Saturday, 13 June 2015

(Really) Into Africa

Thanks everyone for a great day and a fantastic time in South Africa!
I've said before that you can judge a country by it's national carrier (or how they drive on the road), and I will say it again. If you use this method, some countries are doing really well, and others should be avoided. Singapore Airlines have always been my favourite - calm, relaxed flight attendants, who also wear their chic and colourful outfits so well. Singapore is that kind of place too. In Switzerland it's a lovely cup of coffee and delicious chocolate for breakfast, Thai is good noodles (for an airline), and Turkey is service with a smile. The airlines that come into the 'other' category are RyanAir (no surprises there), Air India and sadly Qantas. If RyanAir were a country, you would be tired of it before you even paid too much for your visa - constant advertising, everything costs a fortune, late, noisy, the people always look tried and frustrated, and the tourists always drunk and rowdy (Ireland?). Indians are lovely people, but we've all heard of (and probably at same point had) a bad curry followed by a bad night. Qantas I have mentioned before, and it seems to go in line with Australia's current immigration policy. On this note - South Africa would be the friendliest country I have been to so far - laughing and smiling with you, liberal with the booze, and just all round fantastic people. That IS how I find the country.

Great Danes are extremely friendly dogs, and popular in South Africa. I want one!
So the week leading up to the wedding was action-packed. Come the day of the wedding, everyone was ready for a big day, although I know two people who were more than a little nervous. There was a competition running though - who had come the furthest. This started as I had come all the way from Chile, leaving at 11pm on Wednesday and arriving at the bride and grooms house at 2pm Friday. People had come from far and wide - the UK, the States and even as far as Taiwan - so maybe I didn't have the most K's but I did have the worst travel time! 2 families came together, many friends, and a fantastic day has had by all - we are still talking about it. I won't go into it too much, but I must say something about South African weddings. There is an lovely/evil drink, colloquially called 'The Cane Train.' It's more of a phenomena than a drink, and only contains 2 ingredients - cane alcohol (a strong white liquor made from sugar cane, so basically white rum) and green creme soda. This sounds completely innocent, but it is most definitely not! Sweet on the tongue and rough on the head the day after, it is packed with sugar and alochol - and feels worse than a night on vodka Red Bulls... but the during part is more than worth it! Your glass just evaporates, and when you refill it, your drink just glows green - it's like a lightsaber in a glass that tastes so awesome yet you know it will hurt so bad in the morning. Ah, the Cane Train is a harsh mistress, but one you can't say no to.

The Kop Lookout, giving a good view of Zululand.
So, not having slept a wink all night, I stumbled down for breakfast. The wedding was a complete success - I worked hard behind the camera, drank and ate to my hearts content, danced, and met many, many great people. New friends, old friends reunited, drinking and being merry, more than one happy couple - just what a wedding is all about! I could go into it for some time - but I won't as this is a travel blog... and besides, everyone there knows what an awesome time we all had, photos are on facebook, and what happens at Donovan and Bonnie's weddings stays at Donovan and Bonnie's wedding :) Thanks again to everyone there - both families of course, for being so welcoming, and of course all the friends and bar staff for never questioning my sobriety! Also, it was the day my 5 day safari started - not a great starting point, still shaking from Cane Train withdrawals, and a breakfast that was seriously lacking in sausages and bacon, I headed off with Peter, my tour guide and drinking buddy for the next few days.

Washing day for the locals.
Tribal houses.
The grave of King Cetshwayo.
We drove through Zululand, where the Zulu warriors and King Shaka ruled supreme in the 19th century. Shaka Zulu built the small Zulu tribe into a Kingdom which spread over more than 30,000km2, and reigned until he was assassinated in 1828 by his two half brothers. He united the tribes and made military and social changes that made the Zulu a real force - promotions in the army and civil service became based on merit, not birth. Large shields were used, and warriors taught to hook onto their enemies smaller one and expose ribs for a lethal stab. He also introduced the short stabbing spear ("iklwa") replacing the traditional throwing spear ("assegai"), which gave his soldiers an advantage as normally they would throw their spears and avoid hand-to-hand combat - so his soldiers would throw their large spear, then engage in close combat with spear-less enemies - basically Roman tactics of the Pilum and Scutum and legion formation, which Shaka emulated with 'horns' that swept around to encircle the enemy. The landscape in this area is, to me, the real South Africa - rolling hills, lush grass and small villages of tribal people living how they have for generations, but now with Nikes and Nokias. We stopped for lunch at the remote grave of King Cetshwayo (and signed a guestbook delivered by a local woman who spoke zero English!), and even got to see the President's palace - a large complex with high barbed wired fences, security guards and cameras, and it cost an absolute fortune. He lives with his 7 wives and is currently ruining the country for everyone but his mates in high places.

