Friday, September 12, 2014
Our separate flights to Atlanta were uneventful. Then we had a three-hour layover before our international flight, which was delayed another half-hour or so due to a cleaning problem of some sort on the aircraft.
Saturday, September 13, 2014
It was a long haul to get to Johannesburg, and the guy in the row in front of us snoring the whole trip didn't make it any easier. His snore sounded like a noisy chain saw, and when he wasn't snoring, he was coughing, and that sounded like a 45-caliber machine gun.
There were some bumps along the way and that kept Tim awake the whole time. Bob didn't fare much better, so the two of them were sleepy travelers by the time we landed, around 5 p.m. (local time).
We checked into the InterContinental Johannesburg Airport Sun, had a light supper, then headed for bed. I don't really know why we had supper; we were served three good-sized meals on the plane!
Tim had his bag checked (Bob and I carried ours), but the Delta ticket agent in Boston checked it through to Hoedspruit Airport, our Sunday's destination. We feared he wouldn't have his belongings for our stay in Johannesburg, but happily, his bag appeared on the conveyor belt at Baggage Claim.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
I woke up at 1:20 a.m., then couldn't get back to sleep, but I wasn't surprised. That's exactly what happened on my last trip to Africa.
I looked out the hotel window at the lights in the parking garage across the way, and at the moon shining dimly overhead. I leaned back on the pillows of my bed and cherished the moment. I was in South Africa once again. Ah!
I was in the shower at 6:00 and the three of us were eating breakfast shortly after 7:30. We were at the airport about 8:45 and at our gate at 9:00. We had trouble finding where to check in, but a man showed us the way.
I tipped him two dollars (U.S.), which I thought was generous for his two or three minute effort on our behalf. He took the bills, then said "Twenty dollars!" and he held out his hand.
"What?" I exclaimed.
"Five dollars for each of you and five dollars more," he said, rather insistently.
I didn't know what to do for a moment, then I knew exactly what to do. I said, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no!"
He wasn't going to take no for an answer, so I repeated myself: "No, no, no, no, no, no, no!" then turned my back on him and walked off. Fortunately, that was the end of the incident.
At our gate (E9), I looked on the departure board for our flight to double check we were where we should be. Our flight wasn't listed. I talked to an agent who directed me to another screen of departing flights. Our flight wasn't listed there either.
Minutes before our scheduled departure time, the flight number appeared on a big TV monitor, we loaded into a bus, drove to our waiting prop plane, and eventually took off.
We were met at Hoedspruit by Ryan (far right), who turned out to be our ranger for our stay at Camp Jabulani, located within the Limpopo Province in South Africa, close to Kruger National Park and the Drakensberg Mountain range, and he drove us to the camp in about 20 minutes. We were shown our rooms (very nice!) and then served lunch. This wasn't a lunch lunch, this was a gourmet lunch, fit for any five-star restaurant. Fancy, fancy! And tasty, tasty, too!
Our afternoon activity began at 4 o'clock. Elephants! The camp has 14 trained elephants and the man in charge of them gave us an interesting briefing, then had an elephant come forward so we could get a real close-up look. We were able to touch the animal's body and then ears to see how the ears act like radiators. There was a noticeable temperature difference. The elephant was instructed to lift a foot, and we could feel the coarse skin the animal walked on. The elephant opened its mouth and I reached inside and felt the rough tongue. We fed the elephant, were entertained by a couple of tricks (picking up small items with its trunk, taking a hat off a visitor's head, standing on just two legs), and then several more elephants were brought forward so we could go for a ride.
I was last to get on an elephant and he was the biggest of the bunch by far. I decided to video my mount. What could possibly go wrong? So, picture this: In my right hand I had my camera (it was turned on) and I was trying to point it to capture all the action. I was standing on a platform which allowed me to be about two feet below the top of the elephant's back. I needed to balance on one foot as I raised my other foot to get it over the pachyderm's backbone. Simultaneously, I needed to reach down with my left hand and grab the strap I would hold onto during our elephant walk. The strap was just to the rear of where the driver/trainer sat.
