Saturday, July 21, 2007

Day 1: June 24 - The journey begins

Yesterday and today were spent traveling. Rather, they were spent waiting. There was a ton of waiting to be had... wait to check in, wait for security, wait for plane, wait for customs... yawn. Now, my traveling roommate Joanne and I are at the "day room" in London waiting to go back to the airport to catch our overnight flight to Johannesburg.

I didn't sleep on the 6+ hour (red-eye) flight from JFK last night, so I'm almost ready to pass out now. Two overnight plane rides in a row is pretty brutal - especially in economy class. Since we had about 10 hours to waste here, I've gone to the gym for a workout, and had lunch to try to stay awake. Hopefully this exhaustion will mean I'll be able to sleep on the 11-hour flight tonight. But I'm so excited about the trip that I can't imagine sleeping!

But all the waiting has given me a chance to think about the important things I need to pay attention to when I'm in Africa... for example, see if the water swirls in the opposite direction when flushing toilets.

Joanne seems very cool - a retired music teacher from Wisconsin. It's always a crap shoot with roommates, so I'm glad she's pretty laid back (and she claims she doesn't snore - bonus!) She told me that she packed her winter coat... uh oh. :-/ I think I'm going to freeze my tail off in the next few weeks on these early morning and late night safaris. I'm going to steal a blanket off the plane to keep with me. (I'll bring it back and leave it on the plane on the return flight... hopefully my teeth will stop chattering and I'll be able to feel my fingers again by then... but I'm not counting on being warm again until August...)

Day 2: June 25 - Pafuri, South Africa

I've arrived!! After an 11+ hour flight from London to Johannesburg (during which I slept an unimpressive 5 hours) we arrived at the airport bleary-eyed and late, but excited. My poor roommate's bag was left behind in London, so she's borrowing some clothing from me for now. (The same thing happened during my trip to Central America last year! Soon no one is going to want to be my roommate!)

From Johannesburg, we had a 2 1/2 hour flight on a 15-seater plane, and then a drive to the lodge. We're at Pafuri, a region in Kruger National Park, located in the northeast corner of South Africa: We arrived 3 hours later than scheduled, so we were starving and thirsty, but ready for our adventure! On the drive from the airport we were already seeing animals, and had to stop a zillion times to break out the cameras. I started indulging my anal tendencies immediately, and wrote down everything we saw on every trip...

Spotted on the drive from the air strip:
- Nyala (antelope only found at Pafuri park)
- Impala (another antelope)
- African Fish-Eagle
- Red-Billed Buffalo Weaver
- Hornbill

When we arrived at the lodge, we were met by a group of 5 elephants wandering around the riverside and the brush underneath our huts (which are on stilts.) It's so exciting to be here, I can't express how happy I am! Here is the first elephant we spotted, across from the main lodge: The other four elephants were right underneath our hut - here's a photo from our deck:
(Note: My new camera wasn't on a the correct settings this first day, so many of my photos didn't come out very well - and the night-shots were ridiculously laughable. But don't worry, there are plenty more where these came from.)

Our guide, Godfrey, is fabulous, and I don't know how he spies some of the animals through the growth. Tonight, we're heading out for an evening / sunset drive, and then we'll be doing what's called "spotlighting", which is scoping out the brush with a light, looking for the reflection of animal eyes. This is the best way to find the nocturnal animals.

Night drive:
- African Civet
- Three-banded courser (apparently the group before us were avid birders and have been searching for this bird for 3 days... we found it on our first trip out.)
- Large-spotted genet
- Scrub hare

The weather was warm when we arrived - probably about 75 degrees - but as I write this in the evening, it's definitely cooled off significantly. Since we're in lodges, there is no heat, but they give us a hot water bottle which is keeping my toes warm - it's divine!! The sound of frogs and a few crickets is ridiculously loud. I'm glad I'm tired, so I will be able to sleep through it! Tomorrow morning, we get up at 5:30am for a 6am game drive - and I'm sure I'm going to freeze my tush off. The safari trucks have nice thick blankets, though, which is awesome. Hopefully I can wear about 10 of them. Right now, I'm simply excited about the prospect of sleeping horizontally... for the first time in three days... G'night!

Day 3: June 26 - Morning... brrrr!!!

Holy shit it's cold!!!!!! 40 degrees this morning for our 6am game drive. Oof. I wish I had another hot water bottle to heat up my bra before I put it on this morning!!! Gotta run... morning drive is in 20 minutes. The sun isn't even up, and it's darker than pitch.... but I'm so excited I can hardly stand it!!

