The Incredible Scenery of Cape Town

PB070859After a 25 day safari almost anything would feel like a letdown… Until we went to Cape Town! All of our energy went into planning the Safari, so Cape Town was kind of a bonus. As soon as we picked up our rental car we drove along the coast to Boulders Beach, home of the African Penguin! Yes, penguins! Happily swimming and waddling on the shores of Cape Town.

It was a super windy day and afterwards you could have sanded down an end table with the amount of sand in my hair, but we endured it to get some great views of the floppy little critters and the picturesque beach.

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One interesting thing about South Africans, they all idolize America. Gregor and I like to ask everyone who expresses positivity towards America where they hope to visit someday. The answers are pretty diverse. Mostly, New York, California, Miami, but one person said, “Oh, definitely Missouri!” to which we replied, “I’m sorry, did you just say Missouri?” “Yes, Missouri! My cousin lives there and it is the most beautiful place in the world.” I have never even thought of going to Missouri, what am I doing traveling all around the world when the best place on Earth is in my own country?

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In any case, as one cashier told me, “Everyone in South Africa dreams of going to the US.” I told him the US is great, but it has good and bad just like every country. “There is nothing bad about the United States!” he exclaimed. Well, it is certainly nice to meet people who give you this perspective when you feel like the inmates are running the asylum.

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20171115_161246We rented an Airbnb with a kitchen which turned out to be great and came with the added bonus of a puppy! Her name is Dory and she had free reign of the yard and would frequently come to our door and whimper a little bit and then come hang out with us after her family had left for the day. It was excellent. Except for the part of puppiness that we had forgotten, which is you spend half of your time with the puppy digging illicit objects out of her mouth. “Dory, don’t eat that [insert object]!”

 

 

 

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Of course we had to see wine country so we spent a day in Stellensbosch and wow! So much more than we expected. Not a heck of a lot of South African wine makes its way to the US and even less of it is known for being great, so I didn’t expect to know much about the scene here, but I did pour Rustenberg Chardonnay by the glass at Sibling Rivalry, so I thought, what the heck, we should check it out. I’ll admit, I half picked the wine because it was a decent, not over-oaked chardonnay at a good price point, but the other half of the reason was because it had a screw cap and none of us had the patience for corks at 8:00 on Saturday night. Every weekend I swore I was changing every glass pour to screw caps. Corks or not, the wines were great as were the gardens. We practically had the place to ourselves and really enjoyed strolling through the fountains and rose bushes.

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Lunch was our fanciest of the South African part of our trip and did not disappoint. Stellensbosch is very similar to Napa in the way the wineries present themselves, but less than half the price. Actually, scratch that, the wine is about 1/8 the price, the food about 1/3. So we treated ourselves to a really really nice lunch at Deleaire Graff whose wines were in general not the greatest except for the sparkling! I won’t go into the details of lunch because we ate enough to be full until the next afternoon, but it was incredible. If you could also eat the view we would have exploded.

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View at lunch


Back in Cape Town, we had several recommendations to go up Table Mountain. We opted to climb Lion’s Head instead of taking the cable car up Table Mountain. Now we know what it feels like to exercise after a month of sitting in the car. Ugh. I really thought I should be set for life after all the hiking we did in Nepal, but it turns out my credits expired. I exaggerate, it was not a significant hike, except for the part where of course we had to take the “more interesting” route, Gregor assured me, which involved some light climbing and edging along a cliff or two. Oh well, what an amazing view! I truly cannot believe this place exists.
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We were similarly blown away by the Cape of Good Hope. An ostrich and her babies were nice enough to provide some extra scenery. Babies did not make the “cute baby animals” tally, sorry ostrich chicks. Cute from a distance maybe.

At the Cape of Good Hope we truthfully did not do a lot of talking, just a lot of looking, so we invite you to do the same 🙂

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Trio of cute lizards.

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Bon voyage, Cape Town! You’ve been lovely. Next stop, Greece.

Safari pt. 4: Everything is Fine Until a Cobra Spits at You

When you tell people you’re going on Safari usually the first thing they say is, “you know there are things there that can kill you.” Yes, yes, of course. I mean, it’s humbling to see lion prints as big as my foot or an elephant uproot an entire tree, but when you’re in a car or on a boat, it’s pretty safe. However, when you’re walking to the bathroom, hear a little movement and turn to see you’ve accidentally cornered a cobra which is rearing up and hissing, it’s not cool anymore.

“Did you hear me scream?” I asked Gregor, who was sitting by the pool not very far away.

“I heard something, I thought it was a bird.”

Ok, well, it wasn’t a bird. It was your wife screaming just loud enough to not pee herself but not so loud the cobra would think she wanted to fight.

I admit, several times on this trip I said, “I want to see snakes!” to which Gregor replied, “I do not want to see snakes.” What I meant was, I wanted to see snakes from afar, not happen upon them when it was hair-washing day. So there you have it, be careful what you wish for, especially in Africa.

Being from Maine where the only poisons thing is ivy, I did not know what to do. We had just spent two nights in Kalahari NP camping the bush with no facilities, no power, no water, no rangers, nothing. When we got to the gate to the park there was a walkie-talkie so you could call someone to check in. The last sign-in was two days before that and our campsite was at least 30 kilometers away from the nearest person as best we could tell. If something like this was going to happen, I expected it to be in the middle of nowhere. However, the cobra incident happened at a very nice camp with a pool, hot water and people eating lamb for dinner.

