An African Beat

The  Leopard, the Hyena and the Unfortunate Bushbuck

Kruger National Park

Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge at last! The overnight flight from Singapore via Johannesburg to Nelspruit was nothing remarkable and my travel companions (my dear friend and her two sons) and I were just glad to have finally reached the lodge to a warm welcome of cold drinks and even colder towels. The drive to the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve located within the 2 million hectare Kruger National Park was a quiet one with each of us looking out of the window taking in the passing scenery. We were tired. As you read on you will see how magically that tiredness disappeared when we went out on our first safari.

We were welcomed by the warm, able and efficient Lauren Wyndham, the manager of the Lodge. First things first – a safety briefing. She reminded us that the lodge is located in the game reserve, has no fencing and that animals including predators would amble along through the lodge grounds if it were the shortest route to wherever they were headed. (Gulp!) We were not to be alarmed. We were not to run if we chanced upon a dangerous animal (Really?). We were not to wander around especially after dark and we were advised to always dial ‘9’ to send for a ranger to escort us from our accommodation to the reception or dining areas. The safety briefing was making me a tad anxious and as if she read my mind, Lauren then assured us that they have never lost a guest! “Just be sure to follow all the safety rules” – I don’t think she needed to worry about that!

We were escorted to our rooms after a sumptuous buffet lunch. The suites were very well appointed indeed and it was great to relax for a bit after that long journey here. At 3pm, we dialed ‘9’ and were escorted by an armed ranger to where evening tea was served. The lodge overlooks a watering hole! Apparently elephants often stop there for a drink – how magnificent is that! We only saw waterbucks though. It is at this point that our adventure began.

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Watering hole

We were introduced to Pravir, our ranger. (Pravin is going to get a lot of mention as our lives were in his hands). The lodge assigned him to us as he is a photographer too (he is a Canon ambassador, the lucky man).

Pravir, along with his rifle, walked us to where the vehicles were parked. It was then that we realised we were going to be in open vehicles!! Seriously? Open vehicles? Wasn’t it only last week that a ranger was attacked by a leopard somewhere in the vast Kruger Park? Our families and friends who had given us advice to keep our lens and limbs inside would be horrified. We would be easy prey in an open land rover. None of these anxious thoughts translated into words mind you! I suspect each of us had similar thoughts racing through our heads, but we remained calmly excited!

Before we set out, we had another safety briefing – when in the bush, do not speak loudly especially near the animals, do not make any sudden movements that would startle the animals, do not stand up in the vehicle without first checking with the ranger.

It was quite remarkable. The animals were definitely aware of us and after assessing if we were a threat would carry on with their chewing or whatever. I’m referring to giraffes, zebras, bucks, impalas and the like. It is an entirely different story with predator animals. This is where you are wholly and entirely reliant on the experience of your tracker and ranger.

We saw all manner of animals and birds and all nervousness about being in an open vehicle vanished as the wonderful photography opportunity told hold. We were mindful of all the safety instructions of course. As we were driving along, our ranger received a message that a leopard had been spotted (pun played in nicely there) and off we went!

It is incredible how much you don’t see in the bush! The camouflage of the animals is truly amazing. There were so many we missed until they were either pointed out or we were upon them before we noticed them. That goes for all creatures large and small! It was the same with the leopard. I swear had this magnificent creature not been pointed out, I would have surely walked right into her!

Anyway, there she was lying in the grass nonchalant and mildly irritated by flies (and maybe at the strange gawking animals with huge bulging eyes making a lot of clicking noises too). I think she must have determined that we were just pesky irritants not worth the bother. Her kill (the unfortunate bushbuck referred to in the title) was safely put away up on the tree for her supper later no doubt.

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Leopard camouflaged in the grass

Frankly, I was just plain stupefied that we were barely 10 feet away from a leopard! I never thought that possible in my wildest imagination! Our first encounter with the Big 5, and it was with a leopard! The most elusive of animals and the one that is hardest to sight. We spent quite a lot of time sitting (quietly, except for the clicking of our cameras) watching her. How beautiful she was. God’s magnificent creature. Only man, of all animals would think to kill it just for pleasure.

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Open vehicle and proximity to leopard

After quite a long while, we moved on and we encountered the second of the Big 5. A massive rhino. Again I couldn’t believe how close we got. He was marking his territory and as he used his hind legs to cover his dung kicking mud and sand vigourously, it almost seemed like a charge. He too was definitely aware of our presence and looked menacingly in our direction. Actually he may not have been menacing, the poor creature cannot help but look menacing with his great beautiful dual horns. Again, the rhino, poached for their horns by simple-minded men who think it will give them great prowess.