(Note: A few minutes later, I did manage to catch a photo of sunrise as we headed to breakfast): AM Game Drive to Crook's Corner:
Crook's Corner is where the (dry) Limpopo River and the flowing Luvuvhu River join. (The Limpopo is dry during the winter months of June, July and August.) It's also the border between S. Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Ever since Zimbabwe has hit troubled times, people sneak across this "border" during the dry season to other, safer countries. Unfortunately, they have to contend with the animals, and Godfrey (our guide) told us that the week prior, one person was mauled by a lion as they were attempting to cross. Here's a photo of Godfrey standing on the Limpopo riverbed, looking for tracks. (Across the riverbed is Zimbabwe.) He did spot some lion tracks, but didn't catch up with the kitty...
Here are the animals that we spotted on the morning drive:
- Impala (the money-back guarantee in Africa.. they're everywhere)
- Yellow-billed hornbill (a.k.a. "the flying banana"). These guys were everywhere, too... at every single place we visited for the rest of the trip...- Nyala (a beautiful antelope that is only found in Pafuri. I love his yellow socks...)- Lilac breasted roller: One of the most heart-stoppingly beautiful birds I've ever seen. We spent a lot of time for the next few weeks trying to catch a photo of it in flight where it was - if you can believe it - even more colorful. But I don't think anyone quite caught it... - Warthogs (their tails stick straight up in the air when they're running... like an antenna! Too funny)
- Kudu
- Vervet monkey- Baboons (Most of the animals ran after they saw us... so we had a lot of these types of photos... )
- Crocodiles
- Waterbuck (antelope identifiable by a white ring around it's butt. The story is that the waterbuck was on Noah's Ark, and Noah told him not to use the toilets, but instead to use the bush as the other animals did. But the waterbuck didn't listen, and used the toilets, but he didn't know that there was fresh paint on it. So he got a ring of white around his tush. God was angry with him, so he cursed his descendants forever with a white ring on their butts. Poor things. In any case, for some reason, none of my photos of a waterbuck turned out, so you're spared the image.)
- Grey herons
- Vulture
- Crested francolins
- Go-away bird
- Natal francolins (a.k.a. "Road runner")
- Hippos (very far away. We didn't really count this as a sighting.)
- Steenbok

Another thing that is everywhere: Poop. Especially elephant poop. There were piles of the stuff on every road, path, field, forest and near every body of water. It didn't smell badly - it's only about 40% digested and all they eat are grasses and leaves. But it was, literally, all over the place:

Back for siesta after an amazing morning drive. The Makuleke tribe controls this Pafuri section of Kruger National Park. It's part of a restitution agreement made with the tribe in 1998 as an attempt at a "make good" for kicking the tribes off their land when the park was originally created. In 1998, the tribe was allowed to return to the land, provided that they manage it as a wildlife sanctuary. They have 25 years to prove that they're keen on managing the property, and so far, everything looks fabulous. Everyone who works at the lodge (except for a few trained personnel) are from the Makuleke tribe, including Godfrey, our guide.

During the drive this morning, we saw tons of animals, even if it wasn't any of the biggies. I'm not a big birder, but this is a fabulous place for anyone who is into bird watching. The variety is amazing. It warmed up nicely from this morning's chill, and now it's about 80 degrees outside. So I took a shower in the outdoor shower (and the monkeys watched... weird little voyeurs.) I'm on the patio of our hut now, listening to the elephants wading in the river, and watching the vervet monkeys play in the trees above my head. How cool is this? I'm still tired from the jet lag - and some strange screaming sounds that woke us up a few times during the night last night (eek!) - so I'll probably take a quick nap before our 3pm tea and our afternoon drive.

Day 3: June 26 - Afternoon

Pafuri Lodge's main lodge:
Kathryn and Mary Anne enjoying tea on the patio before we leave for our afternoon drive:
Animals on the afternoon drive:
- Cape Buffalo - Our first sighting of the cape buffalo! They were a bit far away (hence the furry photo below), but it was exciting to see them! We've now officially seen 2 of the "Big Five" (we've spotted elephants and buffalo, and have still to see the lion, leopard and rhino).
- Elephants - We got much closer to the elephants today! These creatures are so majestic and beautiful, it's hard to describe how it feels to see them in the wild. Below, you can see Godfrey's head, and the elephant is mock-charging our vehicle with his ears wide (to make himself look larger.) It was breathtaking to watch them in the wild...
You can see how close they came to the safari vehicles! They walked no more than 30 feet from the front of the truck ahead of us!
We saw quite a few more animals at night, but it was too dark for photos:
- Lesser bush baby
- Thick-tailed bush baby
- White-tailed mongoose

It's not nearly as cold tonight as it was last night... but the hot water bottle is still very welcome on my cold toes! We figured out that the calls that woke us up a few times last night were bush babies. It's amazing how loud those little animals are!

We saw more lion tracks today, and poor Godfrey spend the whole day searching for them... but no luck. Oh well! I can't be disappointed, since we still saw an amazing number of creatures, including a HUGE herd of elephants - with babies! Too cute!