“Uh, hi. A cobra just spat at me. What do I do?” We had just checked in about an hour ago with a woman we presumed was the owner and who seemed very, particular, and she said, “Oh, let me go get someone,” with some urgency.

Thankful for not getting laughed at for what I thought may have been perceived as an overreaction, I followed one of the groundskeepers over to the ablutions (bathrooms) and showed him where the incident occured. He asked me what kind it was and becuase we have a handy animal identification booklet that has a page on snakes and oh god, there’s only one sitting up looking like it wants to attack you and it’s got the red symbol with “very venomous” listed next to it and it’s the Mozambique Spitting Cobra- I was able to make a positive ID.

“Oh yeah, that’s a dangerous one,” he said as he stomped around to try to find the snake and picked up my shampoo bottle that I had hurled in the air as I ran for my life.

“What do you do when you find it?” I asked.

“We have a stick.”

Oh, yeah, of course, a stick, no big deal.


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From Maun in central Botswana (where we had repaired the truck) we left the wetlands behind and headed for our most remote camping yet in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. We weren’t sure what to expect here – especially after the sandy and uninteresting stretches through the middle of Chobe – and as we drove in past acres of blackened ground from recent brush fires our first impression wasn’t exciting. But this quickly changed. Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) for all its vast arid desolation is exceptionally beautiful.

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coffee break.
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black backed jackal
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stately gemsbock

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Our first evening here was truly isolated. We saw no other vehicles on our way in, and the only recent tracks on the road were those of the rarely seen huge black-maned Kalahari lions. Dramatic evening light and clouds led to an amazing sunset and the night sky wonderfully clear. I’m sure there was nobody else within a dozen kilometers or more.

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We spent two nights in CKGR with a day-long drive between the two. Once again our luck was a bit weird and we didn’t see much unique wildlife on the drive, but we still enjoyed the fantastic scenery and another great campsite.

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a swallow–tailed bee eater family. These guys are voracious and really good at catching large flying insects, which they bash on the branch to kill before eating
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on my wishlist and finally spotted: a secretarybird, strutting around and stomping on food to kill it!

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after too many crippling head injuries from Gregor running into the flaps, Elaine came up with a good solution – bumpers!

In the morning we rose to swing by the nearby watering hole once more before heading out of the park. Our luck returned – here were a pair of the fabled black maned lions lounging about! We think these were pride-less bachelor siblings, relatively young, trying to fare for themselves. They had recently and unwisely gone after some porcupines and had paid the price – one had several quills in his chest and another a few in his neck and throat. They didn’t seem too bothered by it but it looked pretty painful to us.

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ouch!
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a crimson breasted shrike forages on by

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Clapping ourselves on the back – we really wanted to see those guys! – we made our way southwards. Our last stop in Botswana was for two nights at a place called Khama Rhino Sanctuary. This is a small popular preserve where thanks to hard conservation efforts there is a large and growing population of both white and black rhinoceros. (Pretty much everywhere else in Botswana rhino are sadly few and far between due to poaching). Khama was the most zoo-like of all our game viewing – it really wasn’t a challenge at all to find rhinos – but we were happy for the up close looks at these awesome animals.

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we watched this mom and calf wallow around for a while

To shake things up a bit – and get out of the truck for a while – we signed up for a “rhino tracking” activity in the morning. We expected the typical wander around the bush looking at rhino tracks and droppings and hearing interesting facts about the animals and their habitat, without any actual expectation of coming close to a rhino (it’s hard to get close to any of these animals with their keen senses of smell and hearing). Oh no, this was a completely serious tracking attempt reminiscent of ye olde big game trophy hunting expeditions (or modern poaching, I suppose). Our guides were wholly intent on finding the rhino we were tracking, which based on location and poop clues was one of the dominant bulls, awaiting a name, currently called #137.

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For four hours we trekked silently through the bush, quickly learning how to identify the thorny ones. At one point we came across a leopard kill – a young zebra – at an impressively high 6m up in a tree. I noticed the guides looking up into the branches as we passed under more trees.

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little Zeb the zebra didn’t make it…

After 7km, for better or worse, the tracking was called off without managing to sneak up on #137. As soon as we returned to the vehicle and headed back, though, there he was on his way to the watering hole.

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Our last two safari nights were spent back in South Africa at Marakele National Park. This was also scarred by recent fires and unfortunately we didn’t see much wildlife other than zebra, but we did enjoy the dramatic landscape which reminded us of parks in Utah.

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a nyala buck and fawn

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So that about wraps things up!

