Zimbabwe and South Africa - Vic Falls and Blyde River Canyon
Europe - Germany, Belgium, and France
Nepal - Around Manaslu
Australia - Driving around Southern Australia
Australia - Olympics
Australia - Great Barrier Reef
Thailand - Bangkok
Vietnam - Central and South
Vietnam - North
Egypt - Along the Nile
Egypt - Touring and diving
Israel and Jordan
Brief return to the USA
Ecuador - Quito and surroundings
Ecuador - Galapagos Islands
Ecuador - Quito and the jungle
Peru - Machu Picchu and Lima
Peru - Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Zimbabwe and South Africa - Vic Falls and Blyde River Canyon
South Africa - Motorcycle trip
Argentina - Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls
Argentina - Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes
Chile - Exploring the Lake Region
Chile - Pucon and the Bio Bio
Argentina - El Calafate and El Chalten
Chile - Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine
Argentina - Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia
Chile - Santiago and Punta Arenas
Guatemala and Honduras - Rio Dulce and Copan
Guatemala - Coban and Spanish school
Guatemala - Tikal and Spanish school
Guatemala - Antigua and Spanish school
The day started rather early with a 4:30 wakeup call to make our 6:30am flight to Johannesburg and a connecting flight to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
While we waited during our 2 hour layover Tom and Louisa went through the motions of the VAT refund. It worked quite smoothly. It does require going to 3 different places. The first was before checking luggage and seat assignments. This is where they are supposed to see each item, however we were only asked "Where is your luggage?" which seemed to suffice.
Next stop was in the international terminal waiting area. Here we actually had a short wait. This is where they take the cash register receipts (note, the shops in SA do not need to issue any additional paper work than the standard receipt) and calculate the VAT that you are due in refund. One of our vendors was not in the computer system, so that requires a manual procedure on their part, but they will mail us a check in US funds once the process is complete, in an estimated 3 or 4 weeks. We were not surprised about the vendor since he had never issued a receipt before and were pleased with the ease of the process. The man immediately issued us a check for the remainder of our refund.
The next shop is a currency exchange that accepts the VAT refund check. They cashed it and exchanged it into US dollars. The latter two companies do take a nominal fee, but we ended up with $22 cash, and a larger check on the way. The VAT refund process was fast, efficient and easy. Further, this was a welcome change compared to the hoax in Argentina.
The rest of the time we enjoyed reading the English newspapers, books and magazines. The flight to Victoria Falls was completely full, including many Americans which made Louisa feel more secure about traveling to Zimbabwe.
We had a nice driver who took us to Matetsi Safari camp. At first glance, the political situation does not seem to be a problem here. We did not probe to far but initial comments make it appear to be very isolated and not widely supported.
Matetsi in a word is impressive. They greeted us with the utmost of courtesy and service. Towana was our guide and driver and Steven our tracker. The latter attempted to teach Tom and Louisa how to say 'Good Afternoon', 'How are you', and 'Fine, thank you' in three local dialects, but it did not seem to stick.
Each room is actually its own building that is not visible from any other building on the property. The cabanas are amazing. They are made of dark wood with iron door accents and thatch rooms. The bedroom is divine, and the bathroom is equally as large with a huge bathtub, indoor shower, and outdoor shower. Finally, there is a patio with individual plunge pool. All of the rooms, and the patio have a view of the Zambezi River, which is about 50 feet away from the pool.
When we arrived we mentioned our hunger and lack of edible food on the planes. By the time we walked to our rooms and returned to the 'public area' they had produced an amazing spread of food for lunch. We ate at the dinner table, also feet from the Zambezi. They served the food in magnificent style. It was presented as a huge wicker beehive, under which was a four tier tower.
Tea was served just before 4:00pm and then we were off on our first game drive. Two other guests joined the four of us, Doug and his wife Matsuki. They are Australian, live in Brisbane and desperately wanted to see elephants.
