are included in our package. The buffet was just opening up as we arrived about 6. Lovely salads, but the hot foods tasted like they had been dished up about 45 minutes or so—only somewhat warmish. Flavors were nice, but not the temp. Wonderful dessert tarts and eclairs and fruit salad with custard sauce.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Kruger National Park, Day 3

I think I was the last of the early risers out the gate this morning. Half the camp was already moving when I headed for the ablutions block at 5:30. By the time I got my stuff in the car, I had missed the line up at the gate for the 6 o'clock opening, but I was on the road by 6:10.

I took a dirt road that angled southeast and in the first hour I saw exactly one small herd of impala. 

So much for all the best viewing being early morning. I intended to be out the Malalane Gate by noon, but it is hard to judge distances and times when you aren’t going a steady speed and keep stopping, so I constantly worried. 

The best viewing today was definitely the Crocodile River Road. It follows the river with overlooks. Lots of impala. Some nyala.  (The marking on the rump looks like a target from behind.)

A huge herd of buffalo in the river, but a few up close on the road. 

Some close up warthogs, and a couple wildebeest (gnu), but not the large herds I remembered from years ago. 

At one point I stopped for three giraffe only to realize there were two more, plus a herd of impala and some zebra in the distance. 

In the end I turned a 4 1/2-hour drive back to Pretoria into an 11-hour day with my meanderings.

I wish Kruger had more places to pull over, get out and stretch. Understandably, you aren’t supposed to ever get out of your car. You never know when a predator may be lurking. Pilanesberg (where we are going tomorrow) has protected blinds overlooking watering holes where you can park inside a fence. With bathrooms! Kruger has one picnic area in the southern part of the park (at least that is all that is marked on the map), and the scattered camps where there is nothing but a bathroom, gas station and snack shop. That means hours of sitting in the car. Today I had to go all the way to Crocodile River Camp just so I could get out and stretch my legs.

Didn’t see any lions in my three days. The guides on the hike said Lower Sabe or Crocodile River is the place to see them. I tried to get into Lower Sabe when I made my reservations, but they were already fully booked. Next time…

I have to confess to Steve that, with the exception of one group of kudu, I don’t think I saw any more going slowly than I would have seen going his speed of 30-50 kph. Also, it is hard to watch both sides of the road and drive! Two in the car is twice as many eyes.

I left the gate at 12:20. When I stopped for gas and a stretch at a one-stop (gas, restaurants, gift shop, bathrooms) just east of Middleburg, I found this small game park out back, no doubt to motivate regular travelers to stop there instead of 10 miles up the road.

Made it back to the camp where Steve’s conference was a couple minutes after 5 despite being stopped by police. When he pulled me over, I was afraid I had been speeding since without cruise control it is hard to stay in line with cars whipping around you, but, no, it was a routine stop and search (something they can do here for no reason). He questioned my license. I should have just told him it was international since, as Steve reminded me later, it was all the car rental people wanted. We drove on our US licenses the whole time we lived in South Africa. I smiled sweetly and said I was a gogo (granny) and hadn’t done anything wrong. He wanted me to turn around and go back up the road 10 kms to pay a fine at the police station that he thought was about R3000 ($200). I said I didn’t have R3000, only enough for my tolls to get back to Pretoria. He said that would be a problem. All this is smiling back and forth. I have no doubt that he would have liked me to make an offer for the problem to disappear, but I wouldn’t know how to do that without getting myself in real trouble for attempted bribery. Not that I would do it if I did know how! In the end I asked for directions to the police station. He gave them, and I pulled off, but he called after me, “Go on; it’s fine.” So I did.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Kruger National Park, Day 2

Up a little after 4 a.m.--in time to find out that the 4:45 meeting time for the morning walk was wrong and it should have been 5:15. But the fires were all out and the moon had gone down so the stars were more visible. But not as visible as a moonless night at home in the Northwoods.

We drove about half an hour to get to the walking place. The sun was just coming up. There were seven of us, plus two guides with guns. They explained that we were there to enjoy nature and the little things, not necessarily to see the Big Five. Since you aren't normally allowed outside your vehicle in Kruger, my goal was not seeing game so much as taking a walk without getting eaten.

“Let’s got lost,” Siti said as we took off down a trail made by big animals. They inevitably lead to places the animals go. 

Mishak looked through the binos for quite a while before announcing he had seen a bush rhino--a bush that looks like a rhino.