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For the most part on our safari we saw as much of and what we expected, or hoped, to see. There are definitely some exceptions: for example, we got way closer to far more elephants than we had imagined. And we enjoyed finding interesting species that we had never even heard of before such as kudu and eland. The rather useless safari guidebook we picked up cautioned that self-drive trips have the downside of needing to identify animals yourself, but we found this to be fun and engaging. (Said book is not really targeted at folks like us, it seems.) Here’s a rough accounting of our sightings:

  • thousands: impala, springbok, buffalo, zebra
  • hundreds: elephant, giraffe, hippo, wildebeest, kudu, waterbuck, steenbok, warthog, baboon
  • tens: lion, rhino, gemsbok, tsessebe, hartbeest, nyala, reedbuck, jackal, mongoose, nile croc
  • just a few: cheetah, hyena, wild dog, eland, roan antelope, bat-eared fox, bushbaby
  • uno: African wild cat, Mozambique spitting cobra, boomslang, aardwolf
  • not a one: leopard!

That’s not including the hundreds of different bird species we found, many of which are striking. There’s a huge range of eagles and hawks, kites and falcons, vultures, kingfishers, woodpeckers, weavers with intricate little nests, waterbirds of all types and flamboyantly colored parrots, shrikes, bee-eaters and more. We ended up buying a bird identification book partway along and were glad for it.

Obvious in hindsight is the fact that observing the behavior of some of these animals was far more rewarding than simply spotting them. Watching warthogs or rhinos wallow in the mud, zeebras taking dust baths, elephants swimming and play jousting, and cubs or calves interacting with their siblings and parents were some of the most fun moments we had. A lot of these animals are really quite intelligent (not all, we found a fair share of morons too) and seeing them be nervous, excited, relaxed, or all business is something you can’t really get at a zoo; that, and seeing species interact by cooperating, scaring, or eating each other.

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a nervous pair of warthogs check us out on the way to the watering hole

Much like our diving adventures, we did not come equipped with the best photography equipment for the job here – far from it. We knew this going in, of course, but traveling like we are rather inhibits one from hauling around massive telephoto lenses. We did pick up a cheap pair of binoculars which certainly paid off many times over and even served on occasion as an impromptu scope for our little camera (by and large this worked horribly but we did manage to snag a couple winning shots). So the photos don’t convey the whole experience, but then, there really aren’t many worthwhile experiences where they actually do.

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here’s how we got many of those closeup photos

There were some difficulties, of course. We’ve mentioned some. Also, doing what we did is a lot of driving. Driving in parks is slow, distances between parks can be large, and shoddy roads are a norm (South Africa excepted). There isn’t much opportunity to get out enroute – all your safari sightseeing is from within the vehicle, for obvious reasons. We probably averaged 7 hours a day in the car with several days getting to 12. Good news is when you’re in a park those hours aren’t boring at all since you’re busy looking around and finding cool animals. But at the end of each day you’re pretty tired of being in the car, and relieved to relax at camp.

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ostrich in camp

One of the best parts of our safari didn’t have much to do with wildlife at all, and this was the camping. Southern Africa is vividly beautiful, and nearly every campsite of the 21 different ones we had came with a unique and pleasant view. Sunsets were spectacular, good South African wine was cheap and plentiful, and we could grill something delicious every evening. At night we were comfortable and secure in our big rooftop tent. A couple sites we were happy to leave – usually on account of ravenous mosquitoes or obnoxious monkeys – but most were very relaxing. By the time our 25th day rolled around we weren’t eager at all to be done with the trip!

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watching a herd of impala from our campsite
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our last safari sunset!

Would we do this again? Absolutely. We would definitely use (and recommend) a different 4×4 rental company – we did not part ways amicably after the owner rudely yelled at and threatened Elaine over the phone. But for all the problems we dealt with, we had an incredible time and found the camping to be so beautiful and relaxing. We’ve heard many good things about Namibia…

Safari pt. 3: Close Calls, Close Encounters

Zimbabwe is like a middle school girl that makes up a list of demands before she will date a boy.

  1. Have US$30 for visa. No, this is not our country’s currency, no there are no ATMs that dispense USD at the border, no we do not make change. And make sure it’s not $50’s because those are usually fake.
  2. Have 2 blank pages in your passport. Because we will take up a whole page in your passport with a giant sticker that we have to stamp twice and then slowly fill in with red pen.
  3. Get papers for vehicle. Oh, you have a rental vehicle? At this border we treat that as a commercial vehicle so you will pay US$100 to get your vehicle in. Credit cards and Rand are accepted since we don’t want you to turn around. (At least a portion of this ‘fee’ was a scam for sure.)
  4. Wait in line for 1.5 hours. This time can be spent commiserating with your fellow linemen! A great way to build new relationships.
  5. Get your passport stamped. Congratulations! You made it to the front of the line! You now understand why it has taken so long to get here, there is only one person in the window for issuing visas with 6 others standing around. These people make the DMV look like McDonald’s drive through.

This is when I started to get really annoyed. We had made it to the front of the line and one person was at the counter, but it was a tour guide with 12 passports and as you may have gathered, this is not a quick process. After waiting 5 more minutes we realized the immigration officer was only on step 2 of 5 for all these passports and the impatient American in me came out.

Elaine: [Goes up to another window with two men shooting the breeze.] Hi, is there another window we could go to to get our visas issued?

Man1: No.

E: Well this person at the window now is doing a group and is the only one working, is there anyone else who is able to help?

Man2: You can ask Lloyd.

E: Ok, where is Lloyd?

Man2: [Gestures behind him to the set of counters where you go when exiting the country. The other 4 men are standing around doing nothing and he snickers at his cleverness.]

