Looking Back – April 2011

9 04 2012

Exactly one year ago, Joe and I were in South Africa experiencing the best trip of our lives.  Perhaps it was influenced by the 3 months of hell we experienced prior (robbery after robbery followed by months of homelessness and frustration) but this trip made our move to Gabon seem worthwhile as I’m not sure we would have ever done it had we not moved to Africa.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our time in Africa as we know it will inevitably come to an end and while it has been filled with many highs and lows, I only wish we had more time to travel.  Our safari one year ago has left me yearning for more and once we leave Africa, I’m not sure we’ll be back.  I often think back on it and realise how lucky we are to have experienced something so amazing.

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Why You NEED to Visit South Africa

20 01 2012

Every time Joe and I visit South Africa, we fall more and more in love with it.  (Read about it here, here, here & here.)  Yes, it certainly has it’s issues and I know there would be downfalls to living there full time however, it is a fabulous place to visit and this is why…

  1. Kruger Park.  One of the most famous safari destinations in the world and it does not disappoint.  If you want the Africa experience that you see in the movies, this is the place to go.  Animals are abundant as are safari lodges ranging from rustic to ultra luxurious.
  2.  The People.  From our experiences, South Africans are so kind and welcoming.  They have had such a vibrant and at times, terrible history but their resilience is inspiring.
  3. There is something for everybody.  Obviously, the animal lover will be in paradise but there’s the wine country to drive through, the posh city life in Cape Town, cage diving with sharks for the adventurers, you can see life in townships first hand and learn about South Africa’s rich and turbulent history.
  4. It’s Beautiful.  The Cape of Good Hope and up the coastline, Table Mountain, beautiful beaches, wine country and many more sites to take your breath away.
  5. The Food.  Delicious.  Fabulous meat, fantastic home grown produce and more restaurants than you could ever want.  To top it all off, it’s not that expensive!  Joe & I constantly revel at the bill wondering how we got all that great food for such a good price.
  6. VAT Refund.  In South Africa if you are a tourist you get all tax money back from your purchases.  Save your receipts and research how it works (it is a bit of a process and you must prepare ahead of time) but you get money back in your pocket at the airport when you leave the country.  Seriously, who else does that?

I know it’s a bit of a trek for those of you residing in North America but I promise you, you will not be disappointed.  Save your money, book your trip, and if you feel so inclined, invite us!





Jo-burg

14 01 2012

After Mauritius we decided to stay in Johannesburg, South Africa for a few days to enjoy city life and stock up on anything we needed in Gabon.  We’ve been through the airport in Jo-burg more times than I can remember but had never actually ventured into the city.  You see, out of anywhere in SA, Johannesburg seems to have the worst reputation and it isn’t much of a tourist destination.  People are much more likely to head off to Cape Town, on safari to Kruger or even up to Durban.  Regardless, we didn’t want to have to buy another flight to Cape Town just to shop.

We researched the safest and most convenient areas ahead of time as Johannesburg certainly isn’t a place where you want to wander around blindly.  We settled on Rosebank which worked out perfectly as we easily got there using the Guatrain, a clean & safe high speed train that goes right to the airport.  Rosebank is home to a few nice hotels, a shopping mall and many restaurants so it was really easy for us to do all that we needed to do.  We did venture to Melrose and Sandton, both similar to Rosebank but because of our short time there and our big shopping lists, we didn’t do much else.  I had really hoped to get to the apartheid museum but we ran out of time.

Hanging with Mr Mandela at Sandton

Calgary has cows, Johannesburg has rhinos

Yummy breakfast at Tasha's Cafe every morning

Look at all the fresh fruit - I was in heaven!

We did have a really nice time in Johannesburg and while I originally thought 3 days would be too much, I actually wished we had a bit more time.  As I said before, I would have really liked to visit the Apartheid Museum and others recommended a township tour.  Maybe next time.

A note about security…

Joe and I didn’t feel particularly unsafe but we didn’t feel particularly comfortable either.  We were fairly cautious about everything we did.  I’m quite happy we had so many restaurants at our disposal in Rosebank because I wouldn’t have wanted to wander very far at night.  Joe asked his 20-something hairdresser about security and she cautioned that even in the nice areas, it’s not safe to go anywhere alone at night, not even to your car.  (Especially as a woman.)  It’s not a city you can walk around and explore because you don’t want to risk wandering into the wrong neighbourhood.  That being said, we checked with the hotel ahead of time before venturing out and had no problems.  Like we’d already experienced in SA, the people are nice and welcoming and we really did enjoy our stay.





