Africa Journal 2014

Introduction and Preparation!

It is time to help with Mom’s bucket list (someone has to do it!) and Africa is on the list. After all she is on a bit of a time pressure given her age though I would guess she will still be going strong into her 90s and beyond at the rate she is going.

Deciding on the tour: Grand Circle Travel seems to have the most bang for the buck and in addition the company has the approval of the Hiles! Their help line was always answered in a timely fashion with a helpful person and we really liked their guidebook. (We called multiple times at first and probably they were tired of hearing from us)

Passports needed to be good for at least 6 months. So off for renewal went Mom’s passport and then it traveled around the local post offices in La Mesa for some time since she had put the wrong zip code on the return address. Fortunately someone in the passport office was VERY helpful and researched where it was and mom was finally reunited with her new passport.

Visa needed for Zimbabwe: We didn’t want to be separated from our passports because of needing them for a Canada trip so we decided to wait and get this at the border (for one-third the cost).

Airline tickets – we decided to do this on our own rather than using the Grand Circle travel group as it cost less and boy did we earn some United frequent flyer miles! We also had more flexibility in our flights so all in all this was the right decision.

Credit cards: The chip for international travel was nice with the B of A travel card and the Chase United card was nice for earning lots of United miles and having excellent associated travel insurance.

Money: The ratio was about 10 South African rand per 1 US dollar. We opted to get SA money to have on hand before leaving the US so we wouldn’t have to stress over finding an ATM right away. This was a good decision!

Medical: Malarial prophylaxis: I hated my first one as my mind was in a dither all night and I couldn’t sleep so I changed to malarone before leaving. I also received typhoid vaccine and Cipro (just in case a horrible case of diarrhea develops). We received yellow fever exception letters as we are “old” and would have lots of side effects. Poor mom had a prolonged aggravating conversation about all of this with the travel clinic at Kaiser with someone who was inexperienced and difficult to understand.

Electricity: Weird plug for South Africa (3 large round prongs), Zimbabwe was easier with a British style adapter. Both need converters (which all of our phones/tablets had built into the charger).

Documents: I scanned my documents into my gmail just in case (credit card contact, passport page, etc). What a great idea as I could pull up this information anywhere (if internet was available).

Shopping!! What fun – the reversible COMFORTABLE capris from Costco were a real find. We had rolling backpacks for the second carryon and I had a handy smaller backpack for carrying stuff while touring. All of this worked great!

Books: Mandela – long walk to freedom was fantastic. James Michener “The Covenant” gave a good history in a story format but as usual his book was quite long. Here is the map of our trip. You have to look kind of hard to see the yellow lines of our actual route.

Day 1 Long flight to Johannesburg (“Joburg”) – Mon Sept 8th

We both had direct flights to Washington DC and pretty much had to make it to our gate and load up on the South African Air flight. We sat towards the back of the plane and since the flight wasn’t full I managed to snag a 3 in a row seat for laying down and 2 seats in a row on the side. We could take turns sleeping but what a long 17 hours. We had a brief stopover in Dakar, Senegal, where they unloaded and loaded a few passengers and fueled the plane. We were not able to get off though. Then off again after spraying some smelly insecticide throughout the plane. Overall not too bad given free movies, liquor and room to spread out!

Day 2 Tues Sept 9th : Arrival at Johannesburg

We arrived in the evening 9 hours ahead of west coast time. Everything went smoothly – we met up with our luggage and our transportation to the hotel. The drive was about 45 minutes on the “wrong” side of the road through the quite large city of Johannesburg. Nice hotel! We met our South African tour guide who was kind enough to guide us to a pub near the hotel. The meal was great for a very reasonable price. Wine was cheap (about 3 bucks for a large glass). Mom had a great sandwich with spinach, feta, olives and tomatoes. However we found a little difficulty in communicating the need for catsup with the fries. We said “you know, the red stuff” and I finally spotted and pointed to a bottle. It is called tomato sauce in South Africa – they had never heard the term catsup!

Day 3 Wed Sept 10th - A warm and sunny day in Johannesburg

A gorgeous brilliant red sunrise in the haze of the morning (?smog). The parking structure is covered with purple wisteria. Of course remembering it is early spring here we saw some of the trees with flowering and leaves starting to fill in.