E: [Sticks head in middle window] Lloyd? Hello are you Lloyd? [Lloyd turns around.] Yes, hi!! These gentlemen over here said you might be able to help us with our visas, this man here is doing a big group.

Lloyd: [Glares at the two slackers and shuffles over to the other station at the window and starts our visas.]

  1. You got your papers for the car and your visas, now you just need a stamp on your vehicle pass so you can get through the gate. Yay! You made such a fuss at the last station they are now happy to get rid of you and someone comes over right away to stamp the pass.
  2. Go through the gate. No drama.
  3. You are on your way in Zimbabwe! Oh wait, no you’re not. In less time than it took to get a self-congragulatory cookie in your mouth you see a police checkpoint ahead.

Policeman: Turn on your lights and hazards, please.

Gregor: [Does as instructed.]

Pman: [Circles the car inspecting it. Stops at the back.] Sir, could you come out here please?

Gregor: Sure. [Exits vehicle. I sit fuming in the truck.]

Pman: This light is missing. [Points to the hole where the trailor hitch had to be removed because our new license plates were too big to fit with it on.

Gregor: [Calmly explains the situation.]

Pman: Well you can’t have this like that. This is a custom truck. You can see where the original license plate mount is and it has a light on the license plate.

Gregor: I see what you mean, but surely you see these vehicles all the time.

Pman: They needed to put a light here.

Gregor: I did not design the car. I can call the rental company if you like.

Pman: I am not asking the rental company, I am asking you, you are the driver.

Elaine: [Has had enough. Exits vehicle.] What is the problem?

Pman: Mam, get back in the car.

Elaine: No. This vehicle is in my name so if you have any issues with it you can address me. We just paid $100 to get this car across the border and we are only here for one day! It took us 2 hours to get through your immigration and now we’re standing here debating a trailer hitch!? This is ridiculous. What do you want? [It’s worth mentioning that I am on the verge of tears and yelling.]

Pman: Mam, get back in the car.

Elaine: I am done with this! [Gets back in truck and slams door.]

Pman: [To Gregor] You should tell the rental company they cannot do this. You can go now.

  1. Enjoy your day in Zimbabwe!

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at lunch in Zimbabwe – which we actually did enjoy

Victoria Falls is one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, so it was one of the few stops on our trip we were sure we wanted to do. Somewhat jaded because of our entry into Zimbabwe, street vendors selling crappy trinkets on the street, the fact that somehow the woman who did the majority of reserving our campsites for us forgot to pay for our site that night and the fact that the falls were at their lowest flow of the year, a lot of the magic that I’m sure exists there was gone for us. While the falls were still impressive and we had a nice couple of hours (after paying another $60 to get into the park) taking pictures of each other on ledges, I think we would only go back there if it was high season and we were already going to Zimbabwe anyway (which we have sworn never to do). As a one night trip, it just wasn’t worth everything we went through. Just one of those things about travel, sometimes things don’t work out! Having been on the road for a full 6 months now we have had very few mishaps so we can’t complain too much.

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expansive dry cliffs due to the season – still striking!

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With much relief we crossed back into Botswana and spent the next day and a half exploring the riverside portion of Chobe National Park by vehicle.

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these little elephants are so damn cute!
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we got to see a large herd at the river drinking, splashing, wallowing, and swimming across to the other side, trunks raised high in the air

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waiting patiently
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happy pig

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we found a litter of 3 cute jackal pups, and this one stuck around long enough for photos

What would a self-drive safari be without a few mishaps, after all? Over the entirety of our trip we were scammed by authorities at the Zimbabwe border, threatened with arrest twice (once by our own rental company that we paid a lot of money to), nearly lost the back roof+tent, and had one slightly terrifying encounter with a deadly animal (next post). Fortunately the truck itself was reliable and had no qualms with the very bumpy, sandy, and muddy roads we covered. Our brains may have been bruised and our teeth jarred loose but the truck ate it up. We did deal with some moderate inconveniences including a leaky radiator (I added 7 liters over our trip, half the coolant capacity!) and a very punctured tire (conveniently went flat as we pulled into a campsite). Our most interesting problem, however, was an aluminum fatigue failure. I really don’t like fatigue: with a bike it’s cost me a broken collarbone, and over my engineering career it’s brought plenty of headaches and near-misses. Now halfway through our trip it decided to pop up and hassle me again.

We were in northern Botswana heading south through Chobe National Park on the longest and roughest day of driving. The morning had been quite interesting – we had started very early and as we jostled our way down a rough sandy track were rewarded by a group of African wild dogs. Dad and six pups, loping along with an eye on us but not too concerned, carrying on down the road a ways while we followed them. This was wicked special because these beautiful animals are endangered – there are fewer than 800 in all of Botswana and here were seven of them.

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unfortunately the light was still low enough that we couldn’t get great photos, but here they are!

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A little later on we were sailing along over deep ruts of sand – you have to keep up your speed or you quickly bog down, the sand really sucks at the tires (and fuel economy). Suddenly out of the brush dead ahead burst a 1-ton eland bull. Elaine and I both experienced a slow-mo moment as we got our first and extremely close look at this huge yet graceful animal, the largest of the antelope and also rather rare. With another leap that belied its mass it cleared the road into the brush on the other side, followed by several somewhat smaller cows. Needless to say we didn’t catch any photos of that encounter, though the image is burned quite clearly into my memory.