Zululand - where mobile phone really are a revolution in communication.
My 'tent' for the night.
A colourful monkey... all the better to get the girl monkeys.
The first place on the list was HluHluwue Game Reserve (pronounce 'shushu-e' which I could never remember!), a 960km square park (and the oldest in Africa!) with all the Big Five roaming around there somewhere - my hopes were not exactly high, as seeing a leopard, lion, elephant, rhino and buffalo are pretty rare in one trip to Africa... but I was not disappointed! Arrving late at night, after a whole day's driving on roads with so many pot holes it was like the downhill slalom, we set up camp (aka. cracking open beers) and started cooking our Braai (South African BBQ). Not 10 minutes after starting the meat, 2 hyenas came lurking around the fire... I scared them off, but they were still snooping round, hoping for a steak or an arm. They are dangerous creatures, but free to roam around the campsite, as the electric fence starts at 2m, to stop elephants. Everything else, lions, cheetah, rhino, can get in easier than a person in a 4x4. Great. The tent where I stayed was not exactly what I would call a tent - it was more 'glamping.' Double bed, toilet, electricity and wooden floor boards - yeah, awesome, but still it had canvas sides which probably wouldn't protect me if the lions or hyenas got hungry during the night. The kitchen was also worth mentioning - fully equipped with a fridge, electric cooker, sink and all the utensils, metal meshing on the door, as well as a two lock system to stop monkeys!

A heard of Impala, and one with the Oxpecker bird doing some grooming.
Always being watched...
I have right on way here!
We decided to head out early and have breakfast after, to try and catch the animals before it got too hot. This tactic paid off! Spotting an elephant, my first one in the wild, we watched and followed him as he headed for the road. We stopped in the perfect place on the road to allow us a good view of this truly amazing creature - the biggest elephant I have ever seen, probably weighing in at about 5t and 3 or more metres tall! Another car on the road, weighing it at about 800kg and 1.4m tall, got a little too close and was given an ear flapping and a stern look that said "I could easily roll you over and stamp on you if I want to." Although I only got the bum shot, it's much better than getting rolled by a fully grown bull elephant. On our way back to camp at a gentle 20kph for breakfast, and having seen zebra and loads of impala, we weren't expecting to spot a leopard - but we did. Very shy and very rarely seen, this was extremely lucky - mainly due to our low speed and quietness, and also due to my sharp eyes and quick reflexes with the camera. My safari companion Peter had never seen one in the wild before, and he has been to many parks and reserves, and is from South Africa. The camp ranger didn't believe me until I had shown him the picture, and was so impressed as he'd only seen 1 in 7 years. I managed to snap a few magical shots (if I do say so myself) and a minute or two to just appreciate this big cat before another car approached - I tried to warn them to slow down, but it doesn't take much to scare a leopard, so they missed a once in a lifetime opportunity! The spell was broken, but it will remain with me forever. Breakfast was awesome too - left over Braai.

