Beautiful South Africa

Today marks three months on the ship, and it’s hard to believe that we are already approaching the halfway mark through our contract.  By the way, new update: we are leaving the ship a few weeks early, now our end date is May 21st in Athens, Greece. For the last month now, our ship has been frequenting the ports of South Africa.  We return to Cape Town for the last time on Monday, and then we will continue on up the west coast of Africa, stopping in Namibia, Ghana, Senegal, Cape Verde and ending that cruise in the Canary Islands.  The following cruise will lead us in to the highly anticipated stretch of our contract in the Mediterranean Sea!

Just to remark a bit on South Africa – I really love it here.  True, the ports have not been fantastic, and the shuttle buses provided by the ship take us to… shopping malls… but the countryside is absolutely gorgeous and the people are very friendly.  For instance, in the port of Richards Bay, we found a great little restaurant in the mall, and when I returned a second time (20 days later), my waitress commented on my hair color (I had just re-dyed it) and said it was great to see me again!  More than a few people have stopped me in the mall and asked me where I’m from upon hearing my accent, and have responded with the question, “Why are you visiting South Africa?”  I don’t want to write too much on this topic because I feel I am ill informed, but I’ve noticed that a lot of people living here very much love their country, but are absolutely heartsick with the state of affairs.  The people I have talked to seem almost apologetic, yet are clearly proud of their beautiful country and the progress that has been made in the last couple decades.  Healing takes time, and this country has such fantastic potential for positive change.  The raw elements of success are prevalent in this beautiful land – new industries are developing and quickly booming, and a younger generation of South Africans seems to want positive change and new direction.  But the sad reality is a corrupt government and a raw, violent environment.  I very much hope to learn more about this beautiful place, and to hopefully return at some point to revisit some of the amazing sights I’ve seen.  And I do hope that the state of affairs is improved and that the morale of this country is lifted.

On that note, I’d like to share some notes of some of the highlights of my traveling through South Africa.  I have been lucky enough to accompany guests on more than a few nature tours and so I just might contribute an actual travel-themed blog this afternoon!

iSimangaliso Wetland Park, St Lucia, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

I had the pleasure of escorting a group of our guests on a two-hour boat ride through Lake St. Lucia to view crocodiles and hippopotamus. Hippopotami?  I don’t know the plural version – but damn, we saw a lot of them.  My first mistake upon boarding our flat bottom boat was swatting away a huge ‘hippo fly’ and then deciding to pull out my bug spray and start going to town on my legs and arms.  Our skipper FREAKED out, screaming, “That is absolutely the WORST thing you could do!  What are you doing?!”  The astonishment on my face was probably photo-worthy.  Sorry skip, I didn’t mean to scare away the wildlife.  He claimed that the bug spray actually attracts the flies, so a word from the wise: don’t bust out the Off! on one of these boat rides.  Instead, the skipper’s assistant handed out floppy leather fly swatters to kill those pesky insects.  In all honestly, once we got moving, the flies weren’t a problem at all.  So anyhow… the tour of the lake was great.  Very relaxing, quiet, peaceful – a nice change from some of the other game drives in the area if one is looking for something to contrast a bouncy 4×4 drive.  We saw several groups of hippo, though they were sleeping in the water (they only come out of the water at night) and so they were at times hard to spot.  We saw only one crocodile, a little baby one, and loads of birds.  It was a nice time – though I couldn’t help but giggle when I thought about the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland… “When they wiggle their ears, they might attack!”  That was for you, Travis and Kyle.

The Hippos at St. Lucia

TALA Private Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

This was my favorite game drive in South Africa.  Yes, it’s privately owned, so of course they can be selective in what animals they have and how they run things, but… wow.  We saw scores of zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, antelope, rhino, kudu, hippo, warthogs, ostrich and birds and abundant, gorgeous plant life.  The scenery alone could have been sufficient for an enjoyable drive.  The scents of wild sage, aloe and euphorbia filled the air and the weather could not have been more perfect for our day.  The highlight for me was seeing so many baby animals!  We were blessed to see a one-week old zebra, dozens of baby wildebeest, giraffes, zebra, ostrich and warthogs.  Warthogs and wildebeest are ridiculously ugly, but those little ones are simply gorgeous!  I was just a little disappointed that we saw Pumba, but not Timon.  Everything must relate back to Disney, yeah?  The animals in Tala were less afraid of the presence of our vehicle, which could possibly be related to the fact there are very little predators in this reserve.  It was startling to see how close we came to the rhino and giraffe, who just looked curiously through sleepy eyes at our snapping cameras.  I was having a good time describing how delicious ostrich meat is to some of the others in my vehicle (all of whom were from New York) – and really hit a nerve with one of the ladies when we saw three baby ostrich and I said, “Mmm… I love sliders.”  I concluded the drive by buying some ostrich jerky from the gift shop – mmm.