We joined up with everyone in our group this morning. Breakfast was a great buffet which included stir fry vegetables, potatoes, sausage and bacon (which was undercooked as we found to be the case in most of the British countries), fruits and pastries. Then we headed off in our bus to explore the very large city of Johannesburg. It is a huge metropolis with evidence of old mines scattered around (gold and diamond mines were present). Mandela’s last home was in a very nice area of town (his home is pictured below). Homes were beautiful but surrounded by barbed wire and electric fences as apparently crime has been an issue at least in the past. There were painted rocks with messages in the beds around the trees outside his compound.

Nelson Mandela’s last home Messages to Mandela on stones

Then we were off to drive towards Soweto over the Nelson Mandela bridge. In Soweto we stopped at freedom square (Walter Sisula square) in the township of Kliptown, Soweto. This is where the Congress of the people met in 1955 and the freedom charter was established. The components of the freedom charter were displayed in the round brick building.

We also stopped at the Hector Pieterson Memorial museum where a young boy died during the 1976 anti-aparteid Soweto riots. After lunch we headed to the Apartheid museum. “Apartheid is exactly where it belongs – in a museum”. Your entrance to the museum was guided by your ticket stating you were white or black. Mom and I entered through the “white” entrance. Very interesting but you could easily use many more hours to explore the museum!

Driving around Soweto we saw lots of slums with people living in shacks. Though apartheid is gone there is still quite a disparity between the black and white populations at least in terms of wealth. We sure didn’t see any white faces in the slums. The shacks had numbers on them identifying what place the family was in line for government housing. It is funny to see a shack with a TV dish and nice car outside. Government housing looked to be small homes but uniform and neat. These often had solar panels on top of them.

Slums with people awaiting government housing

Government housing with solar panels

It was fun to see women carrying large loads on their heads. According to Stuart this has a side benefit as it helps prevent osteoporosis because of the added weight bearing.

We had a total of 26 in our group. This was nice as there was plenty of room on the bus since they can take up to 42 on this tour. All are from the US and range in age from 24 to 91!! As we got to know our fellow travelers we found that they were an interesting and fun group!

Day 4 Sept 11th Thursday – travel to Kruger

Mom’s eventful breakfast involved creating a commotion by knocking over the banana stand and making out with a box lunch using the diabetic card. The waiter was quite nervous about allowing her to take food out of the dining area but managed to sneak it out with her.

We had a lot of driving today but fortunately we were able to spread out on the bus. Our tour director was great in providing narration for much of the ride. Most of the landscape was very dry and flat with the exception of tree “plantations” scattered around. In addition there were banana plantations and some baboons alongside the road.

We had several stops on the way including a great viewpoint of the Klein Drakensburg escarpment and the panorama route through Mpumalanga with a view at “Gods Window”. We had lunch in a small town with a very nice local couple buying us dessert! We stopped at Bourkes Luck Potholes to see some fascinating rock/bowl formations caused from the running water.

Drakensburg escarpment Bourkes Luck Potholes

Then onward to our lovely hotel with dinner and a temporarily lost credit card of mom’s! A knock on our door at 10:30 pm and the credit card was returned with no apparent harm done…

Day 5, Sept 12 Friday – Game drive in Kruger Park

Early wakeup call at 4:30 am! We drove in an open air vehicle with our guide Elvis and our lovely “booney” hats on us. Here we were at the entrance and with our tour guide Stuart in the back of the jeep:

We had one of the better drives of our group as we saw more animals and he provided narration. We were lucky enough to see a few hyena in addition to the many antelope type of animals (impala, nyala, etc) and elephants, giraffe, baboons (with a baby), and rhinos! It certainly helped that there was a river nearby the road which brought the animals to view. The weather was too cold at first and then way too hot! It would have been good to stop early as we were all overheated and not seeing many animals during the latter part of the drive.

We had box lunches and monkeys who were quite interested in participating in the feeding process. One lady in our group lost her apple to a particularly brave monkey. While we were eating the monkeys were busy exploring our vehicle.