A Small Rant

5 08 2011

I received a piece of mail yesterday and it sparked a frustration that has been burrowing inside me (and Joe) and I’d love to get it off my chest.

Africa is a continent and it is HUGE!  It is the second largest continent with the second largest population (behind Asia.)  It has 54 countries – 54, that’s a lot – and it’s home to over 1 BILLION people.

Simple lesson here: Africa ≠ South Africa

South Africa is 1 out of 54 countries on the continent of Africa.  So when I say I live in Africa, it does not mean I live in South Africa.  (You would be surprised how often we get that response!)  Should be fairly simple however, even some major organisations have had troubles with this concept.

1.  Royal Bank of Canada addressed a piece of mail to me as

Jay St John
BP ****
Port Gentil, Gabon, South Africa

RBC – you should be ashamed.

And even worse…

2.  The IRS (Yes, the Internal Revenue Service of the USA)

did the exact same thing on mail addressed to Joe.

Now that is embarassing.

Ahhh  – I feel much better.  Thank you for indulging me.





We (heart) Cape Town

28 04 2011

Like I had previously mentioned, before moving to Africa, Joe and I had no plans nor desire to travel to South Africa.  SA has a pretty bad rap and I suppose rightly so.  If you look at the numbers, the crime rate is huge.  From what I gather, Johannesburg is a pretty rough city and even some locals cautioned us about going there (we didn’t) because of the violent crime.  One of our hosts in Cape Town explained that there is still quite a bit of crime but it is mostly gang-related and seems to stay in certain areas.  However, even in the nicest of areas, you do get a feeling that all is not perfect as houses are laced with razor wire and signs of armed response are seen on every gate.

Before I scare you, and perhaps Joe and I are a bit more immune to this sort of stuff now, we had absolutely no problems in Cape Town and we felt perfectly safe at all times.  Our hotel was on the edge of the city centre and we were able to walk short distances at night without a worry.  We were never hassled by anyone nor did we ever feel uneasy about where we were.

After having such a great experience at Kapama Karula, we both wondered how Cape Town and our next accommodation would measure up.  Often times when travelling, Joe and I try to book into smaller, boutique style hotels as they always seem more personal and are often just as nice, if not nicer, than many of the large scale hotels.  Cape Town is plum full of these and the decision was difficult but I ended up with “Rouge on Rose” which is owned and managed by a mother-son team, Ursula and Michel.  I think they may have been English (they didn’t have the South African accent) but Ursula did mention that they’ve been in SA for over 20 years.

Our room at the "Rouge on Rose."

This hotel was by far, one of the best we’ve stayed in and mostly due to Ursula and Michel.  They were the perfect hosts and from the moment we entered, we felt like family.  We were greeted with a bottle of champagne in our room (honeymooners!) and Michel right away recommended a German pub in the basement of a church for a casual bite to eat on our first night.  Joe was in love!  They didn’t hesitate to do whatever we wanted or needed from reserving us a table for dinner to renting us a car to personally drawing up maps for us.  I cannot speak enough about them or their hotel but it certainly was fabulous!

Our first thing to do was take the "Hop on, Hop off" bus to get acquainted with the city.

We took a cable car up to Table Mountain to check out the views of the city.  It was pretty high and the trips up and down were a bit scary but the views were extraordinary!

Camps Bay below where you can find the who's who of Cape Town having cocktails on the beach.

Clouds spilling off the edge of Table Mountain.

There were so many things to do.  We were there 8 days but could have easily spent more time and not have been bored.  We dedicated one full day to learning where we started off at the Slave Lodge which is one of the oldest buildings in town.  It was originally owned by a Dutch trading company when they first settled in SA and was used as a house of the slaves they brought in from the East.  I found it really interesting that the Dutch did not want to use the locals as slaves as they felt it might create hostility (duh) so they brought slaves in from India, Malaysia, and others.  The museum began with the story of slavery in South Africa and then ended with an exhibit of Nelson Mandela’s life.