Well, I was feeling about as graceful as a ballerina in a sack race. I attempted to raise my leg over the elephant's backbone, but I missed the mark. Fortunately, trainers and guides were there to lend assistance, and assistance was definitely needed.
One guide pushed my leg over the elephant's back as I made a lunge for the strap. All of this is on video. Plunk! I landed on the saddle just where I was supposed to. It wasn't pretty, but the mission was accomplished. Somehow.
We set off on a three-mile walk that took about an hour. It was absolutely spectacular! I rode at the rear of our caravan. Bob rode in front of me and Tim rode in front of Bob. Oh my, it was fun! I was kept very busy taking still pictures and video . . . and holding on for dear life.
Just as the sun was setting, we arrived at a spot by a small lake where chairs had been set out in a circle for us. Drinks and snacks were spread out on a couple of tables and it was the perfect conclusion to our ride.
After dusk, we got into a safari vehicle and took a night drive, the highlight of which was spotting two civets, maybe a half-dozen bush babies, and five lions.
Back at the camp, we had a late dinner (I had ostrich -- just delicious), and then it was time for bed. What a wonderful day!
Monday, September 15, 2014
Our morning game drive started about 6:00. There were several good animal sightings, including lions (three of them) and cape buffalo.
The cape buffalo herd must have numbered close to 100. We also came across a herd of wild elephants that was causing considerable concern.
One elephant was in musth (high sexual energy) and there was worry he might wish to battle one of the trained elephants for mating rights with one of the females. A battle didn't ensue, but the trained elephants were so upset, our one o'clock viewing of them bathing in a lake was canceled.
Following breakfast, there was another game drive and a visit to the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre. At the center we saw cheetahs, lions, and rhinos, but the real excitement was visiting a cheetah named Crunchie. We were actually allowed to go inside the pen and pet the cat! That's something I had certainly never done before! Exciting!
At 4 o'clock, we went on another game drive and found hippos hanging out in the biggest reservoir on the property. Unfortunately, they weren't close enough for us to get any pictures.
As the sun was setting, we stopped for a sun-downer. Chairs had been set up for us in a clearing and a variety of drinks and snacks were laid out for our consumption.
After the sun had set, the camp elephants appeared and we all got on for a night elephant ride. I decided it was too dark for taking videos, so my mounting and dismounting one of them (this time not the biggest) was much more controlled and didn't cause nearly as much of a spectacle.
The elephants were walked back to their stables and we got a chance to interact with them one more time. After that, the stables lights were turned out, but Ryan took us out for another drive, the highlight of which was finding a big male lion lying comfortably in the grass of a trail. Ryan parked the vehicle so we were about 15 feet or so from the cat.
Ryan didn't want to focus the spotlight directly the lion's face as that would interfere with the animal's night vision, so he swept the beam around in a random pattern. After five or ten minutes or so, Ryan announced that the lion was going to let out a thunderous roar, so we waited for it. And we waited. And we waited. And we waited.
Believe it or not, I actually dozed off a couple of times, then snapped back to consciousness. I thought: there's a really big male lion lying very close to me. Why am I drifting off to sleep at a time like this?
The reason of course was that we were waiting and waiting and waiting in pitch darkness with a single spotlight beam focused on nothing but bushes and trees. We waited some more and I wondered if Ryan would lose in this waiting game.
The wait continued for -- I don't know -- it seemed like hours, but it may have been only 45 or 50 minutes (maybe it was longer). Finally the lion lifted his head and let out a bellowing roar. It was loud! Not only did we hear hear it, we felt the deep vibrations of the animal's call. He let out with a raspy roar and moments later, we heard an echo. A lion's call can travel for miles! It was an impressive performance.
We were late getting back to camp and were the last ones served dinner. The entree: eland. Tasty. And served elegantly.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
My sleeping pattern had not yet adjusted to the time zone change, so I woke up early again this morning. Fortuitous! I was able to catch up with my journal. Lying in bed, propped up on several pillows as I wrote, I could hear a lion roaring into the stillness of the night. I wondered if it was the lion that had roared for us.