Day 6, Sept 13, Saturday – Game drive Kruger Park

Up early again! This time we decided to avoid the heat (though better today) and ride in the comfort of our bus. We learned an awful lot about the animals from our regular tour guide Stuart. We saw the usual impalas but this time a couple of the males were butting horns.

Some of the warthogs were running in the distance with their tails sticking up. The hippos were out of the water today and we saw a good mix of the other animals as noted yesterday. Unfortunately the big cats were elusive.

We headed home a little earlier today and wandered around the grounds of the hotel. It is had beautiful grounds with an herb garden and fruit trees. The weather was great!

Day 7, Sept 14, Sunday – traveled to Swaziland

Breakfast this morning included many trips to the buffet thinking we would need to take enough for lunch. This was quite awkward as one of the waiters sat down at a table right by us. We managed though only to find out that lunch boxes were provided! We traveled to Swaziland which is surrounded by South Africa and is fairly poor with a very high prevalence of HIV positivity. We note that at most rest rooms and other public locations there are free condoms provided. Polygamy is common place (especially for the king). We traveled through a mountainous area with fields of sugar cane and stopped at the top of a hill. We had our box lunch and of course there are natives with stands set up to sell their crafts including a soft soap stone type of carving.

We stopped at a glass blowing factory but unfortunately it was Sunday and the factory portion was closed. We arrived at the mountain lodge high on a hill with very hazy skies (due to smoke from the burning fields).

Day 8, Sept 15, Monday – Swaziland and the Fontein School

We went off to the Mbabane market to buy fruits and vegetables for the children’s lunch at the Fontein school. Of interest to me was that there was a market with a “pharmacy” of sorts with all sorts of powders and concoctions for sale.

What fun we had at the school! The children were so excited about having us there. They did a dance and show for us and then we did a dance and song with them. They were quite organized about the preparation and serving of lunch. With so many kids I guess you would have to be… Many were orphans due to AIDS affecting their parents.

We then went off to our own lunch at the candle factory. They had some of the most incredible large hamburgers at this place! We went back to our hotel and I braved the very cold swimming pool. I can say that it was “refreshing”. We had a free glass of wine with dinner that took forever to deliver (and was not the correct meal after all that).

Stuart organized a lecture on the problem of AIDs in Swaziland by someone who works in an organization treating patients. They have one of the highest rates of HIV positivity in Africa. Fortunately the government has increased its screening and offers free anti-retroviral treatment.

Day 9, Sept 16, Tuesday – Back to South Africa (Hluhluwe)

We drove back to South Africa and had lunch (a quite good buffet) and a show at the recreated zulu homestead. It was awfully hot though and the show went with dancing, whistling and weird shouts by the women too long.

We arrived at our next hotel in a very lush and tropical environment. It was a very strange set up as our bathroom had no doors except where the toilet area was!

Day 10, Sept 17, Wednesday – Hluhluwe game preserve and St Lucia estuary tour

We were up and at ‘em early in the morning for a game drive. Zebra were a good siting today along with wart hogs and close up giraffes.

We had a floating lunch tour while seeing the occasional crocodile and hippo.

Our room key didn’t work and then we weren’t quite sure which room was ours (I mean they all look alike). Quite embarrassing but we ultimately did end up in our room for the night.

Day 11, Sept 18, Thursday – Flight to Port Elizabeth, the egg incident

We had a nice big buffet breakfast. As usual mom was cleverly slipping some food items into her purse. She was particularly pleased that there were hard boiled eggs available. However one of our fellow travelers, Sandy, pointed out that the eggs in the basket were in fact not hard boiled. She had the unpleasant experience of trying to peel one and have it leak all over. I thought – uh oh – and made my way back to our table where the bag mom had put the eggs in had dropped on the floor. You guessed it – goopy egg stuff all over the inside of her bag!

After breakfast and packing we drove to the airport in Durban through rolling hills of sugar cane. Unfortunately John’s bag began vibrating and needed to be investigated before loading it on the plane (just to clarify it was his shaver). But we all made it into very windy Port Elizabeth. But it was a nice city by the Indian Ocean and we had delicious grilled fish at a local restaurant.