From there, we caught the ferry to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and countless other political prisoners were kept during the apartheid era.

Robben Island Prison

Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment in this cell.

This tour was led by an ex-political prisoner of Robben Island and he made it very clear that while the conditions in prison were far from ideal, they wanted a story of hope to come through.  They called the prison ‘The University” as they figured this was the time to educate themselves and eachother.

Upon his release in February 1990, Nelson Mandela addressed 50 000 South Africans from city hall (the one with the tower.)

History is made.  Apartheid is abolished and Mandela becomes president in 1994.  His path is so inspiring.

Aside from learning, shopping and eating, we did rent a car and venture out of the city which is a must.  We did spend a day out in wine country although, we never did actually stop in at any of the wineries.  (Lame, I know!)  We were just enjoying our drives through Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl.

Wine Country

We stopped at a berry farm for lunch just outside of Stellenbosch.

We also went out to Cape Point but unfortunately it was cloudy, only on the point so we didn’t get to see a whole lot.  We went to Boulder’s Beach to check out some penguins and got to see a lot of baboon’s and ostriches.  The highlight had to have been Chapman’s Peak Drive which loops back around to Hout Bay and Cape Town.  The road was actually carved out of the mountain.  I spent the time ooing and awwing and Joe was cursing as he was driving the winding road and it was hard for him to catch all the views.  Luckily there were several pullouts and we were able to take in some of the best views we’ve ever seen.

Just off Chapman's Peak Drive with Hout Bay in the background.

Driving 'in' the mountain.

We loved every minute of the trip and getting on the plane at the end of it all was a bit of a struggle for both of us.  I’m quite sure if either one of us would have turned to the other and said “Let’s not go” we’d have run off that plane quicker than you can imagine.  Cape Town is fantastic and while it has it’s problems we found the people wonderfully nice, the food delicious, and it’s so full of culture and things to do.  I highly recommend a trip, after your safari of course!

Vancouver was the furthest distance on the sign. We were over 10 000 km closer to the South Pole than we were to the West Coast of Canada!

Looking back on one of the beaches in Cape Town.





Out to Spot the Big 5

18 04 2011

Our visit to Kapama included 2 game drives every day.  Each morning we’d get a wake up call at 5 am.  (I know, 5 am on holidays is not really that appealing but when you know you are there to see animals, you must get up early!)  We’d meet for a light breakfast at 5:30 and take off thereafter.

Our Safari Vehicle - The Unstoppable Land Cruiser

Guiding us each drive was our Ranger, Mike and our tracker Vusi.  Vusi would sit on the small seat on the front of the vehicle and both him and Mike would watch for tracks and other signs of animals like how the grass was packed down, birds in the areas and animal droppings.  They would be able to tell how old the tracks were and we’d head off and try to find the animals.  Sometimes, it was unbelievable how they’d be able to see such a small mark and know exactly what it was and when it was there.

Vusi sitting out front with the ranger Mike in the drivers seat.

The elephants always seemed to leave a trail of destruction so it was usually easy to see where they had been.  We could get pretty close to these guys but the dominant male let us know when we were too close as he’d approach and flap his ears, causing us to move back.  They are giant, beautiful animals and you could easily just sit quietly and watch them for hours.

A family of elephants - there were probably 8 in total together here

Telling us they need a little space and we certainly dont want to mess with him!

Some animals were seemingly easy to find (impalas, buffalo, warthogs) while others alluded us for days.  Our ranger had led us to an area where he believed one of the female leopards had been staying so we hoped we’d see her lazing in a tree.  As we neared the area, Mike and Vusi stopped the vehicle and jumped out quickly to check out some tracks.  After agreeing that she had just been there, off we go to track her.  It was probably the most exhilarating hour of the entire trip.  We’d speed off in the direction of the tracks and when they stopped, Mike and Vusi would get out and investigate only to jump back in and speed off again.  The leopard always seemed to be just a few steps ahead of us and that day we never did catch her.  A couple of days later, we got word she was hunting in a different area so off we went again and this time, we found her.  We couldn’t follow her for very long as she really wasn’t happy that we were on her trail but we did watch her until she did a leap and a growl.