At first we saw only old scat. Then we spotted a baby giraffe in the distance with Mama bending over where she was less easy to spot. When they saw us even across the valley, the baby went closer to Mama. Siti and Mishak led the way across the bush, following various trails, trying to get closer. We succeeded, and I’m sure the guys with the fancy cameras got some great shots. My iPhone is good, but not THAT good. Near the giraffe were a herd of zebra. They hang out together to warn each other. The zebra hung around to see us for themselves, but then made warning noises to let the giraffe know where we were.

The most exciting time was finding a family of elephants. With the sun behind us and the wind in our faces to carry away our scent, we got near, standing in the shadow. Siti offered to take this shot of me.

We took our time coming out, stopping for snacks of biltong, cheese, crackers, chips and candy bars. On the way back, we hoofed it. I was pretty winded. No one ever asked to see the note from my doctor saying I was fit enough for the outing even though the website said it was required for people over 65. In fact, I was probably the only one over 40, but I managed to keep up.

It was 9:20 when we got back to camp—too early to call it a morning, so I headed out in the car. Best find was a waterhole. Not only was this guy there getting a nice long drink, but at the other end were a family of hippos out on the bank. (Usually you just get glimpses of their backs when they emerge from the water for breath.) 

Before I left, Mama Hippo chased Baby into the water and the others followed. Also some kind of antelope (impala?) at that end, but too far away to see clearly. Zebra grazing off to the side and waterbuck resting on the opposite bank. Very satisfying.

I came back to camp and made a salad for lunch and took a nap. I had had ideas of going to the pool, but didn’t have the energy. I’m sure I rested better on my bed with a breeze coming through.

In the late afternoon I headed back out. Took a loop road past this impressive rock without seeing a single animal.

I stopped at Shitlhave Dam where I saw the hippo before. Lots of cars. I was not the only one to think that was a good place to be at sundown. A kudu cow and calf came by. Then this rhino came so close I was afraid he would ram the car.

Home to shower, pack, and braai my dinner—another steak and the rest of the pork rashers. I’m getting hungry for vegetables like broccholi, carrots, and green beans.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Kruger National Park, Day 1

Truth to tell, I WAS a little nervous setting out on my own this morning. I was driving a strange car—manual transmission, which I hadn’t done in quite some time—in a strange city at rush hour, heading off in a foreign country (on the left side of the road) for a place I HAD been before but not for many years. 

The transmission was not a significant problem although I did stall the car at a toll booth. Keeping left is not a problem when there are other cars on the road, driving on the left to remind you. Besides, the steering wheel is on the right. The bigger problem is remembering that the turn signal is on the right. I needed a bumper sticker to tell other drivers that when I flashed my windshield wipers, that was my way of telling them I planned to turn or change lanes. GPS directed me out of Pretoria, but it took me around a traffic jam and left me needing to turn right on a busy street without a light. (If turning right doesn’t sound like a problem to you, remember that I am driving on the left.) I turned left instead, hoping to hit the N4 without getting on the N1, but eventually GPS showed me a place to get on the N1 at a light. Once I had gotten on the N4, I turned off GPS since I had forgotten to bring a car charger for my phone, and I knew I would need it later.

Three hours of driving through the African countryside, singing praise songs (since I couldn’t listen to music or an audiobook without running down my battery). At first it was expressway through rolling golden grasslands. Then it was three lanes (an extra lane for the side that is climbing) through hills that got more and more spectacular as I descended the escarpment. Eventually, I reached Nelspruit, where Katie came monthly for orthodontist in 1990. Road signs directed me to White River, so I didn’t need my GPS. In White River I happened on a sign for Kruger National Park, but I ended up going around the block looking for a grocery. It turned out to be a pretty African grocery that didn’t have the “braai pack” I was hoping for—one package with a lamb chop, a pork rasher, a minute steak and a couple boerwors (local sausage). I got a couple steaks and a small portion of pork rashers and figured it was cheaper than a restaurant. I had made a list so I wouldn’t forget matches and charcoal. Got a nice package of salad greens.

By then I was turned around enough to want GPS to set me on the right road, but once I saw signs for Numbi Gate, I turned it off.

Those of you who have never been to Africa, would have been fascinated by my route through a heavily populated area that must have once been a tribal homeland in the apartheid days—scattered houses on small farms with lots of small shops, gas stations, etc. lining the main road, taxis hooting as they look for customers, kids in school uniforms hitch-hiking. People everywhere. Speed bumps every block. It seemed like just as I got going enough to shift into fourth gear (out of 6), I had to slow down for a speed bump.