The game drive started out slow, but soon we saw a group of 12-15 giraffes in shade of some trees. It was wonderful to watch them walk, eat and communicate.
As we continued, we passed many small herds of impala. While the impala are plentiful and appear to be very similar to the deer in North America, they also have a grace about them. Then Towana spotted a huge herd of Southern (Cape) buffalo. They were away from the road 100 yards or so. Tom asked if we could get closer, and Towana off roaded us until we were about 20 yards away from the edge of the herd. Fun to see the huge bull, females and calves.
Further along, a group of wildebeest were grazing in a field. Near these Steven saw elephant tracks. They were huge, and surprisingly consist of quite a few pads on the bottom. Towana and Steven saw him ahead entering some trees and we were off. By the time that we had driven round the trees, the elephant had already cleared them. The distance he covered was impressive. He was on his way to the watering hole, so we drove around to the far side of the water and watched. He drank, gave himself a shower, sloshed mud all over himself then powdered himself with dust.
We continued on, which happened to be in front of the Safari Camp, passed a family of warthogs in the distance who were near some more wildebeest, and came upon another herd of buffalo.
We started to head back, but stopped for Gin and tonics and gamy biltong as dusk fell. We chatted away and as soon as we loaded into the Landrover we saw 4 more elephants at the watering hole. We drove along slowly and were rewarded with two more elephants reflected in the starlight on the watering hole. It was a magical.
On the way back to the Water Lodge, we drove through another herd of cape buffalo, but the pictures only caught their eyes. We also saw an African wild cat cross the road.
Dinner is cooked and served by the edge of the Zambezi. The four of us were joined by Doug, Matsuki, Towana, and Jeffrey (lodge manager). The food was delicious, conversation fun, and the setting spectacular.
Compared to Shamwari, this seems much more like Africa. It is more wild, and tracking the animals throughout a vast territory makes finding them more rewarding. Oddly, the lodge is much more luxurious than Shamwari as well.
As we turned around we saw a civet laying on a tree branch not 6 feet away. The civet is a nocturnal cat with an appearance that is a cross between the raccoon and a house cat. It watched us intently. Shortly we noticed another, much larger civet in a tree slightly farther back. They were probably a mother and juvenile that were scared by the lion and ran up the trees for safety.
After taking a few pictures we retuned to lion tracking. We followed another parallel road and saw no crossing tracks, thus establishing the section of bush where the lion was hiding, but despite repeated passes and patience, he remained concealed.
We gave up for a while and took Doug and Matsuki to the boat dock where they were taking a morning ride. On the way we alerted other rangers to the tracks we had found. Once they got out, the four of us, with two guides, began searching for other game.
After a short time we heard over the radio that another vehicle had seen the lion, so we drove back. By the time we got there, he had disappeared into the bush again. We saw where he had been lying down, but no lion. We did see a side-striped jackal run across the road, though, so we had at least one predator.
On the drive, we saw lots of impala, as usual. We did stop briefly to watch a couple of males in a bachelor herd fight for dominance. More rare were the shy kudu we saw in the bush, as well as a herd of beautiful sable antelope. Baboons were pretty plentiful, as well. We stopped to watch a troop eating, and were fascinated by the young ones jumping between the split trunks of a tree.
We heard about a kill that another car disovered, but it was too far to go see. Apparently they saw leopard and hyena prints, but no animals.
For birds, we saw a huge white backed vulture breaking off long sticks from a tree for nest. There was also a beautiful male paradise whydah that changes color and grows long tail feathers when mating (as now). His tail feathers were over a foot long, and still growing.
We stopped by a watering hole for tea and coffee, and then headed back to camp with Tom in the tracker seat. Tom is fired as a tracker, because we saw nothing with him up there, although we did go through the thickest bush.
During breakfast overlooking the Zambezi, a vervet monkey came to play in a nearby tree. After breakfast Susan and John had lots of monkeys playing in the bushes around their cabana.