Day 12, Sept 19, Friday – Addo Elephant Park

Despite the name of an “elephant park” they were actually not too plentiful. We were quite close to one eating – it uses its great big feet to tear up the grass to make it easier to pick up with its trunk. There were quite a few ostriches wandering around, a turtle (which we almost ran over) and the usual mix of various impala/kudu and the occasional cape buffalo. Zebras and wart hogs made their appearance also.

Then we went back to town and had a good dinner out of Chinese food at a mall near where we were staying.

Day 13, September 20, Saturday: Driving the garden route from Port Elizabeth to Knysna

A beautiful drive on a beautiful day – just perfect weather! There were green hills on one side and the beautiful Indian Ocean on the other.

Deep gorges were spanned by bridges in a couple of places. One of them had the highest bungee jump in the world! We decided bungee jumping was not on either of our bucket lists…

We had lunch at a very upscale town called Plettenberg Bay on an outside balcony with a view to the ocean. The pear gorganzola and walnut salad was delicious. The staff was very friendly at the restaurant – pretty much standard in our experience of South Africa. We had time to walk around one of the neighborhoods with very nice homes.

Then we were off to Knysna (note the K is silent) – the “Pearl of the Garden Route”. Included was a very nice dinner with a view of the inlet with excellent fish (or steak) and dessert with banana/chocolate ice cream.

Day 14, September 21, Sunday: We sat on an ostrich!

It was another day of beautiful weather! We traveled to the Oudtshoorn Ostrich Farm. We had a very informative tour of the ostrich farm and then sat on an ostrich with mom’s classic bend the neck picture!

We then proceeded to have ostrich meat for lunch. It looked more like beef rather than chicken. These flightless birds are grown for their feathers, leather and meat. We had a great dinner of seafood (including Cathy’s brave success of eating a raw oyster) at the Knysna Keys on the bay.

Day 15, September 22, Monday: Walking in the Featherbed Reserve

We actually had a leisurely morning as we aren’t required to leave until 9:30 am! We load up on a very full boat (German tourist group included) to proceed across the lagoon to the Featherbed Reserve. We rode up to the top of the hill on a flatbed truck and from there with our hiking sticks in hand hiked down a path. There are gorgeous views on the hike!

Almost every step required review as it was quite uneven at times. We all made it though without a single injury. Lunch was at a delicious outdoor buffet. We walked around town upon our return. Some areas were a bit busy and scary but everything turned out well.

Day 16, September 23, Tuesday: On the road to Cape Town

We had a nice drive to Cape Town today with a lunch stop in Swellendam. We toured the Drostdy museum in Swellendam which is a former outpost of the Dutch East India Company. The old house contains beautiful antique furniture. We had lunch in town – outdoors by a small creek. A traditional South African dish – bobotie – was served (kind of like a sheperds pie). Trees were in bloom – a reminder that September is early spring in South Africa!

We arrived in the rather huge city of Cape Town and went out for a walk in the evening. We settled on a restaurant (Primi Piatti?) after a “sales pitch” by one of the waiters. He turned out to be the best waiter EVER – always very attentive. We had the best salmon bruschetta!

Note a couple of South African terms: Braais – barbeque, biltong – strips of dried meat like jerky.

Day 17, September 24, Wednesday: Capetown – Kirstenbosch Garden, Township tour and home hosted dinner

It was a very busy day today! First we went to the lovely Kirstenbosch Gardens situated on the eastern slopes of Cape Town’s Table mountain. We saw many examples of the “pincushion” or protea flowers that are the national flower of South Africa. In addition there was a fabulous collection of many other plants. It was cloudy but dry and we had great views over the city as we walked around the gardens.

Then we went on a very interesting township tour. Despite poor living conditions for many the residents seemed happy and well nourished. We saw an example of the “slum” housing including a home visit. This was our tour guide’s home which included his extended family crowded into the small apartment. Then we toured one of the more updated government housing. It was small but tidy and clean with a much more modern kitchen. Many of the slum areas contained tin shed shacks but they almost always had a tv dish and car!