I did manage to pass out on the porch for 2 hours this afternoon during siesta. I guess I'm still feeling the jet lag.

Here's a photo of tonight's sunset:

Day 4: June 27 - Pafuri adventures...

Well, yesterday evening's journal entry was cut off abruptly because we lost power to the tents for a bit. The place runs on generators, and sometimes... well... they decide that they're tired and shut down. So we just took that as a sign that we should get some sleep.

In any case, last night for dinner, we had ostrich (a surprisingly dark meat - like a tough beef) with cranberry sauce. So far I haven't seen any live ostrich, so it seems quite unfair that I should be eating it. Unfortunately, I have to say that personally, viewing them will be more rewarding than tasting them.... the ostriches of the world are officially safe from my culinary experimentations.

This morning was another 5:30am wake up, followed closely by another stunning sunrise. I don't think it was quite as cold this morning as it was yesterday, but it may have just been wishful thinking on my part. Still, the mornings are gorgeous and the sunrises are just as colorful as the sunsets every day. The morning drive was filled with hopes of spotting the elusive lion that had left tracks for us once again. But alas he was nowhere to be found today, much to Godfrey's frustration. The drive was far from being a bust, however, as we had a very close encounter with a bachelor group of elephants - the leader of which got within about 20 feet of the vehicle. It was quite intimidating, and Godfrey told us no talking and no movement, lest it spur the elephant to charge us. Needless to say, most of us simply froze and held our breath... Gack!
We also added wildebeests to our list of sightings today - very exciting since they were just recently reintroduced to the park and they're quite shy around vehicles. We also caught our first glimpse of zebra, but they were disappointingly far away. We saw many more baboons, warthogs, kudu, nyala, impala and a plethora of birds. Me and Godfrey:
Upon our return to the lodge, we spotted a huge, 20-foot long crocodile heading up river, and a buffalo on the far shore. The buffalo is still enjoying a riverside siesta as I write this.

The tents at the lodge are all connected with raised wooden walkways, so that they animals can move freely underneath and the lodge doesn't block their access to the riverside. The paths are beautiful, and each room's walkway has a spear at the turnoff point. When placed across the path, it signals "do not disturb", and if it's left upright (like the one here), it means that we would like a wake up knock. Of course, it's also helpful as a weapon in case an animal attacks... but thankfully we haven't had to test that theory... 8:30pm:
This afternoon was quite fun. A family of about 30 baboons spent about an hour by the river outside the tent, drinking, playing and fighting ... and making quite a lot of noise! They were absolutely hysterical and I had a fabulous time taking way too many photos of them...

We also visited one of the largest - and oldest - baobab trees today, which I climbed into the middle of! I hope the photos turn out... quite an adventure! (Note: Later, I realized that I lost my little camera along the way, so I don't have any photos of the baobab tree adventures... hopefully one of my travel mates will send a photo to me and I will post it!)

We went for a third drive this evening. Godfrey is frustrated at missing the lion, especially since he's been following the tracks for three days! But alas no luck again lion-wise. We did manage to catch a glimpse of a civet, which was absolutely gorgeous. Here's a highly mediocre photo that doesn't even come close to capturing reality:
Also spotted tonight was the double-fisted, green-backed Mary Anne, whose photo came out much better than the civet's. A most generous creature, the Mary Anne, who shared her spirits with everyone...

Tomorrow we're off to start the main portion of our trip and transferring to Chobe National Park in Botswana. We'll spend the main part of the day in transit, so I'm not anticipating anything exciting until Friday.

Day 5: June 28 - So long Pafuri

Geez, it was cold again this morning - no more than 40 degrees, is my guess. I'm going to try sleeping with my clothing tucked under the sheets and see if they are warmer in the morning!! Fortunately, I think I've finally figured out how to dress so that I am not completely frozen on the morning drives. If it was just the 40 degrees, it would be bearable... but with the wind while we're driving, it can get brutally cold on the safaris! Even the monkeys were trying to catch some of the morning sun's warmth this morning: This is our last drive in Pafuri, and we saw more lion tracks, and even saw where they spent the night (Godfrey pointed out the marks in the sand). Another truck radioed us when they spotted four lions on a riverbank, and we rushed to get there (over bumpy bumpy roads!) they had left before we could arrive and we never laid eyes on them. I did get a good shot of a print, though:
We also caught a quick glimpse of a hyena this morning as we were leaving camp - cool! They're much bigger than I had thought, but he ran off before my freezing fingers could manage to get out my camera. In any case, it would have been another "butt running away" shot, which I have a feeling I'll have a lot of by the end of the trip.
The morning drive was still gorgeous, with lovely flowers (I forget what this one is called):
Amazing scenery: And of course, tons of birds. Here is a Goliath Heron, which is - apparently - quite a rare bird to see. He was - true to his name - HUGE, and stood at least 5 feet tall on the riverbank. When he flew away, he had a wingspan of at least 10 feet... it was so majestic.
The abundance of wildlife is stunning, and many times you'll see animals hanging around each other. Mostly they do this for protection - more eyes to see predators coming - and they can use each other to watch for warning signs. Here is an Nyala and a Vervet monkey:
It does seem that every time we go out on a drive we see something new (although now that I've said this, I'll probably jinx us.) This morning, we saw a bunch of Rock Hyrax (also called Dassies) hanging out on the rocky outcrops. They are like huge rats with no tails... but apparently are most closely related to elephants. Shy creatures, they didn't let us get very close, but I did manage to snag a pretty good photo of one while he was sunning himself and trying to get warm:We are overnighting in Johannesburg tonight, and tomorrow, we're flying to Victoria Falls en route to Botswana's Chobe National Park. Thus begins the main portion of our trip, so hopefully we'll start experiencing some culture soon too. I'm looking forward to meeting more of the local people, trying the local foods, and learning about the culture...