We decided to go see the falls, so we took the various shuttles for an hour or so and got there around 11:30. We paid our $10ea to go in, and started on the left side, near Devil's Cascade. Susan and John quickly established their own pace, so we separated. As we worked our way along the falls, the cascades got successively higher and more powerful.
The speed, power and fury of the water in the river amazed us. The sheer power and volume was astonishing. We followed the good boardwalk that winds along the top crest across from the falls. Every 20 yards or so they have created lookouts onto various cascades.
We walked along the boardwalk with a black Zimbabwe family who were dressed up and Dad was taking lots of portraits. After the first two lookouts we started to swap taking each other's pictures.
The water was very high due to the heavy rains to the NW of Vic Falls. The town had not received much rain, but the rain fall there does not affect the volume in the Zambezi much, it depends on the rains in the areas between the source and the falls.
The water level was near the highest ever recorded. In fact, they had cancelled many of the water activities, such as the white water rafting and canoeing. The high water created a mist everywhere. As we approached the main cascade the mist contined to thicken, at times it was impossible to see the waterfalls. The :rain reached 25 yards back into the land, and sometimes the drops would come from overhead and othere times would seem to come up from the ground.
The mist became more and more constant. At one lookout Tom got absolutely drenched, Louisa laughed, but not for long. Soon we both got drenched at the overlook point for the main falls, supposedly 95 meters tall, but we could not see a thing because of the thick mist.
We met a white couple from England who were born in Zambia. At 18 they immigratd from Zambia to Zimbabwe by train. As they rode across the Victoria Falls bridge that spans the gorge between Zambia and Zimbabwe, the entire train threw their Zambian residency cards away as they went over the gorge. It was a strong shout of good riddance and freedom! They lived in Zimbabwe until 25 years ago when they moved to England due to political strife. We had an interesting conversation with them about the political situaion in Zimbabwe currently.
On our walk out of the park we stopped at a sunny spot and wrung out our T-shirts which were absolutely soaked. The strong heat helped us dry out quickly. Actually, on the 1k walk back to town it felt good to be wet!
We found Susan and John in a new hotel, The Kingdom, which was hysterical. It was built with a serious safari theme. We walked over to the post office to head back to Matetsi early since the town of Victoria Falls was not pleasant. The locals were constantly hounding us to exchange money (scam) or buy wooden figurines of bush animals. We lucked out since our driver for the Matetsi was early and waiting for us.
Even with returning early we only had an hour to enjoy our luxurious accommodations. We relaxed on our terrace by the plunge pool and enjoyed the pleasant day.
For the evening activity, Susan and John opted for the motorized boat along the mighty Zambezi while Tom and Louisa chose to go via canoe. The latter pair rode with Donzani, their guide and paddler. We drank gin & tonics while Donzani steered us along the banks, mixed our drinks and passed them to us on his oar. What a life!
Along the flooded shore, we saw water birds and a huge fish eagle that soared ahead of us for awhile. During the slower parts of the journey, Donzani explained to us about papyrus grass, and water berry trees that grew along the old banks, but were now flooded in 2-3m of water.
Another sight was a Baobab tree which had been devoured by elephants. They eat the heart fiber which damages the tree. It looked like a cartoon. It was a huge tree with a big bite taken out of it.
We did not see any animals for the first hour. We were almost at the end when we saw a huge troop of baboons strung out along the shore. There were easily 100 if not more. There were big ones, little ones, old and young, playing, eating and walking around. One ancient one was sitting oon a log resting and it looked remarkably like a person sitting there.
When we landed, we were greeted by Towana with news of lion sighting nearby. He hurriedly loaded us into the landrover and we were off! We *hurried* there in the rover when we saw dozens of baboons high in a tree, barking and very agitated. The tree looked as if it was adorned with baboons. The sun was behind the tree, so the baboons were large black christmas ornaments filling the limbs. That was a magical sight, let alone what was to come.