Finally we went to a home hosted dinner in one of the suburbs of Cape Town. Our host was a “coloured” woman (mixed race). She and her sister and family have lived there many years inheriting the place after her mother died. What a gracious and friendly host! She provided a wonderful dinner with lots and lots of food. The first dishes included fish, salad, rolls and pasta. We ate quite a bit of it as we thought it was the entire meal. But no, it was followed by wonderful sweet cooked carrots, chicken and sausage, potato salad and green beans. Wine was provided with dinner also! Dessert was rum and raison ice cream. Our driver, Ihab, was invited for this part of the meal and he asked in a worried way about the alcohol content of the ice cream. We could hear an outdoor party in the park. It was heritage day and there were lots of “brais” (barbeques) going on all over the city. We gave small gifts to our host.

Day 18, September 25th, Thursday: Cape Peninsula

Today we took a road trip to the Cape Peninsula. Mom was all ready to go this morning but forgot to put her shoes on. Boy, I sure have to watch out for her. Our drive took us on a spectacular coastline tour with a number of excellent viewpoints. We arrived at the very tip of the peninsula known as the Cape of Good Hope (the most southwestern tip of Africa). Despite this location it is Cape Agulhas, a couple of hundred miles to the east where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. It was quite windy and cold here and needless to say our pictures reflect this with our hair in a mess. We rode up the Dutchman Funicular (kind of a small train on a track) to arrive at great viewpoint over the ocean.

Next we stopped for lunch. We had very unusual devices at our table setting to hang the fish shish kabobs over our plates. It led to a discussion about what they could possibly be until they brought in the kebobs and hung them over our plates. An interesting and delicious meal!

We next travelled along the False Bay coastline to Boulders to view an African penguin colony. It is an endangered species which is growing in numbers. We could watch them waddle around and also gracefully swim in the water.

Next we headed up to Signal Hill for wonderful views over Cape Town as Table Mountain is STILL cloaked in clouds. Also here is a picture of the “Robben Island 4” standing with a view of Robben Island in the background. Dinner tonight was sushi at the harbor. Great day!

Views over Cape Town from Signal Hill.

The Robben Island bunch!

Day 19, September 26th, Friday: Wine tour, Robben Island and FINALLY Table Mountain

What a beautiful day! I went to Robben Island with 3 other women on our tour. We rode over on the same ferry as many of the prisoners and boy was it a rough ride. Apparently this is a very common situation and sometimes the ferry is cancelled due to rough conditions as the currents are quite strong in the area. We went well prepared with our anti-motion sickness medication. Unfortunately there was a whole group of school kids that were below decks with us and became quite seasick! When we arrived we were assigned a former prisoner to take us around. The prison housed only political prisoners while Nelson Mandela was there. We saw one of the rooms that housed a large group of prisoners as well as Mandela’s cell and the yard where he raised a garden. We were also taken on a bus ride around the island including the rock quarry where the prisoners labored. The view back to Table Mountain and Cape Town from the island was beautiful (and yes the clouds were gone from Table Mountain). What a very interesting tour! It was particularly interesting after reading Mandela’s book – A Long Walk to Freedom.

The ferry Entrance to the prison area

Prison yard area, Mandela’s garden Mandela’s cell

The rock quarry Looking back to Table Mountain

Meanwhile Mom went on a tour of the wine country in Stellenbosch with the rest of the group.

Bottling in back of truck Supervising the wine processing

We happened to get back from the island within 10 minutes of the bus coming by the harbor area and connected up with Stuart using the cell phone of the very nice and cooperative lady at the harbor desk. It was a good thing as we all then headed to Table Mountain – our window of opportunity finally! The cable cars are like the ones in Palm Springs – round with rotating floors. What an absolutely fabulous view from the top!! You can see 360 degrees all over the city, ocean and countryside. We were able to witness the famous “table cloth” as well - clouds started tumbling down the mountain slopes like billowing fabric during the latter part of our time on the mountain.

View of table mountain from harbor Waiting our turn

Beautiful views!

Looking towards the peninsula Cape Town with Robben Island

Clouds spilling over the top YAY – we got to go up Table Mountain!

We topped off the day with a Farewell dinner at a restaurant that rotated during our meal with a view over the city.

Day 20, Saturday, September 27th: Fly to Victoria Falls, walk around the falls.

