Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Interlude Post 11 from Johannesburg, South Africa

We just finished two and a half weeks in the African bush and are sad to leave.  This has become one of our new favorite places and we are already discussing "when we come back".  We spent most of our time in Kruger National Park, a game park the size of New Jersey and got into the bush routine for best viewing the animals.

A typical day went something like this:

0500 wake up, pack up the bush tent or hut or our tent, quick cup of tea or cocoa

0530 Camp gate opens, sunrise.  The camps in the park are fenced to keep the animals out, but really, the design looks like it's to keep the humans in.  Rhino poaching is rampant, so for the safety of the animals and tourists, the park is closed after dark.

Morning: look for animals by driving along well marked tar and dirt roads, stopping at water holes to see what's making an appearance, have a snack.

Midday: the heat of the day means the animals are not as active, but if they are going to be anywhere, it's around a waterhole, so we would find good ones to stake out after stopping at a camp for a tasty beverage and ice-cream.

Afternoon: the search continues.

Evening: arrive at camp before the gates close at 6pm, collect firewood for a braai (bbq), pick up some pre-marinated meat and fresh veggies from the camp store, have dinner as darkness fell, admire the large, amazingly clear southern night sky and hit the rack.

We were surprised at how tiring a day of driving at 30mph looking into the bushes could be, but your brain is definitely wiped at the end of the day.  The two excursions that we did that broke from this routine were some of the highlights of the trip.

The first was a 4 day, 3 night backpacking walking safari along the Olifants River.  We were dropped off 3 hours drive from Olifants Rest Camp, and worked our way east along the river back towards the camp.  We had beautiful weather and walking in the bush is a totally different experience than driving around in the car.  We learned a little about the plants, insects, animal behaviors and suriving in a desert environment.  Each day we camped next to the river and were able to cool off with a dip in a shallow, rapid running area, since those are sections of the river that crocadiles and hippos tend to avoid.  The most eerie experience of that trip was the morning of the third day, where around 0400 we heard lions calling off to our left, only a couple hundred meters away, then a few minutes later, heard them calling to our right as they passed just above our tents.  In the morning, we found the tracks only a few hundred meters from where we had slept.

The second excursion was at the very end of the trip, we left the National Park and entered the Sabi Sands Private Game reserver, which is also fenced, but open between Kruger and Sabi Sands to allow free roam of the animals.  This reserve is home to many private luxury lodges, including one of Sir Richard Branson's homes.  Since accommodations were so cheap for the past couple weeks, we were able to stay for two nights at Exeter River Lodge and loved every minute of it.  The five star cuisine was awesome, the royal treatment was classy, but the game drives stole the show.  We were in a car with only 2-4 other people, a guide/driver and a tracker who sits on the very front of the offroad jeep.  We went out twice a day for 3-4 hours, early in the morning and around sunset and they would look for fresh tracks of animals we wanted to see.

The vehicles between the lodges communicate to share the best sightings and during our searches, the teamwork narrowed the search area considerably.  Our last night, we had an amazing wild dog sighting (details below) and returned to find a candlelit dinner set up in our room by our private butler, with a bubble bath waiting!  Talk about posh.  My only regret is that the weather wasn't warm enough to use our outdoor private plunge pool where we could've sat cooling off as the baboons, monkeys, impala, warthogs and elephants walked by the yard in front of the pool.  I really can't complain, the lodge and staff were exceptional.

So now for the really good part: the best wildlife sightings of the trip.  To summarize, we saw elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, black/white rhinoceros (collectively known as the big 5), antelope (impala, waterbuck, bushbuck, nyala, kudu, klipspringer, grysbok, and a couple others), hippos, giraffes, zebra, wildebeest, warthogs, hyena, wild dog, leopard tortoise and tons of different, unique birds including raptors, ostrich, egrets and smaller, very colorful birds.  Here are some of the highlights:

Our last night at Exeter River, our guide Andrew tooks us looking for a pack of the highly endangered wild dog.  We checked out their den, but it was empty, which meant they were on the hunt.  Another vehicle found tracks and got a glimpse and the chase was on!  We did some serious bundu bashing (offroad driving) and caught up with the pack as they were running down the road at us on their way back to the kill with the cubs.  The pack was huge! 6-7 cubs and 7 adults.  We followed them back to their two kills, an impala for the adults and a bushbuck for the cubs.  They worked together to tear the animal apart and even chased off a hyena that came skulking around looking for some scraps.  They demolished both animals in a matter of minutes.  It was intense.

Also at Exeter River, we were told about a pride of lions crossing the river, so we headed over to the other side and managed to catch the large male crossing the river.  He was a massive animal that was a pansy about getting his paws wet.  We followed him back to the rest of the pride, watching how he sniffed them out to find them.  There were two females and 7 cubs lying in the bush, relaxing after their river crossing.  Beautiful, up close pictures in good light, we couldn't have asked for anything better.  We had seen several lions from the car in Kruger, but usually sleeping or on the move, it was awesome to watch their behavior for almost an hour.

In Kruger, we spent a lot of time watching the "cheeky" monkeys as they jumped in the trees, chased each other all over, carried their young and groomed each other.  One afternoon while watching baboons pass by, we caught sight of a large herd of elephants, made up of mothers, aunts and their babies.  All of a sudden one of the larger females starting bleating her trunk, shaking her head and flapping her ears in agression and then rushed at an intruding elephant, probably a young male and had no compunction against using her tusks to drive him off.  We moved off as they came closer so that we wouldn't end up in the middle of that scuffle.  Watching the babies was adorable, less than a year old, they don't have full function of their trunks yet and their foraging was a little clumsy.