A leopard - very rarely seen.
White Rhino.
A Samango monkey drinking from the Hilltop camp's carpark.
After breakfast we were able to see even more animals - a whole herd of rhino just standing around on the side of the road, mixed in with zebra and the very numerous impala, which are basically like sand on a beach. Speaking to a few people, car to car, they told us that we just missed seeing a cheetah - the rhinos scared him off. A shame, as I love cheetahs, but this guy also said they were lions up at the next picnic spot. Off we went, still slowly as to not scare anything off, unlike the crazy cowboys that get paid by wealthy foreigners to see everything - one guy went hooning off at least 80kph on bumpy dirt track in his V8 Jeep. Idiot. Slow or fast, we still saw the lions - 4 of the Big Five and it was only midday! Although they were about 200m away across a river, I still got a good look at them, and some photos - the Lion Park was great, but there here are real, wild and very dangerous creatures. I saw a female and also a male walking around, but the cubs were hiding in the reeds on the river bank. The adults were keeping an eye out for other animals - namely Black Rhino. There are two kinds of rhino in Africa - White and Black. It's not for their colours, as neither are white. The name white comes from the Afrikaans/Dutch pronunciation of 'wide,' which is the shape of their mouth - White rhinos have a wide, flat lip for eating grass, whereas the Black has a sharper 'beak' which they use to eat foliage from trees.  Very few rhino remain, and the Black are particularly rare - they are considered critically endangered, and their numbers have fallen from hundreds of thousands in 1900 to fewer than 2500 in the mid-nineties - their biggest threat is of course poachers.

King of the jungle.
Cape Glossy Starling.
Up to Hilltop camp for the night, with still 1 of the 5 to see - the buffalo. We went off on a night safari, and around sunset time, I was gifted with the sight of a lone male buffalo... then a whole herd of them crossing the road in front of the car! 5 of 5 in 1 day - truly awesome! The night safari was great - nightjars, jakals and loads of other animals, but it was freezing! The next park was Tambo Elephant Park, right up on the border with Mozambique and near Cosi Bay. The park is known for their 'Big Tusker' elephants, and the first stop in the park was the office to buy tickets, and I was greeted by two huge elephant tusks bigger than me - they are castings of the original tusks of an elephant, and the real ones weighed in at 52kg - the price for ivory is about $2000/kg, so I imagine the real tusks are long sold. We sat in a 'hide' to watch the animals at a watering hole, and there were animals everywhere! Elephants bathing and spray water and mud on themselves, impalas, nyala, warthogs and even some waterbucks. Then one elephant strutted up, and although not the biggest elephant there, he had the most impressive tusks I've ever seen, and quite possibly nearly as long as I am tall (although I didn't get close enough to measure) - the biggest ones in the park, and everyone knew it - and his name is 'Siqalo,' the name on all the girl's lips I'm sure. Amazing to just sit quietly and watch the animals doing their thing without them knowing. Magical. I also saw a full herd of buffalo enjoying the mud at the watering hole, and while you are in your car they don't bat an eyelid at you - get out, and that's a different story! Metal animals on 4 legs (wheels) are normal, but little 2-legs are something to fear/trample/eat.

2 elephants having a tussle over a female (of course!).
A nyala saying hi.
Singalo - you know what they say
about elephants with big tusks...
To finish off the safari, it was a trip to St Lucia to see the hippos. We did a river cruise, and saw plenty of animals - Nile Crocodiles, kingfishers and a Goliath Heron which stands at 1.4m (imagine the drumsticks on that!), and of course loads of hippos. Very cute creatures, but very dangerous - they kill the most people in Africa. They have huge mouths and very large teeth, which are basically used as display for females when mating, as hippos only eat grass and reeds, and they love short grass like lawns (a golf course greenkeeper's worst nightmare!) and eat 80kg of it a day! Their ears though remind me of Shrek - and they have cute little eyes, and are slow moving and quite round - how could you not like them! There is so much more to tell, so many more animals that I saw and things that I did - but it would take far too much space here to put it all in! My last night in South Africa was a perfect end to a perfect time - beer and pizza on the beach with Peter in the little beach town of Nkwazi, just north of Durban.

Shrek! A hippo at St Lucia Lake.
To be honest, this would have to be one of the best experiences of my life! I had so much fun, met so many amazing people, saw so much... truly lost for words. If you haven't been to South Africa and gone on a safari, it is a definite must. If you have, you know what I'm talking about, and should probably go again. Some people may not like game reserves, and see them like big zoos and overly touristic, but you have to remember this may be the only way to preserve these animals, and protect them from poachers. Unfortunately, people will only do these things is there is money involved, so support the parks and don't buy any animal products, and hopefully we will still have magnificent animals like the Black Rhino and leopards in out world for many, many years to come.

The night sky in Cosi Bay.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...