An early day! We were up and leaving by 5 am (we were the last to get on the bus…). We arrived in Zimbabwe facing long slow lines to get our visa. But it is all worth it as we spent time walking around the magnificent Victoria Falls with rainbows everywhere!

It was a big difference in the weather as it was very warm and humid. Our hotel routinely had wart hogs and impala wandering around the lawns.

We had to be sure and close the sliding glass door and shutters as the baboons are very good at getting into the rooms!

Day 21, Sunday, September 28th: Elephantback Safari, Helicopter Flight and Zambezi River Cruise – WOW what a day!!

Early this morning we set off for our elephant back safari. The two of us rode up high on the elephant (a 19 yo named Maibo) with the trainer who proceeded to inform us all about the exciting life of elephants. Did you know they can’t lie down for long as their lungs are stuck against their chest wall and don’t operate well in that position? They are trained to lean against the “loading platform” in exchange for goodies they receive from the trainer. They then lumbered off with us on top with quite a significant rocking motion. They were pretty good about following the course though they would grab a tasty tree limb when they could. They took pictures of us right next to our elephant. What fun!

The loading platform Look at us!

In the afternoon we took a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls. This was a unique perspective of the falls and well worth the extra money. We were able to see our hotel from the air.

Our hotel from the air Zambezi river leading to Victoria falls

Victoria Falls from a helicopter – WOW!

To top off the day we had a “booze cruise” along the Zambezi River at sunset. It was a beautiful end to the day. Some pictures below of some of our group.

Sunset Wine with our friend Liz

Liz, Mom & I with our leader Stuart Sue, Priscilla, and Mari

Pat, Naveen and Meena Gloria, Bob and Bob

Paula and Francine Tom (MD) and Charlie

Day 22, Sept 29th, Monday: Chobe Park, Botswana

We were up bright and early but unfortunately our driver was 45 minutes late! (Grrrr) We were entering Botswana so of course we had to go through a passport check and also a check by the nurse’s station to be sure we had not been in one of the West African countries with Ebola. In the morning we went into the park in open air vehicles and saw large herds of animals – especially elephants and water buffalo. We were near the river so there were plenty of animals around. We had a delicious lunch at the hotel on the river and then went on a river cruise for yet more animals. There were close ups of the hippos munching on grass and in the water and lots of cape buffalo around. We could see Namibia right across the river. Then we went back to the hotel for a farewell dinner and show by some local African dancers.

Sept 30- Oct 1: Tues/Wed – flight home!

It was a long process which started with the flight from Victoria Falls to Johannesburg. From there we flew Lufthansa to Frankfurt (with an empty seat between us which was certainly nice). We dealt with a very unpleasant German lady in the airport who was quite annoyed that we asked about our gates. (“Didn’t you understand me? Don’t you think I speak good English? Don’t you think I know what I am doing? And so on while she practically chased us away…). I flew to Chicago and caught my flight to Portland with only minutes to spare whereas mom flew to LAX and missed her flight entirely. Fortunately she just caught the next flight down! All and all a 38 hour journey with 24 hours of flight time!

Some thoughts:

Hotels: Overall just excellent. They were always clean and sometimes were even one bedroom units. Breakfasts were always included and were generally quite delicious and plentiful. Internet was always available wherever we stayed.

Itinerary: It was great having at least 2 nights at each hotel so we could settle in. There was some long bus rides but always with interesting stops and good narration by our tour guide. There was a good mix of game drives, scenic drives, sightseeing and cultural interactions. Post trip extension to Victoria Falls very, very worth the extra cost. Had we known how great the pre-trip extension game drive was we would have included it also!

South African People: Never had a bad interaction with anyone! They were always so friendly and helpful.

Our tour guide: Stuart grew up in South Africa and was a great source of knowledge about the country. He remained calm and unruffled at all times despite some very trying situations and people!

Meals: Overall excellent! Often in a buffet format but also some nicer dinners were served to us.

Fellow passengers: We become like a large temporary family with the common goal of learning and having fun.

Overall: It was a fabulous interesting trip!!!! I was glad to help mom out with her bucket list! I would definitely return to Africa again!!!

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