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here’s what central Chobe National Park looks like – quite different from the riverside

But anyway – the fatigue problem. After our eventful morning we bounced our way into and down through Chobe (the center of which was rather drab and uninteresting and very sandy – we had hoped to find some cheetah or lion here but no luck). At our lunch stop Elaine noticed, to our surprise, that the cargo cover over the truck bed – to which the rooftop tent is mounted – had completely cracked off of the support rear pillars. Not surprisingly the front mounts were also starting to crack what with the whole tent + roof now flapping around. Yikes! A side effect of this problem was that gaps opened up in the cargo area and now everything was coated in a layer of Kalahari sand.

Seeing the broken frame it was totally obvious that this thin aluminum wasn’t meant to take the weight of the tent shifting back and forth over thousands of bumpy kilometers. (The mechanic we later visited made the same assessment.) It was also obvious that our particular frame had seen a lot of use and had been (inadequately) patched in these weak spots at the welds. This was the second moment where I figured there was a good chance we weren’t going to complete our trip. Had we not noticed when we did it’s clear that not a whole lot further down the road – or perhaps on a highway – we would have lost the entire top assembly. What an event that would have been. It was fortunate that we were equipped with ratchet straps and looping one over the roof actually did a great job at holding the broken joints back together. Somewhat relieved but still unsure if we’d make it back to South Africa, we hobbled onward.

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unrelated to the story: hippos

Once we reached Maun – mid-Botswana, back on the grid – we got in touch with our semi-responsive rental company and they pointed us to a Midas that we were luckily near. They’ll sort you out quickly, we were assured, you’ll be out in 40 minutes. Yeah right, I thought, it’s a bit more an an extensive problem than that, had to be at least half a day to do anything meaningful. Well it turned out to be somewhere in between – the locals we worked with were really helpful and within a couple hours they had patched on some welds to help keep things together, though they recommended we keep the ratchet strap on. Good idea – the temporary fix couldn’t be as strong as the original and within a couple days it was also cracked. Happily, though, this story ends here – the vehicle made it back to Johannesburg intact, thank you ratchet strap! We were lucky – this could have been much worse.


From the vibrant and busy Chobe River we had driven south through Kalahari desert sands (which cover something like 85% of this France-sized country) out of Chobe National Park and onto the fringes of the huge Okavango Delta. Our next campsite next to Moremi Game Reserve thus brought us a whole new set of scenery: wetlands! Even though it wasn’t quite the rainy season yet this area is perpetually green and quite scenic.

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We had a ball here staying in our beautiful remote campsite and driving around through mud looking for interesting animals. Plenty of hippos of course, and lots of various antelope and the ever-present elephants. As always we hoped to spot some cats – our camp neighbors said there were many leopards around and they had also seen a pride of lions. Our first morning game drive, however, didn’t bring us either.

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usually hippos spend all day in the water and only come out at night to graze, so seeing them wander around is fun. They can move quite quickly if they want to!

Mid-day we were relaxing at camp intending to try our luck again later on when a guide from a nearby group wandered over and told us they had just seen the pride and where we might find them. Excited, we quickly packed up and headed over with our fingers crossed. And right where he said they would be – 15 lions! A big male, five adult females, and nine cubs – five of which were quite young.

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napping kitty pile

For four hours or so we watched the pride do their thing and for much of that time we were the only spectators. We took well over 300 photos with our front-row seats! It turns out lions are just as lazy as their smaller feline counterparts and so a lot of activity was just lounging. The cubs, however, were bursting with energy and it was almost nonstop play for them. Chasing each other, wrestling over sticks, ambushing the patient moms, and playing king of the mountain on a termite hill.

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A heavy rain squall passed through at one point, forcing most of the pride to huddle under a small bush – also like smaller cats, the lions didn’t seem too keen on getting wet. But the cubs were soon back to play, quickly getting dirty and later licked clean by the parents. We also watched a solo elephant wander into the scene and almost right up to a lioness before it noticed – both the elephant and the lion jumped and headed in opposite directions as quickly as dignity would allow.

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We eventually headed off around dinnertime, by which point a flock of guided game vehicles had joined in on the spectacle. We were thrilled to have had the pride all to ourselves for so long with the endlessly entertaining play of the cubs. What an amazing experience! Before we departed the area the next morning we took another game drive and found the family again a kilometer or so away, this time deeper under brush cover and chewing on a fresh waterbuck kill. Awesome! This area of Botswana became one of our favorites – we’d like to come back here someday.

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The next and last safari post brings us back into the Kalahari desert before wrapping up and heading back into South Africa.

 

Caution: Potholes, Elephants, and Traffic Cops (safari pt. 2)

We left off at our wonderful cheetah sighting which was towards the north (and near the end of our visit) of Kruger National Park in South Africa. From there we stayed at a couple more camps including Punda Maria which has a busy waterhole right outside the campground fence. (Unlike many of the camps in Botswana, SANParks campgrounds are generally fenced in and gated at night.) With this waterhole we got great views of birds during the day, and at evening and night, many passing groups of elephants.