Leopard

The animal that surprised me the most were the giraffes.  You really have no idea how large they are until you are standing a few feet away from them.  Male giraffes can get up to 6 metres tall!  You can spot the females by the black tuffs of hair on their horns.  We did some tracking on foot on morning and got close to some giraffes.  Before we could see them, we felt the vibrations in the ground as one had started to run.

Because Kapama Karula is such a small lodge, our safari vehicle was never full.  For the most part, we had 2 or 3 other people with us but near the end of our stay, we had the entire vehicle to ourselves.  This was great because the plan revolved around what we wanted to see.  It was also nice to be able to talk with Mike who was a wealth of knowledge about the animals.

Rhinos - There were always little birds hanging out on the big animals. They eat the bugs on them.

A Zebra hanging out with some impala.

On the first day, we came across a lion and a lioness lazing around in the grass.  During the day when it’s hot, they aren’t very active.  We were able to get quite close to them in the vehicle and they didn’t really bat an eye.

We were probably less than 10 feet away from this guy.

The real thrill was when we began our night drive later on.  Each night we would leave camp at 4:30.  We would continue until sundown when we’d park to have a glass of wine before carrying on.  In the dark, Vusi would have a big spotlight with him on the front of the vehicle waving it back and forth looking for animals.  We came across the lion and lioness from earlier but this time they were hunting.  (Keep in mind, pictures do not do this justice!)

The Lioness

The lioness was often ahead of the lion trying to find some prey.  The lion followed several feet behind spraying and leaving his scent to mark his territory.  The scary thing about this was we only had one spotlight so that meant we only had the light on one of the lions at a time.  At one point, we were parked to the side watching the lions when the male walked around the back of the truck to come out directly beside Joe.  He was so close that Joe could have reached out and touched him.  We held our breath!

Not everything we saw was big!  We were greeted by the largest spiders I have ever seen in my entire life.  These could easily be as long as my fist and there were literally, hundreds.  Often times, they’d stretch their webs across trees and while we were offroading, it wasn’t uncommon to hit one.  Imagine being in the dark and feeling a web across your face and not know if one of these was on you?

Their web was thick and strong like fishing line.

It was for this reason, I never sat in the top row of the Land Cruiser!

We saw so many more animals and have too many stories to post here but we’d be happy to show you the rest when we’re home this summer.  Joe and I never really thought much of safaris before this but I must tell you, this was one of the coolest things we’ve ever done and you absolutely must add this to your list of things to do before you die.  (We’d love to go back so feel free to invite us!)

The End





Kapama Karula – Pure South African Luxury

17 04 2011

As promised, the first post of a few of our AMAZING South African vacation.

The first part of our trip was the Safari which Joe and I were both looking forward to but really had no idea what the expect.  We had hoped to see some animals, relax and experience a bit of luxury and Kapama Karula completely exceeded all of our expectations.

I can’t remember exactly how I chose Kapama Karula but I do remember doing A LOT of research ahead of time.  South Africa is full of safari camps and I wanted to make sure we chose what was best for us as more likely than not, it would be our only safari.  We wanted something nice as we’d been living in not the easiest of conditions so we ended up with Kapama.

Kapama Game Reserve is 13 000 hectares of land which is part of Greater Kruger National Park.  They have four separate bush camps in which you can choose to stay.  We chose Karula over the others because it is the smallest – with 7 luxury tents and 5 chalets.

Our tent

The interior of our tent. The front was pretty tent like, except with air conditioning!

All of the tents and chalets are accessed through your own personal path and there is no one else around you.  (Except maybe the monkeys!)  The front of the tent was tent-like while the bathroom at the back was completely built in.  There was also an outdoor shower out the back.

The bathroom at the back of the tent.

The entire camp was serene and beautifully decorated.  Even though we were quite busy all of the time, you couldn’t help but feel relaxed.

Drinks were served here before and after our game drives.

The pool overlooked a riverbed on the other side.

The food was impeccable.  The staff was wonderful and went out of their way to make sure that our stay was perfect.  They would often come and chat with us about our trip and were so accommodating to anything we needed or wanted.

Most of our meals were eaten here.

By the end of the stay, Joe was talking of becoming our ranger’s apprentice and we both didn’t want to leave.  All of the staff lined up when we had to depart to say goodbye and Joe and I were so reluctant to get in that vehicle but we knew we were on to Cape Town!

Next up – Game Drives & Animals