We waited our turn and drove into bush to peek at 2 lions lying down in thick bush. The sun was quickly descending which made it hard to see them, but Towana said that while they both looked female, one was a 2-3yr old adolescent male. Males do not grow their mane untiil about 4 years. It was too dark for pictures really, but it was fantastic to see the lions!
We returned to lodge to shower. Tom rated the shower an 11, while Louisa rated it only a 9. But we did measure it - 4x6 feet - to build a similar one in our future home. Funnily enough, the shower came up in conversation and John agreed with Tom, best shower head in existance.
We had another delicious dinner on the bank of the Zambezi and talked with Towana about the bush. Other travellers had arrived and ate the table nearby, but not on the banks of the river. The four were part of the conservation society that owns Matetsi.
We turned off on a side road. As we drove along the road we saw lions cross it in front of us! We cleared some bushes and there they were, four lions (one lioness and 3 young males). They were on the move, walking in the grass alongside the road. One laid down in the grass to observe us while another let out a low roar. Baboons in the background were making a cacophony. It was magic watching them in their element.
Other lions had been spotted further on, so after awhile we moved on. Three lionesses reclined in the bush. One was hidden incredibly well in the bush, almost invisible to the eye. The other two were more visible, but still not in the open. While we observed them Towana shared information about lionnesses, such as that they are the true hunters.
Suddenly a male impala crossed in front of the landrover in the direction of the lionesses. He turned the corner and ran in front of the three lionesses without even noticing that they were there.
Male impala number 2 followed not 30 seconds later, but 10 meters from a lioness that had stood up at the sight of the first impala, he stopped short. The two stared at each other. As the lioness started to leap, the impala ran off back the way he came. He did not run too far, though. He kept the lioness in sight as he snorted a warning call.
The baboons continued their cacophony in the tree behind us. We watched for quite a while, engrossed and excited, but there was no more activity.
We drove on through forest, but didn't see much for a long while. Eventually we came upon a big herd of buffalo near the water hole just past Safari Lodge. Next we witnessed wildebeest, zebras and warthogs together in a field. It was interesting to see the three species side-by-side and intermingled.
We saw lots of birds - doves, glossy starlings, fish eagles, and turkey buzzards (ground hornbills) throughout the drive. There always seem to be a plethora of birds. On the approach to the lodge, two snakes crossed the road.
We go back a little late, so we had a quick breakfast, and hit the showers. The outside shower was great, but a little too exposed for Louisa, who opted to go in. While we packed, a hotel manager bothered us twice to hurry up, even though we were not late for our 11am ride. At checkout, we discovered a $200 extra charge for the airport transfer - a nasty surprise - and had some confusion with exchange rate. A poor ending to what had been a delightful stay.
We endured the long ride to airport, and had an uneventful flight to Joburg. There, we found a Mercedes 200 class at Avis, and with Tom behind the wheel (on the right side of the car), we headed north towards Nelspruit.
Once it got dark, we started calling hotels, but everything was full due to the holiday weekend. We finally stopped at one, and they called around to find a couple of rooms at the Hotel Malaga. We backtracked 35km, and checked in to this mediocre "resort". Dinner was included, and lame, but we ate it and crashed.
We got up relatively early to head up to Blyde River Canyon, but after breakfast Susan wasn't feeling well. She and John decided to stay in for the day, so we jumped in the car for a day trip up and back.
After a bit of navigation (the maps don't exactly agree, with each other or reality), we drove through Sadie and on to Graskop. Sadie seems like a typical tourist town, with lots of places to stay and eat and cute shops. Graskop wasn't quite as nice, but is the gateway to a bunch of waterfalls.
We stopped at Bridalveil falls and hiked up to the upper one (about 10 minutes). The falls are beautiful, thin and wispy. Next, we saw Long Creek falls, much more volume and power, but still a narrow forest fall over a high cliff. This one also had a nice picnic area, where many families were eating.