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an African fish eagle – both common and quite beautiful

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after drinking their fill, animals of all sizes are happy and playful. These elephants were having fun jousting and the sound of their tusks colliding was intense.

After our glorious days in Kruger it was time to head to our next park before crossing the border in Botswana. We enjoyed a great view of one of my favorite birds of the trip, a black-shouldered kite, as we exited Kruger and ventured back into the world of grocery stores and gas stations. We happily drove along compiling our grocery list when lo and behold there comes a road block with the dreaded “Traffic Enforcement”. Well versed in the corrupt ways of “the force” by now, we obligingly pulled over as instructed and since we were doing nothing wrong expected to be sent on our way. An officer (if you are being generous) asked for Gregor’s license and then proceeded to walk around and inspect our vehicle. She looked at the registration sticker on the windshield and then the license plate and then came back to the window.

Traffic Cop: “Your license plate does not match the registration.”

Gregor: “This is a rental, these are the papers they gave us.”

TC: “These should match, come out here, let me show you.”

[Gregor exits the truck as I sit and fume. He confirms that the registration number indeed does not match the license plate. Really?? He gets back in the car.]

G: “Let me call the rental company.”

TC: “This is a violation, we cannot let you go.”

[Another traffic cop comes over to see what the issue is and is filled in by his fellow officer.]

Other Dude: “This is a crime. We are arresting you! We are taking you to jail.”

*I know what you’re thinking, I’m making this up. I swear this cop used those exact words. I know because shit got very real in my head at that moment as I pictured what South African jail might look like (although I did just finish Trevor Noah’s book and it wasn’t sooo bad) but the moment someone says “We are arresting you” especially in a foreign country, you kind of assume the worst. As blood flooded up my spine I thought, ‘well, maybe they just mean Gregor’ just kidding, just kidding, I would totally go to jail with you babe.

Now, with our crappy phone signal and sim card that apparently doesn’t allow us to make calls, we try to call the rental company using WhatsApp. By some Christmas miracle, Gregor gets connected.

G: “Hey, we rented a 4×4 from you guys and we’re pulled over now with traffic enforcement and they’re saying our license plate doesn’t match the registration.”

4×4 Guy: “Huh. Well that’s a weird one. Let me talk to the officer.”

5 minutes and 3 dropped calls later the officer hands the phone back to us and Gregor continues to chat with the 4×4 rental guy.

[Chat with 4×4 via WhatsApp]

G: So what’s the plan?

4×4: Do you have R500 cash on you?

G: No, only 400

4×4: I paid him 500. Could you add R400 and will give you the cash back. Cannot transfer more than R500. We will meet you tomorrow with new number plates. They will let you go in 5-10 minutes.

So with the traffic cops paid off somehow, all we had to do was sit there for 10 minutes (presumably while the money got confirmed in his account) and then were waved on our way. Obviously this whole situation is ridiculous and never should have happened, but apparently vehicle ownership in South Africa is exceedingly complex. The next day someone from the company drove up to us (5 hours each way) with new plates and papers. The 4×4 employee gave us some story of the plate numbers being changed but no one told them. They had to get the plates made overnight and they ended up being too long for the rear plate holder. The 4×4 guy asked us if he could remove the trailer hitch, which was no problem because we weren’t towing anything. The whole process took about half an hour so not too bad except for almost being arrested I guess.

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at Mapungubwe! Giraffe, along with warthogs, are the most comical animals we saw. Often it’s just a neck and head sticking over the trees tracking you intently. Seeing them run is both impressive and amusing, as is getting a drink of water.

This brought us to Mapungubwe National Park on the border with Botswana and Zimbabwe, and boy can we say we were happy to be off of regular roads and back to driving around in the reserve. They really are two wholly different worlds. Unlike Kruger which was mostly flat, Mapungubwe is dramatically rocky and varied. We didn’t see any big stuff here but we enjoyed a nice morning walk (with a rifle-toting guide), spotting some fun smaller critters (a family of curious banded mongoose and a shy aardwolf among them) and doing our first real 4×4 driving of the trip.

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a group of wildebeest spot us on our walk
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baobab trees are awesome

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We spent two nights in Mapungubwe and then it was across the border into Botswana, which thankfully went very smoothly! (This would have been a different story if the license plate issue hadn’t already been discovered). Roads immediately turned from smooth pavement to rough sand and gravel, which would be the case for most of Botswana. Some roads are paved but these often have killer potholes. We had a beautiful afternoon and evening in the Tuli Wilderness under a huge nyalatree along the mostly dry Limpopo River.

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crossing the border over the Limpopo River

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an elephant track in the riverbed near our campsite. The host told us it was fine to wander around in the sandy riverbed until around 5pm when the elephants start moving through. We went down for a little while – nervously. Later, for sure, the elephants were crashing around – we had a small family come right next to our truck sometime in the night.

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delicious wood-fired chicken curry dinner in the works

Botswana charmed us in a way that South Africa failed to do. We slowly discovered how easygoing and friendly it is as we made our way north towards the Chobe River. The roads may be terrible but not being hassled sure goes a long way! As we drove north we spent a night at a place called Elephant Sands, an unfenced campground situated around a busy elephant waterhole. It’s a popular place and certainly gets you up close to these awesome animals.