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Marking his territory

Our next stop was rather unexpected. It was dusk and the sun was setting and Pravir drove us to a nice secluded spot (no animals) and he and Ronnie proceeded to take out picnic baskets. (What?? Picnic? In the bush?? Er … must we??) Out came all kinds of snacks and even wine. Thus lubricated and fed, we relaxed and talked photography and we shot photos of the moon. Pravir’s 500mm was the envy of the rest of us. I couldn’t even carry the lens:-)

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Camouflaged 500mm

It was dark by the time we set off and Pravir thought it would be a good idea to go see what our Lady Leopard was up to. (Honestly? In the dark?) It was to be a sight and experience that will stay with me forever.

The leopard was up on the tree, audibly crunching on her kill and the sound of bones cracking and the leopard slurping was quite unreal in the still of the night. Ronnie, our tracker shone a strong searchlight onto the tree and surrounds and right below the tree, waiting for scraps to fall was a hyena. It was surreal. The light, the leopard, the hyena, the unfortunate bushbuck …

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Leopard savouring her kill

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Hyena waiting for scraps below the tree

We drove back exhilarated and amazed. As we got off our vehicle and were walking toward the lodge, we saw a huge hyena just at the entrance. It turned to look at us and Pravir very calmly told us not to move. We just stood perfectly still. No bravado here. None of us reached for our cameras – too risky. It was only a minute or so and it turned and moved on. Incredible.

Dinner was a cultural experience. It was something called a ‘boma’. Boma is an enclosure made of latte sticks, has an open fire and traditional food. Impala steak we all agreed was more tender than beef steak. The adrenalin came down to normal levels and we agreed we would make an earlier start than usual to catch the dawn light and had a most restful night.


‘Whatever you do, don’t run’!

Kruger National Park

Today was nothing short of astounding. We started at 5.45 am – had coffee and croissant and headed off into the cold cold morning. It was a delightful surprise to find comforting hot water bottles and blankets in the vehicle to keep us warm as we drove in the cold winter morning.

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Lion’s paw print

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Getting ready to track the lion

Apparently rangers found lion tracks at some part of the reserve in the night and that’s where we were headed this morning. I could hardly contain my excitement – what? were we actually going to see a lion! The razor sharp eyes of our tracker Ronnie is incredible! He found the tracks and from then on we kept following it but the lion remained elusive.

While we tracked the lion we came across zebras and benign giraffes, lots of waterbucks, impalas, a variety of birds and we just took it all in.  We also made a stop to see how our Lady Leopard was doing and there she was lazing in the grass. All that was left of the bushbuck were entrails hanging from the tree.

All that was left of the bushbuck

The morning went swiftly by and we had a lovely surprise – the folks at Sabi Sabi knew it was Son No.2’s 21st birthday today and they had a surprise champagne brunch set out in the bush, complete with white table cloth! Who would have expected that! Loaded rifles at the ready, we all sat down to a lovely breakfast! We had champagne breakfast while a lion roaming about?!

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Champagne breakfast in the bush

I still cannot believe we did what we did next. One of the options we had was to do a walking safari and we agreed (!). Safety briefing once again. Walk in single file. Be very quiet. Hand signals were taught and learnt.

And most importantly, “whatever you do, don’t ever run!”. You can never outrun a lion (22.2 metres per sec), or an elephant (11.2 metres per sec) and as I read somewhere – if even Usain Bolt doesn’t stand a chance it’s best for us not to try … Anyway, as Pravir said it’s harder for him to protect us if we’re running and to shoot an animal if it’s moving fast!

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Walking safari – bringing up the rear

With that, breakfast was digested instantly, adrenalin took over and we started out in single file. I brought up the rear and I can assure you I was as nervous as hell and kept continually looking around 360 degrees. Danger can come from behind too! I can’t say I felt the same excitement I felt earlier about seeing a lion. I was thankful that after more than an hour of walking the only big game we saw was a languid giraffe that moved away as he saw us approaching. We walked safely back to the lodge, to our collective relief. We didn’t even encounter a snake, thank goodness.

After lunch, rest and tea, we set off again. While we kept looking for lion tracks we saw a number of other game – aardvark and wildebeest included when a ranger radioed that another leopard was sighted. We raced off in that direction and followed the leopard’s trail to some rocks where she was relaxing. It was really rocky uneven terrain but that didn’t deter Pravir from driving us as close as possible. We sat and watched its every twitch and scratch and we clicked away getting some amazing images. Then she seemingly got bored and ambled gracefully down the rocks and walked right past in front of us. We could hardly believe it. She didn’t even deign to throw us a glance, she just walked on by. She was stunning.

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She just walked on by

We then chanced upon another rhino. This time we got even closer than yesterday! As we drove on we came upon a herd of elephants. We didn’t go too near as the male made it abundantly clear to us to stay away. That made it the third of the Big 5 that we had sighted. The lion remained elusive despite all Ronnie’s and Pravir’s (and the other rangers and trackers) efforts to track it down.

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Rhino eyeing us – just a few feet away

We skipped sunset drinks to try and locate the cape buffalo before it got too dark. I found it incredible how these trackers and rangers find their way about in the bush. After much driving, we came upon the buffalo herd.