With a 5:30 wake-up call, we were ready to go at 6:00. It was cold as we started our drive, but Ryan had heavy blankets for us and they kept us very comfortable. After a bit as the sun came up, the temperature got better, but animal sightings did not. There were, however, lots of impala, wart hog, giraffe, wildebeests, and zebra to look at. Ryan hoped to find leopard for us to complete sightings of each of the "Big Five," but it was not to be. He also wanted to spot a hyena, but no luck.
Back at the lodge a little after 9:00, we had breakfast, packed our bags, and at 10:30 were ready for the drive back to the airport and our flight back to Johannesburg.
At 1:30 we were in a car driven by "Lucky" on our way to the Marataba Safari Lodge.
I knew from the very moment we met Lucky at the airport that he was either poorly trained, forgetful, or lazy. He never offered to carry our bags.
With Lucky at the wheel, our car ride was rather thrilling, but not in an exactly good sense. We wondered if we'd make it alive!
The first portion of the trip was on modern, safe, four-lane expressways, and our safety wasn't really a concern. But when the roads became two narrow lanes, with blacktop, patches, and twists and turns, things got a little dicey. Lucky drove at speeds of up to 140 kilometers an hour (that's 87 miles an hour!), and he got very close to other vehicles in front of us. Then when the road became gravel with big bumps and ruts, and our speed remained high, our apprehensive levels rose. We were thankful to be uninjured when we turned into the gate at the Marataba Safari Lodge.
We entered what looked like a war zone, or the aftermath of a tornado. Bushes and trees were pushed over -- almost all of them. Limbs and branches were piled in heaps. We wondered: what kind of camp could this possibly be?
It turned out that grazing elephants had decimated the area and efforts were underway to remove the old, dead foliage and let new bushes and trees grow in their place.
When we reached the lodge, I was disappointed. Pictures on the website (this one in particular) led me to believe the camp was fairly new. That didn't seem to be the case. I thought maintenance was needed. The canvas-and-stone tented suites were very nice, but they showed a little sign of wear. And of course it didn't help matters when a woman (I assume the wife of the camp manager) greeted us saying: "Welcome! How nice of you to join us. Is it a granddad with his two grandsons?"
She was very apologetic when she learned I was the father not grandfather of Bob and Tim, but the damage had by then been done.
I need to mention that Marataba was at a great disadvantage. Since we had just come from Jabulani, everything I saw was measured by that "standard," and most camps around the world rank second to Jabulani in my opinion, so Marataba was at a significant disadvantage to begin with.
Our ranger, Jono, took us for a safari drive. There were some good monkey and hippo sightings, but not much else. Jono told us black rhinos were in the area, so we thought maybe we'd see them while we were at the camp.
Dinner (lamb chops) was quite good, but naturally not up to Jabulani's elegance and gourmet levels.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Wake-up call: 5:30. Safari drive: a little after 6:00. We thought we might see lion and cheetah and rhino, but no luck. Actually, we did see a couple of rhinos, but they were maybe a half-mile away.
After the drive we had breakfast, and then several hours of free time to do as we wished. My wish: a nap! It was delightful. I woke up in time for a nice outside shower. Then we gathered at 3:30 for the afternoon's activity.
We were told to expect to see elephants and hippos, but we saw neither. However, we had a very pleasant pontoon boat ride. Michelle was skipper and we glided peacefully along a body of water created by a dam. Drinks and snacks were served on board.
Back on land, we set off for another game drive and saw 6 rhinos; three groups of two each. But it was too dark to get any good pictures. We also saw a couple of bat eared foxes, eland, water buck, and several others.
Dinner was served in a BOMA with several raging fires and numerous candles strategically placed around the area. My entree was beef filet and a serving of springbok. Excellent.
Thursday, September 18, 2014
As usual, wake-up was at 5:30 with the game drive commencing at 6:00. We expected to see leopard and lion, but neither came into view. We did get a glimpse of a honey badger, about a two-second glimpse. The critter darted across the road maybe 50 feet in front of us. It was a rare sighting, we were told, but far too brief to get a picture. We saw rhino again, but they were so far in the distance, I couldn't even be sure they were rhino.
I had the impression we were spending a whole lot more time spotting animal tracks than spotting the animals that made them.