Giraffe at Tala
Mama Zebra and one-week old baby
Zebra in front of a backdrop of waterlilies
White Rhino
These guys make the tastiest burgers.... 😉

Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Hluhluwe-Umfolozi was absolutely gorgeous.  First of all, it feels like an accomplishment to even try to say the damn name (sounds something like “shlooshlooee-oomfolozi”).  Our morning started off a little rough as our bus lacked an air-conditioner, so we instead waited about thirty minutes for a new bus to arrive.  Isn’t it funny when you are wearing an official looking shirt and a nametag – you suddenly become the ‘person in charge,’ responsible for all unfortunate circumstances? More on that later… So anyhow, we arrived to Hluhluwe-Umfolozi after a 90-minute drive from our port at Richards Bay, and quickly loaded into the 4×4’s for our first game drive of three hours.  I was angry with myself for having a too-late night (no, not drinking… reading) and I found myself with weary eyes and low blood sugar after only two hours.  The scenery was fantastic, and I of course began to make mental comparisons [for the umpteenth time] between South Africa and California. There were moments on the drive when I truly felt I was driving through parts of California.  And though the flora and fauna is completely different, from a distance, everything looks the same.  Rolling hills with greenery, shrubs, small trees, bright soil and endless horizons.  And if you think about it, so much could be distantly related: lions vs. mountain lions, warthogs vs. wild boar, kudu and antelope vs. deer, black mambas vs. rattlesnakes… the destructive and all consuming, wildly aggressive black rhino and… Lindsay Lohan.  You get the idea.  But really, this park and so many other settings throughout South Africa have reminded me of my home state.  Hot guys, surfing and corrupt politics!  Wait; let’s really get Dan Brown on this… S-O-U-T-H-A-F-R-I-C-A could almost be re-arranged into C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A… just reshape the U into an L and the T into an N, and use the I twice… and you got it!  (Side note: I just finished “The Lost Symbol” last night.  How trashily awesome are those books?)  Anyhow, our two drives through Hluhluwe-Umfolozi (three hours in the morning and two hours after lunch) were really great.  Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and was able to track us in to see a huge family of elephants crossing through our path and then bathing.  There was even a tiny little guy, probably just a few months old, who couldn’t quite get a hold of managing his trunk and was wobbling around and running.  So cute.  Have I mentioned that I am obsessed with baby animals?  Between the two drives we had a spectacular buffet at the Hilltop Restaurant in the park, featuring some great African salads and curries.  And after a much-needed Red Bull and coffee, I was much more alive for the second game drive!  So all in all, a great day.  But how best to finish things off?  How about getting stuck on the bus for an extra 25 minutes after we arrived at the ship, because the door wouldn’t open?  It eventually took seven guys with three crowbars to pry it open.  And of course people were staring me down, telling me they wanted refunds, angry they were missing cocktail hour.  Again: I am just a soprano.  Please come to my shows.  Do you need a Band-Aid or a hand sanitizer wipe?  That is my purpose as an escort!  Yes, the ending of the day was a let down, but the drives were wonderful, the scenery spectacular, the animals captivating, and the food terrific. My only regret was that we didn’t have a sunrise tour, during which we might have had a chance seeing the cat population here: lion, leopard and cheetah.  Oh well!

View from the Hilltop Restaurant
Giraffe in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi
Hungry hungry warthogs
Elephant family playing in the water
Baby elephant!
Zebra and Buffalo enjoying the afternoon

Addo Elephant National Park, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Have you seen the flightless dung beetle?  If so, you’ve probably visited Addo.  Have you ever seen anyone stick a flightless dung beetle in his or her mouth?  If so, you have met Ryan.  So one thing that comes with a large population of elephant is a large amount of elephant dung, which is managed by these little creatures.  Our group visited Addo just after a good amount of rain had hit Port Elizabeth and the surrounding areas, so according to our guide (Ryan), the elephants were hiding in the bush.  And this “bush,” by the way, is enormously effective at hiding the elephant, the largest animal of “The Big Five” (elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, lion and leopard).  Addo Park, by the way, is the only park in the world to house the so-called “Big 7” (Big Five plus the whale and great white shark) in their natural habitat.  As expected, we were not lucky enough to see any cats on our game drive, but we saw LOADS of dung beetles and tortoises!  Our guide corralled us around the park in search of elephants in the open, but traversing around a 630 square mile park looking for some of their over 400 elephants is a little difficult!  We finally hit the jackpot when we came across a family of elephants crossing the road, including the biggest bull in the park, “John,” which was an exciting sight to see.  Our guide actually snapped at everyone to be absolutely quiet when we saw John, because he had apparently attacked a vehicle just the previous day.  We happily walked away unscathed, thrilled to have seen these beautiful creatures.  One last thing worth mentioning: the Addo Park has an excellent curio shop!  Normally, I can’t stand these touristy shops with the same ‘artisan crafts’ as the next vendor, but I actually found some great things in this store.  I ended up buying a hand-embroidered pillowcase, which was made as a part of the Kaross Workers Project from the Letsitele District of the Limpopo province, which has over 700 embroiders that work from home to create these hand-crafted arts and return them for payment.  Mine is even embroidered with the signature of its creator, a woman named Selina.

Elephant crossing!
That's "John" in the back
View of Addo Park
My new pillowcase!

Table Mountain National Park, Western Cape, South Africa

I can’t say too much about this park as I feel there is still much for me to explore – but I did have the great fortune to hike to the top of Lion’s Head Mountain with Peter, Krystle and two guests from the ship.  I mentioned this in my previous post.  To date, this hike was the absolute highlight of my travels with the ship.  It was a simple taxi ride to the trail head, and then about 45-60 minutes to hike up to the tip-top.  We had the most beautiful view of Cape Town and Table Mountain, and it was a lovely workout to start our morning.  I have read a bit about some of the other hiking opportunities throughout Table Mountain Park, and it absolutely seems like the kind of place I’d love to come back to visit and try some more adventuring. The Hoerikwaggo Trails are four hiking trails on Table Mountain ranging from two to six days, and you can even abseil off the top of Table Mountain.  Not for the faint of heart – and definitely something I’d love to try eventually.  Check out my video from the top of Lion’s Head:

South Africa is a beautiful place.  I feel so lucky to have visited these amazing parks and seen some splendid sights.  I wonder when I will come back?