We still weren't hungry, so we continued up to the canyon. Our first stop was Pinnacle, an interesting rock formation with a view of the lowveld behind it. We then drove a bit higher to God's Window, which unfortunately put us into the low cloud layer. We hear that the view is great - we could barely make out the ground at the bottom of the escarpment. We did do the hike up to the "rain forest" which was mildly interesting, but we missed out on the view.
Next stop was Bourke's Luck Potholes, where the Tyrdele (sadness) River meets the Blyde (happiness) in a series of waterfalls and narrow canyons. This was probably our most scenic stop of the day, somewhat reminiscent of parts of Zion National Park in the US.
We were hungry by this time, so we stopped by the snack bar for some grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches - surprisingly good. We also began shopping for a tall carved giraffe to buy as a souvenir, but we didn't find anything we liked.
By the time we got to the Three Rondavels the sun had come out and the view was marvelous. We took some pics, and met a nice older couple from New Zealand. We then drove on down the canyon, but there really wasn't anything left to see.
Because of the direction of the sun, we decided to drive back along the same route. We stopped briefly at Wonder View (near God's Window) and saw most of the view that we had missed before. We also took a small side trip to Pilgrim's Rest to see the restored town, but we hardly got out of the car - it was cute, but very touristy. We then made tracks for the hotel where John and Susan waited, stopping only for gas (for the conversation with the attendant, see below).
We arrived back at the hotel to find Susan feeling much better, but still not up for dinner, so John accompanied us to the hotel dining room. After another dinner of institutional chow, we retired.
We got up for a short run along a dirt road behind the hotel, giving us a full tour of the amenities of this "resort" - not exactly the height of luxury. We had a brief breakfast then were on the road before 9am. We had a straight 3hr shot to Johannesburg. At one point, we drove into a somewhat shady neighborhood, but we navigated our way out and checked into the Rosebank by noon. Susan and John opted to stay close to the hotel for lunch and the afternoon while Tom and Louisa headed out to Sandon.
The latter is a suburb with a mall that many people recommend, but seemed very average after the trip there. Today was a National Holiday, Workers Day. This meant that all of the shops were on their Sunday schedule, closing at 2pm. This was amazing and disappointing to us. Fortunately, the bookstore remained open.
It is such a treat to have English books available! We scanned the shelves for commentaries of current history in South Africa and found one that leads up to the elections in 1994. We also read most of the books available in the world travel section as more research for the second half of our trip.
We returned to the hotel for the last part of the afternoon. Louisa hopped on the internet for a power session while Tom devoured the PC Magazine just purchased. We returned to The Grillhouse for another delicious steak dinner with an exquisite bottle of South African cabernet. The waiter actually remembered us from three weeks ago which was fun.
We packed up all of our goods, including a huge bag that Susan and John are lugging home for us. Tom headed down to use the wonderfully fast internet connection one last time. Very strange to think that we will be in Bolivia in a day and a half.
We could hardly believe that we negotiated all of the lines in about 15 minutes. What were we to do with all of our time, but shop in the duty Free stores. We had incredible luck with a few items (but no huge carved giraffe) and then boarded the flight.
We were surprised to find that coach class was about 70% full, but business class had a whopping one person.
We logged another flight without sleeping a wink. We were exhausted, which made baggage claim and immigration seem to take even longer. Upon checking in at 6:00 we called Damian and Laurita, made plans for dinner at 8:00 and then crashed for two hours.
For the third time, we tried to dine at Laurita's favorite pizzeria, 1893, but it was closed. We ate at a local parilla for our last Argentinean meal. Again, dinner conversation was lively and interesting. Laurita and Damian were sympathetic and spoke in English which was fantastic since we were exhausted and had not spoken a word of Spanish in three weeks.