We were driven back to the lodge in another vehicle so we could have breakfast and depart on a three-hour drive to The Palace of the Lost City. (Happily, the drive time passed quickly, as our driver, Michelle, was quite interesting to talk with.)
Looking back, my decision to included Marataba on the itinerary was ill advised. The camp was nice and the food very good, but game viewing was quite disappointing, and all the time it took to get there and then get back could have been spent more productively at another camp in the Kruger area.
We got to the Palace about noon. My room was ready, but Tim's and Bob's room was not, so we had time for some exploring, for lunch, and to check arrangements for Friday's balloon ride. Bad news: the balloon ride had been canceled because of expected high winds.
Our major afternoon activity, at the suggestion of the concierge, was to visit a nearby crocodile farm. We got there early enough to witness feeding time. The beasts leapt up to grab a dead chicken held on a string by one of the farm employees. Bob and Tim each got a turn to hold a baby croc.
Then it was nap time for me. For some reason I was exhausted. Bob and Tim used the free time as they wished.
At the concierge desk we inquired about dinner arrangements and were told all the nice restaurants at the Palace were fully booked. We got a reservation at the Cascades, a short courtesy ride away.
My meal (tomato/lettuce/avocado/cheese salad) was disappointing. There was no taste, even after I doused it with salt. Several times!
There was a little bridge to cross when we finished our meal (we had crossed it to get to the restaurant). It was a little slippery and at an angle, and I took a tumble, landing on my rear end. I wondered if the fall would aggravate a back problem I've been having lately.
Returning to the Palace, we made reservations for a balloon ride Saturday. Then we went to the Tusk Bar (at the Palace), sat at an outside table, and had a good talk.
Friday, September 19, 2014
There was no wake-up call this morning! We could, and did, sleep in! I slept in until . . . 6:30 (the time zone difference was still disrupting my sleep schedule). However, that gave me time to catch up with my journal, organize my belongings, and be ready for an 8:30 breakfast. And what a breakfast it was! There must have been a dozen tables, -- maybe more -- laid out with huge quantities of food: cereals, pastries, meats, breads, fruits, fruit drinks, vegetables, egg-preparation stations, waffle and pancake stations, coffee and tea stations. And everything was delicious! (I was pleased to find there were no apparent complications resulting from last night's fall.)
Tim had signed up himself and Bob for Zip 2000, a ride on a 1.25-mile zip line, advertised as holding the title for over six years as the world's longest, highest and fastest. The attraction's website says: "There is a higher zip slide in Alaska, there's a longer zip slide in South America. But to get the total thrill of speed, distance, and varying heights above ground, Zip 2000 is the ultimate and original experience." Tim signed me up as a spectator (that was a good thing). The reservation was for 11 o'clock.
The zip line is only a short drive from the Palace, up a narrow and steep road. Bob and Tim got off at the top of the mountain, but I was then driven back down and on to the "landing zone." Just as I got there, two people zipped by maybe 15 feet overhead. I was afraid I had missed Bob's and Tim's big ride, but no, they were coming next.
The launching point was much too far away to see anything happening there, but I knew when they were on their way. I could hear Bob scream. It was full-throated and heartfelt, and it echoed across the valley sort of like a lion roar, except a lot higher pitched. I got my camera ready and was able to focus it in time to get video just as the two of them (they rode together) came into sight. A ride can reach speeds of nearly 100 miles per hour!
They were suspended underneath a little two-wheeled contraption that rode along the thick, heavy zip line, and they flew past me at quite a clip. The line is designed so that during a ride, riders continue past the lowest point of the parabola, allowing their speed to slow. Then they glide back to the lowest point where they are assisted off the line.
The experience was apparently a great success. The two of them kept laughing and laughing. Tim bought a Zip 2000 tee shirt and a CD of pictures of the ride.
We were driven back to Reception and we walked leisurely from there to the Palace.
We had a late lunch by the pool (just like the day before) and then for me it was time for another nap. Naps are good things.
About 6:00 we were notified that tomorrow's balloon ride was also canceled. Same reason: too windy. Bob and I asked at the concierge desk what would be a good substitute activity. We were told: Ukutula. It's a privately-owned game reserve and research facility that provides lion encounter experiences. Although it involved a long ride (we were told it would take 45 minutes; it actually took 75 minutes) and was rather expensive, it sounded exciting, so I signed up for transportation to and from, and the actual lion encounter.