 

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hornbills (or Zazu, if you prefer) are everywhere and are both cute and hilarious as well as occasionally obnoxious (this one is about to pull at the windshield wipers).
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yes, African sunsets really are all awesome
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breakfast. Eating well while camping rocks – thanks Elaine!

Driving further we reached our northernmost destination of Kasane, a town outside of the upper section of Chobe National Park. It’s also a popular place as a guided safari destination by being very accessible and having a high concentration of game along the river. We were here both to visit the park (and later drive down through it to the more remote sections) as well as to pop over into Zimbabwe to visit nearby Victoria Falls.

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a friendly family of banded mongoose were hanging out on the camp grounds and making all sorts of cute cooing and churring sounds

At Kasane we parked our truck and joined an evening boat tour along the river. We saw huge numbers of buffalo massed along the waterfront grasses along with elephants, zeebra, hippos, lounging nile crocodiles, and a vast array of birds. The boat trip closed with a phenomenal sunset across the water as flocks of sacred ibis flew overhead. This was the most ‘mainstream’ thing we did on our trip and we were definitely the youngest tourists on a big boat packed with retirees, but we enjoyed it anyway – sure was nice to be out of the car seat for a little while!

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the lush Chobe River is the first substantial water we saw on our trip
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waterbuck

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an endangered African Skimmer – one of those highly adapted, bizarrely proportioned birds

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Our next day’s plan would bring us into Zimbabwe to see the fabled Victoria Falls. We hoped that Zimbabwe was as easy and friendly as Botswana had been so far…

On Safari – Now We Live in a Van down by the River…

South Africa is a country that had been on our radar for a while. Unfortunately it’s not the easiest to stumble over while wandering around the world so we had been keeping an eye on where it might make sense to fly from. It turns out it really isn’t cheap from anywhere, so we decided that we might as well head there from Nepal.

We flew through Mumbai (interesting) and the Seychelles. We spent a few days at the latter – silly not to, right? – and it’s as beautiful as advertised. It was lovely and relaxing and we got some diving in as well. Then we arrived in Johannesburg to begin what we had haphazardly planned a month or so ago while on the road: a 25 day self-drive safari.

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Beau Vallon beach on Mahe is one of the most perfect we’ve seen
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Elaine exploring for octopus and eagle rays
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every evening on the Seychelles is the same… you think they could change it up

The basic idea for safari is you rent an equipped 4×4 and travel around through game preserves and parks across southern Africa, camping as you go. It sounds like normally one plans this well in advance (a year or more) but we preferred the idea of it so much to the alternatives that we winged it with fingers crossed. Now with an itinerary in place but really no idea of how the nuts and bolts of safari travel worked we were in South Africa and ready to roll.

Hand on hip and fingers tapping we waited for the 9AM arrival of our 4×4. We were momentarily pacified by the yard where we stayed the night before. A home converted to rooms run by a retired couple with lovely roses and birdhouses to keep us entertained and speculating during the wait. These weavers make elaborate nests, so elaborate in fact that Gregor and I had a bet where the stakes were dish duty for a week (not a small bet when camping for 25 days) that they were man made or bird made nests. Being perfectly crafted I figured the hosts of our place put them there to attract birds, but come to find out (yes, I have washed a lot of dishes) the males make the nest and the females come and inspect the nest and then proceed to tear it down multiple times and require the male to build a new nest (about 9 times) before they are happy enough to make bird babies. I guess dish duty is not so bad…

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taken later: one of many types of weaver birds and some half-finished nests

So our 4×4 rolls in an hour late and we’re a little stressed becuase we have a 5-6 hour drive to our campsite and also need to get groceries, and when it arrives we find out it’s missing some key components (like the fridge and stove and propane tank!) so we need to get these essential items before we get going. Rather than wait for someone to deliver these items to us, we go to the rental place and get them ourselves. While we were there we met a couple from the Netherlands who had rented from this company 6 times previously and said the 4×4 company had been getting progressively worse. Why they chose to rent with them again we do not know as the last time they had to have major service done to the vehicle and were not reimbursed. Perhaps that is just how it is with these companies, though we hope not…

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a little later down the road in Kruger NP

In any case we somewhat-promptly got our minor glitches ironed out and then it was time to depart. We headed to a close by grocery store and did the Supermarket Sweep of shopping trips and hurled ourselves into the truck around 1PM. The gates at Kruger National Park close promply at 6PM and you need special permission to enter after that time so we were kind of concerned we weren’t going to make it to our campsite that we had already booked. Around 5:30 we gave up on getting to the park and found a campsite not too far away from the park to stay for the night. We were about 10 minutes away from the camp when we were flagged down by traffic enforcement and directed to the side of the road. Gregor was driving and handed over his license.

Traffic Cop: “You can’t cross the white line! That is against the law, we will issue a fine of 2,000 Rand but if you need a receipt we have to take you to the police station to pay.”

Gregor: “Can I see your badge?”

TC: “This is my badge.” [Points to reflective vest that reads TRAFFIC ENFORCEMENT]

G: “That’s not a badge, I can buy that for $5.”