We thought that we had finally been allowed to treat them to dinner when they stopped on the way home and bought us Argentinean treats, dulce de leche cookies, dulce de leche, and a bottle of Argentinean wine. The evening was definitely the best way to end our time in Argentina.
Observations on South Africa
No one was wearing traditional clothing, women do tend to wear skirts, black women wear clothes that do not match, but no one seems focused on fashion
The political situation definitely seems tenuous. While we did not sense direct tension, or undercurrents of violence, many people with whom we talked shared their unhappiness with the current economic situation. One white business owner who seems to have a profitable business expressed his interest in leaving South Africa and starting over elsewhere.
Other signs of the lack of confidence in the situation we concluded through observation. The Rosebank has definitely gone through management changes. The staff at the front desk have good intentions, but are not able to fulfill requests to them quickly and easily. Further, the hotel has stopped offering the free airport shuttle due to a "lack of sufficient funds." The withdrawal of the previous management from a well-located, well-respected hotel seems significant.
The Victoria Junction in Cape Town, while a relatively new hotel, did not appear to have current investment into it for maintenance. One room we were offered did not have a bed side table, nor a leg on one corner of the bed. Additionally, doors in the hallways were badly damaged and missing door handles. Again, the lack of maintenance signals a lack of confidence in a future.
Overall, many workers in South Africa did not demonstrate adeptness nor adequate knowledge to conduct their job effectively. A lack of on-the-job training and a sufficient education base seem to be causes of the situation. The former can be rectified with investment from senior management, but the lack of education in the majority of the population base is treacherous.
The Sunday paper had an incredibly innovative section for teachers and parents. The four page section dedicated itself to assist teachers and parents help the children learn. It outlined how to teach a child to read, and supplied many suggestions for activities around reading. It also provided a story, with a poster accompaniment along with discussion points, and key vocabulary if the child's first language is not English. What an amazing tool to provide! It seems very simple, but powerful.
One couple were visiting Cape Town for the first time since they moved to England four years ago. They commented that there did not used to be bars on the windows nor such vast quantities of real estate available. They pointed to these indicators as evidence that Cape Town is going the way of Johannesburg.
One gas station attendant commented that he did not believe that the government could or would help him or his peers. When asked about his right to food and housing as stated in the new Constitution, he replied that it is for the people high up in society, not him nor his peers. He commented on the extensive violence (this is in Mpumunlanga) and that he did not think that a solution existed. Further, he stated that people committed the crimes to put food on their table. If there is no other way for them to get money, then crime should be expected.
Worker's day, celebrated on May 1, was used for rallies to organize labor strikes. Many people and papers condemned the "flood of public holidays" commenting on the severe impact on productivity the high number of days closed would have on the economy.
Store shelves are surprisingly empty. Even in the "upscale neighborhoods", such as Rosebank and Sandon, the shelves in the grocery stores, drug stores and pharmacies were surprisingly vacant. The clothing stores seemed to carry a more complete inventory but the stores were redundant.
We noticed no interest to own or invest in any type of business in South Africa. Nothing gave an indication of stability, let alone growth. The government faces a huge task.
South African Vocabulary
While everyone seems to speak English (Afrikaans seems to be spoken by nearly everyone as well) many words are used frequently here that are not quite the same as in "American". For example, a road sign told us "No Hooting" - meaning don't honk your horn. Traffic light are called "robots" - "Go to the robot and take a left." The hardest one to get used to is "Is it?" meaning "Really?" or "You don't say." For example, we say "We're riding motorbikes across South Africa", and they exclaim "Is it!" Very strange from an American point of view.
Of course, there are the many food words, like boerwors (sausage), brindjal (eggplant), and braai (barbecue). Hotels all quote prices as "sharing", which means per person, double occupancy - we always had to double the number to arrive at the cost of the room. And there are the many Britishisms (or non-americanisms) like petrol, motorbike, and punchout (flat tire).
Revised: Wed Feb 13 11:37:55 2008 on