About 50 minutes later, I turned off for the gate. I’m staying at Pretoriaskop Rest Camp, but in the 9 km from the gate I saw giraffe, zebra, and a lone gemsbok.

My hut is tiny and basic. It has a sink, but otherwise I must use an ablutions block 50 yds away. There is a refrigerator—the only outlet in the room. I unplugged it to charge my computer and phone.

I couldn’t get in the room until 2 even though it was cleaned and ready, so I parked and walked around. Found the swimming pool, which I remembered from the 1980s. Somewhere I have a picture of my girls in this spot. The water runs over the rocks down to an unheated (and therefore too cold for swimming in winter which it is in the southern hemisphere) pool.

At 3:30 I went out to view game.

I was aiming to be back to camp by 6. Fortunately, I got back about 5:25. Turns out the gate closes at 5:30 at this time of year.

Dinner was steak, pork rasher (thick bacon) and salad by my grill while listening to The Power of One on my earphones. Afterwards I went for a walk (still listening), hoping to get away from the light pollution of cooking fires and windows to better see the stars, but the pool area (the most remote spot) was locked. It didn’t really matter because I realized the half moon was pollution enough to leave only the brightest stars showing. I DID find the Southern Cross, which can’t be seen from Wisconsin.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Pretoria Zoo and National Botanical Gardens

From the Melrose House we headed north through downtown Pretoria to the zoo, another place of happy memories for us. Beautifully landscaped, we could wander the paths and look at animals or lie on the grass and relax.

School groups were arriving as we did. They went left so we went right and only met the crowds around the lions at the top. All the ice cream shops were closed, presumably because this is a weekday out of season. We eventually found a restaurant open with one other family. Steve got a burger and I got fish and chips. Neither one of us thought they would put any fast food chains out of business.

The other family in the reatuarant was one we had met before. Steve’s guardian angel had arranged for them to see us leaving the bench where Steve had left his wallet and send the little girl running after us. The boy was wearing a Minnesota T-shirt, but it was just words, no connection to Minnesota.

We didn’t need to be at the camp ground for the conference until supper, so from the zoo we went on to Pretoria National Botanical Gardens. As pensioners, we only paid a dollar to get in. Lovely place to walk with lots of benches to relax, but no animals to see except a few peacocks, Egyptian geese and dassies (a kind of large rodent that likes to sun itself in rocky places.) I took the Dassie Trail out to the end while Steve did crossword puzzles on a bench by the waterfall. (He changed benches when a couple on the other side of the stream didn’t see him and thought they had some privacy. He did not leave his wallet behind.)

This place had no memories from Mozambique days, but I kept imagining my little girls scampering down the paths, eager to explore. Proximity and easy access to the city was nice, but even at the end of the trail, I was never out of hearing range of vehicles, and views from the summit of the ridge were warehouses and expressways. This waterfall was much nicer.

Pretoria: Melrose House

After a wonderful B&B breakfast with Lynn and James, we stripped and dismantled the bed we had been sleeping in and made it ready to be picked up for their son Matthew. That’s what you do when you stay all night with people who are moving.

Then we headed for Pretoria. Long ago in our Mozambique days when the girls were in elementary school and rand prices made a very good (for us) exchange with the dollar, we used to come out and stay at a lovely hotel on Burger Square. At that time the hotel was owned by Holiday Inn and kids stayed for free, which made it as cheap for us as the Baptist Guest House, which charged per person, including kids. Across the street from the hotel was a park, and on the south side of the park was the Melrose House where the treaty that ended the Anglo Boer War in 1902 was signed. That is the war in Frances Burkett’s book, The Little Princess. It was also the war that started our old mission, Africa Evangelical Fellowship, which originally brought out missionaries to minister to the English soldiers in the Cape.

Our first visit to South Africa, we came across to the Melrose House and loved it. After a general overview, the girls and I chose bedrooms and imagined ourselves living there and coming down the grand staircase to dinner, walking very elegantly. As I recall there was no one else in the museum except the interpreters, or no doubt Steve would have died of embarrassment. But when we came back on another visit, the girls reclaimed their bedrooms. We would have liked to visit today, but the museum is closed on Mondays. I was pleased to see the gate was open to park, and we were still able to walk around the grounds and take pictures for old time’s sake.

There is a little sewing room with windows on three sides for good light over the front door.

My favorite part was always the conservatory on the west end of the house. On one of our visits they were serving tea there. On another visit all the plants had died, and it was an empty storage area. I was pleased to see from outside that there ARE plants again.

Was this tree there in 1902 I wonder? The roots look ancient. Burger's Park across the street.