TC: “I am a Policeman! See! I wrote all these tickets today! [Shows us pad of paper with what appear to be carbon copies of paid violations]

G: “That doesn’t really prove anything. You don’t have an ID?”

TC: [To another car, arms flailing] “You pull over!” [Car continues past him] “You can’t drive like that in South Africa!”

G: “So I guess we should have kept going and not pulled over?”

TC: “You can go now, but no crossing the white line.”

G: “OK.”

That was our first introduction to South African police and while I’m sure there are many upstanding officers, the traffic cops are notoriously corrupt.

When we finally arrived at our campsite after a pretty weird first day we were met by a laid-back man who gave me some really helpful information about getting into the park the next day and settled into our campsite to explore how our rooftop tent operated and grill some chicken. (I have become somewhat obsessed with chicken having been denied it so often in Nepal.) Everything went fine thanks to South African wine which is both very cheap and very delicious, wahoo! This is the first time in our travels of 5+ months that we have had access to decent wine 🙂

Our campsite host suggested we get an early start, so we set an alarm for when we thought sunrise would be (6AM) and the next morning were surprised to find out that pretty much everyone had packed up and gone by 6:30! Ah well, first day, we will surely get the hang of this by day 25!

“Something magical happens when you pass through the gates of Kruger,” our camp host said to me the night before. Sure enough, once we checked in at the gate and drove on through it wasn’t five minutes before: giraffe! Elephants! Buffalo! What are those? Quick, check our mammal book! Impala? Wow, take a picture, drive closer!

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along with the big guys, one of our first fun sightings were the regal Kudu
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on safari.
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This is Kruger National Park on a cloudy day – vulture nests in the foreground
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Impala are everywhere so it’s easy to forget they’re quite beautiful

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it’s not always the big animals that are fun to see…
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our first of many elephants, and many adorable elephant calves

Totally amazed by the variety and abundance of wildlife we rolled into our first campsite in the park, Skukuza and were amazed to find very nice campsites with power hookups, nice bathrooms with hot water and kitchens with burners and boiling water on demand. We quickly realized that South Africans do not mess around when it comes to this camping thing. Most everyone was outfitted with tow campers complete with welcome mats, accent lights, semi-inflatable camp chairs, tents for shade and pretty much everything else you can think of. They also take it to the next level with the braii, their word for BBQ and even our 4×4 came with a braii grate and a recipe book. The grocery stores are about half meat and the other half is stocked with rubs and sauces. Even the combination gift shop / essentials store in the park had Kudu steaks and Impala jerky. It’s only a little weird to be munching on some wildebeast jerky while watching a herd of them head to the watering hole.

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at lunch with a former African buffalo (left) and kudu (right)
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elephants are one of the most interesting animals to watch. In this case, they’re going after the roots of trees they’ve felled, using their tusks and trunk to get the bits they want.

 

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climbing back down from the campground water tower that we stole up to see the sunset…

I’m sure I had some vision in my head of what this trip was going to be like, but I can’t seem to remember it now. Whatever my ideas were I am sure that this experience was the best-case scenario. We like camping, but 25 days is kind of a stretch, especially if something like the bed happened to be particularly unpleasant. Writing this at the end of the trip I can safely say this was one of the most amazing and enjoyable experiences ever!

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watching an elephant family cavort across a (mostly) dry riverbed

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mom and little baby

Our best day at Kruger came as a surprise. The previous couple days we had risen early to get the best chance of seeing predators (they understandably like the cooler morning and evening hours to be out and about). This hadn’t panned out – though we had come close to seeing a large pride of lions, they were chased off by a group of elephants (as described enthusiastically by the cars in front of us): we arrived in time to see the elephants in an unusual hurry going the other way. Bummer! Our fourth day in we decided to take it easy, sleep in, and leisurely make our way north towards our next campsite. So of course that would be the morning we would find our first cat: a lioness lounging in the sun probably 20m from the road.

She wasn’t terribly close but we got a nice view through binoculars. Unlike zoo lions one sees, this cat was lean: all muscle, not round and furry. We watched her lounge around for an hour or two before she retired to the shade. We were psyched – our luck hadn’t been great and we were worried about seeing any cats at all. So we carried on happily, reaching a nice picnic spot where I commented that the only thing that might prevent us from reaching our next camp in an hour or so would be if we found a cheetah and cubs. Guess what!

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this is a cheetah
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and these are two of her cubs

Despite the fact that the six cheetahs were right next to the road – a few meters away – we couldn’t see what the other stopped vehicles were looking at. Is it that bird over there? Then we caught the flick of a tail, and some more movement – not only a gorgeous cheetah, but a big litter of five cubs all gnawing on a recently caught impala. It’s hard to explain how amazing it was to watch the cubs and mother interact over the hours we watched them. They went from sleepy to playful to hungry to observant while mom patiently watched, only occasionally glancing at the wall of onlooking vehicles.

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mom on the right and cubs (with impala) on the left
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napping with mom

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Finally the family wandered off into the bush, leaving the impala remains to the scavengers. We carried on as well, excited and awed by our sighting. We were only a few days into a nearly month-long safari – what did the future have in store for us?