Another animal that had young that was fun to watch were the hyenas.  In Kruger we did a couple of night drives, where a guide will take you out after dark for a couple of hours so you can look for the creatures of the night.  This guide knew of a hyena den, so we headed over that way and were lucky to see the mothers back from a hunt with their bellies full and three small, very curious cubs.  We had to keep them away from the car by clapping and shouting so that they didn't try to bite and puncture the car tires, but they weren't afraid at all.  In fact, throughout our safari, it was interesting to see that the animals don't associate the vehicles with humans and pretty much ignore the car.  When on the walking safari, animals would run as soon as they smelled us.

I could write a whole book full of stories of our experiences the last two weeks...in fact, Chris has decided to do just that and is compiling our best pictures and stories into a coffee table book, which will make a nice reminder of this awesome trip.  Today we are back in reality, with tv, air conditioning, traffic and interet.  Tonight we fly 12 hours to Sydney and begin 6 weeks of touring eastern Australia.  We've got a weather eye on those wildfires and are hoping the weather helps to get them under control in the next couple of days.  We will miss South Africa, and look forward to planning a future trip here.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Interlude Post 10 from Paris, France

We did it! Tour of Europe...check!  Tomorrow we fly to South Africa for two weeks of Safari in Kruger National Park, followed by 6 weeks road tripping Oz, a brief stop in Hawaii and finally back to Navigator.  It has been a whirlwind! Chris finished the video highlighting our adventures "on the continent." Look for it in the "videos" tab above, or click here.

We enjoyed our visit to the neolithic caves, Font De Gaume is one of the few in the world still open to the public and there are strict guidelines about how many people in the cave and how long the visit because the carbon dioxide from your breath and pollen you track in with you cause degradation to the paintings.  This adds up to only 80 visitors per day and in order to secure our spot, we waited for an hour before the ticket office opened.  Unfortunately, this happened to be on the same day that autumn decided to make its official appearance, and it was really chilly!  The smell of fall is in the air, the leaves are changing, yep, definitely time for us to head to the southern hemisphere!

The next day was a long trek across the beautiful heart of France into Burgundy, famous wine country.  In my opinion, the French do it best.  The small town of Beaune was ringed with unassuming buildings housing miles of interconnecting 14th century underground cellars.  It was so neat to walk through tunnels that had housed wine for centuries, longer than any history of the USA!  We did a tasting, and determined that red wine, French or Italian, is really not our thing.  The following day, we hopped on our squeaky bikes (they have taken quite the abuse on this trip!) and set off through the vineyards.  It was amazing.  The clouds threatened rain, but only a sprinkle came down, the bike path was free of traffic and wound through endless rows of grapes readying for harvest.  The path was punctuated with small villages whose livelihood depends on the harvest and we could see everyone getting their equipment ready.  The green (chardonnay) grapes get picked first, and we got to see several families of pickers loading large bins full of grapes to take to the press.  We counted ourselves lucky to be able to see the harvest in action, which only takes about a week of the whole year.

From Burgundy, we drove north to Champagne region and the town of Epernay and straight down "Champagne Avenue" which is lined with all the heavy hitters in the business, including Moet, makers of Dom Perignon (who was a monk that used to work the cellars under this town way back).  We visited Champagne de Castellane, and got to see the process of making bubbly from juice arrival to tasting.  Sparkling wine is unique in that it requires a second fermentation unlike still wine in order to create the bubbles, then must be tilted slowly to work any sediment in the wine down to the bottle neck, which is then frozen and removed quickly from the bottle before final packaging.  The operation we saw is run by less than 50 people and produces about 3 million bottles a year.  Most of the bubbly is consumed in France, and this particular organization exports to Europe, but not the US. Their cellars house vintages dating back to 1904, which would run you about 10,000 euro.  Funny, it looked like any other dusty bottle on the shelf!

That same day, we drove another couple of hours to Versailles, our final camping location.  We gorged on patisseries, visited the interior of the palace (which was indeed impressive) and enjoyed a stroll down the tree lined Avenue de Paris.  We went in search of packing material to send our beloved bikes back to the States, since we don't want to hump them around for the rest of the trip, and assembled our free giveaway box of camping gear that we weren't taking with us, hoping it would find a good home.  Our last night camping....rained, and rained hard.  We woke up in a puddle with no choice but to pack up a wet tent and head for the airport hotel.  We unloaded the car, set up the tent in the parking lot to dry out and got nostalgic as we collected all the random ticket stubs and receipts that inevitably found their way into every nook and cranny of the car.  We successfully searched for a laundrymat open on a Sunday and finally called it a day.

Yesterday, we sent the bikes home, returned the car and chilled out, catching up on news, working on the video and packing.  Today, the weather is foggy, but we'll take the train into Paris for one last adventure before we hop our flight tomorrow.  Last night, I was wandering through the airport train station, looking for dinner, and found myself in front of a giant screen showing all the flight departures for the airport.  It was awe-inspiring to see cities all over Europe and the world listed, and thinking that we could get anywhere from Paris!  It brought a smile to my face to think of all the places in Europe listed there that we have now seen and experienced, but also exciting to see all the places we have yet to visit!  We are both ready for the next adventure and are looking forward to the change of pace in Africa.