Elephant - Loxodonta Africana

"Legend has it that elephants go to special places - graveyards - when they sense the coming of death. There is no substance to this tale, but these giants of the African savannas do show an unusual sensitivity towards, or curiosity about, the bones of their own kind. An elephant group will often appear to be fascinated by the bleached carcass of a long-dead animal, shuffling the bones about with their trunks and even moving them away into denser bush. They pay special attention to the jaw bone."

Day 6: June 29 - Heading to Botswana

11am: Flight to Zimbabwe
Thus far, today has been fairly uninteresting - no wildlife to speak of (unless you count the homo sapien variety.) We flew back to Johannesburg last night, and spent the night at the airport hotel, and had dinner at an "Irish Pub." I can't believe that I flew to Africa and had fish and chips. Oh well. So far, the food quality has been excellent, but hopefully we'll actually get to eat some African foods soon. Today we start the main portion of the trip, which I'm very excited about.

We're on the plane now, flying into Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. There has been much unrest in Zimbabwe recently, and news has filtered through of several tourists that were robbed recently. I think that was in another part of the country, but can't be sure since we don't have much access to news media here. I guess we'll see how things go when we get there. I'm hopeful that all will go smoothly.

My poor roommate Joanne is still missing her luggage. It followed us to Pafuri, but apparently missed our departure by just a few hours. So now they are telling her that they are going to try to catch up to her in Chobe in Botswana. Poor thing is very unhappy, but we're trying to keep her spirits up, and even strangers have given her extra clothing to supplement her wardrobe, and try to keep her warm.

Gotta run - we're landing now, and need to head to get our visas checked...

4pm: Driving through Zimbabwe to Botswana
We just crossed into Botswana from Zimbabwe, and everything was quiet and uneventful. Our guide - Priscilla - is a Zimbabwean and is just a gem. She's absolutely gorgeous and looks at least 20 years younger than her actual age (which I promised I would never reveal.) All of the people that we've met so far have physically been gorgeous. Their skin is flawless, facial features are dramatic and beautiful, and all are quick to smile and embrace us. There may be strife in the Zimbabwe country, but the people are absolutely beautiful.

On the drive to Chobe, we saw:
- Ground Hornbill (huge creatures! at least the size of a large dog)
- Elephants (with baby! too cute!)

- My first Giraffe!!! He wasn't very big, and just standing - like a statue - on the side of the road. But he was so beautiful, and just stared at us... he wasn't moving, except to blink. Yay!!!! Happy, happy Beth! :-) :-) :-) :-)

8:00pm: Baobab Lodge, Botswana (Chobe National Park)

Day one of the "real" tour, and so far it's fabulous. Priscilla is absolutely spectacular, and really quite fascinating and inspiring. My roommate got some new clothes and - more importantly - a lead on her luggage, so we're optimistic that it will arrive soon.

The lodge here is fabulous. Not nearly as luxurious as Pafuri, but the staff is so gregarious and friendly it's almost disarming. They were singing as we drove up, and every time you turn around, one wants to chat with you and give you a hug. These are amazingly warm and friendly people and I'm falling in love with all of them.

Upon arrival, we spied a kudu herd, buffalo and impala, all from the patio of our tent. The rooms smell of sage and campfires (note: must get some sage for my new home when I have it... the scent is divine!)The sunset was wonderful, and a haze made everything look almost like a dream. I don't think my camera captured the feeling exactly, but hopefully you'll get the drift. The acacia tree on the left was beautiful... but while I took too many photos, I don't think it quite captured the subtle colors and hues as I'd hoped:

We spent the evening by the fire pit, telling tales and drinking wine... relaxing from the travels today, and - for the first time - really feeling like we've arrived in Africa... Yay! Happy!