Our dinner reservation at the Palace Grill Room was for 9 o'clock. Afterward we retreated to the Tusk Bar once again for a serving of conversation and relaxation. It was after midnight before we headed for our rooms.
Saturday, September 20, 2014
The drive to Ukutula got us there at about 8:15. I assumed we would receive a briefing describing what we'd see. I thought maybe we'd see a video about lions, or be given a talk about the animals. Oh no! The minute we arrived, we were rushed to a spot maybe 50 yards from where dozens of lions were caged. A group of eight visitors and several guides were waiting for us.
Each of us was given a wooden cane and instructed to use it if we didn't want lions rubbing up against us. What?
Then a guide gave a signal and four lions (one-year olds) were released from their enclosures and they came running at us with enthusiasm and speed. "Stay together," one of the guides advised. I know I can't outrun a lion, so I did as I was told.
So there we were: out in the open, walking along, as four frisky lions romped around us, jumping on each other, sometimes crouching in the grass, sometimes sprinting this way or that. They were completely untethered. It was unbelievable! It was thrilling! It was unreal! But no, it was real!
We only walked, I'd say, maybe a half mile, but we had a full half hour or so of pure exhilaration and delight. One of the guides had a pouch with parts of chickens, and he tossed the snacks to the lions one serving at a time.
After the encounter, we had to pause and catch our breath and think about what had just happened. We were given drinks (juice or water) and we sat around several picnic tables reflecting on the experience.
After some time we were led to an enclosure where there were maybe eight six-month-old lions, and we went into the enclosure. We were told the animals might be unpredictable. A woman wearing flip-flops was told she might be a "target." "Lions like to chew on shoes," our guide said. "And don't turn your back on the lions," the guide added, "they like to jump on your back."
We were allowed to pet these cubs and of course take pictures. What fun! I leaned down and started to scratch one lion. The fur wasn't smooth; it was a little rough. After a few seconds the lion snapped at me. I petted another and the same thing happened.
During the excitement I inadvertently turned my back on a lion. (Actually it was hard not to; the animals seemed to be everywhere.) The critter gave me a nip in the butt! I guess it was a friendly nip. It drew no blood and didn't even tear my shorts.
I decided to try one more time to pet a lion. I crouched down and stroked the animal's back. In return for my friendship, the lion pulled himself forward and began licking my leg. Well, I thought, that's sort of fun.
Then the lion rolled over on its back. The only problem was that the animal rolled over toward me and its head was all of a sudden positioned a very few inches directly below a very sensitive portion of my anatomy. At that point, I thought it wise to conclude my participation in the petting session.
From this enclosure we were led to a nearby grassy section and a half-dozen lion cubs (probably just a couple of months old) were brought out for us to pat and cuddle. They were adorable little bundles of fur.
Adorable, yes, but nonetheless capable of causing harm. Bob was holding one little cub that apparently decided the cuddling was over. He struggled to get out of Bob's arms and in the process left Bob with two scratched arms.
And the scratches drew blood! The adorable little bundles of fur had dangerous concealed weapons.
Then it was time for another drink and a light snack before we looked at some of the larger lions. Some of them were huge! There was no visiting these animals up close and personal. Fencing and electrified wires kept us apart. Thank goodness!
At 1:45 we were back at the Palace, where another driver was waiting to take us to the Johannesburg airport, where we boarded our flight to Atlanta.
Sunday, September 21, 2014
We landed at Atlanta before the sun was up. Going through customs, one of the agents saw we were three family members. "Are you all brothers?" she inquired.
We said our good-byes before boarding the Atlanta airport plane-train, to head off to sperate gates for the last leg of our journey.
On my flight to Orlando, I reflected back on our experiences. Oh, how exciting! Oh, how memorable! Oh, how rewarding! Nine days of thrills, laughter, and joy -- it was the trip of a lifetime!
I don't know if I'll return to Africa. I'd like to, but age is catching up with me. And besides, nothing could compare with the trip I just took!