The cape buffalo is supposedly the most dangerous of the Big 5. We were told it has 300x the adrenalin of a lion! We sat in our vehicle (‘make sure you do not stand’) at the edge of the herd and as we sat there watching them, many would stop to eye us as well. Gradually the herd surrounded us, it was getting quite dark and it was with some trepidation that I wondered how we would get out of there.

Slowly and without causing alarm we drove out and all in one piece. It was dark and it started to rain. We put on the provided ponchos to protect our cameras and Ronnie continued to find lion’s prints – even in the dark!! The search for the elusive lion continued for a while more in the rain and with powerful searchlights before we had to give up and get back.

What a day. What a life changing experience. It was nothing short of astounding. And despite the fear and excitement, I know it’s something I’d want to do again.

The night ended on a high note at the ‘Boma’ with more champagne and a birthday cake for our 21 year old!

Two days that will never be forgotten and two nights that will always be remembered. To see more of my photos of these two days, click on this link

http://www.shobhagopinath.com/Travel/South-Africa/


Cruising Down the Zambezi

Livingstone, Zambia

Another morning of airports and waiting and a short flight to Livingstone. Needless to say all the famous lines and words relating to Livingstone and the famous Victoria Falls enter my mind unbeckoned (as result of good primary education I’d like to think) – “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”, “The Smoke that Thunders”, “natural wonder of the world” – I could not believe I was walking the places I had I only read about in my school geography book!

It was a slow-paced day right from the get-go. We were picked up by a soft spoken driver who drove at a speed that matched his speech. At an unrelenting 30km/h, he pointed out various points of interest. He didn’t mention Dr Livingstone although the town is named after him. For those who don’t remember, Dr David Livingstone was a Scottish missionary explorer who lost contact with the outside world for 6 years. When his dispatches ceased and there was no news from him, in 1869 Dr HM Stanley was sent to look for him and when he finally found him in 1871, in the typical under-stated British manner, he asked him with the now famous words “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”.

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View of Victoria Falls from the hotel lawn

Livingstone (local name Maramba) is a large-ish town that was once Zambia’s capital before it was moved to Lusaka. The main draw here is of course safari, bird-watching and Victoria Falls. A short drive through town and out again to the outskirts brought us to the Royal Livingston which was also located in a game reserve – except this game reserve didn’t have the big game such the Big 5. Only silent zebras could be seen along the driveways and between buildings chewing away at the shrubs. Walking into the Royal Livingstone was like walking into the colonial past – men with sola topis, uniformed and gloved, ready to attend to you. The check-in process was a hoot –  they give you a hand massage while you’re waiting!

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The Royal Livingston

 

The Royal Livingstone is located at the banks of the mighty Zambezi with a beautifully landscaped garden. From the deck at the river bank, you can see the sprays of the Victoria Falls in the distance. We spent the evening on a cruise aboard the “Lady Livingstone”, unwinding and imbibing the beauty around us as we gently swayed with the waves. I had to pinch myself – I was cruising down the Zambezi!

 


“Gazed Upon by Angels”

Livingstone, Zambia

“Creeping with awe to the verge, I peered down into a large rent which had been made from bank to bank of the broad Zambezi, and saw that a stream of a thousand yards broad leaped down a hundred feet and then became suddenly compressed into a space of fifteen to twenty yards.” – Dr. Livingstone’s description of the falls when he first saw it.

He went on to write, “No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never before been seen by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

Because of the tremendous noise, mist and spray it causes, the locals call it Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning “The Smoke That Thunders.” Livingstone renamed it after his queen and it is now more famously known as “Victoria Falls”.

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Double rainbow delight

We stood on the Zambian side and watched with awe. It was breathtaking. We were greeted with not one but two rainbows! The area surrounding the falls is designated as a national park, it is home to a variety of trees and plants and animals. We walked along the slippery walkway along the edge of the falls, having to wear ponchos at one point (to protect the cameras) as the sprays were drenched us.

 

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Victoria Falls – Eastern Cataract, Zimbabwe

 

One of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world, Victoria Falls is located on the Zambezi River, forming a border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. 80% of the falls is on the Zimbabwe side and we brought our passports along to make the crossing to Zim. Zim used to be the more popular destination but the decline in security and other issues sees dwindling numbers with more tourists staying on the Zambian side and making the hike across as we did.

Victoria Falls is the only waterfall in the world with a length of more than a kilometre and a height of more than hundred metres. The noise of the falls can be heard from a distance of 40 km, while the spray and mist from the falling water can rise to a height of over 400m and can be seen from a distance of 50 km. ‘Mosi-Oa-Tunya’ is definitely an apt name.

We saw some crazy folks perched at the very edge of the falls, adrenalin junkies no doubt. You should google ‘Devil’s Pool’ and check out the insane things people do!

 

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Living on the Edge

 

We walked the length of it both on the Zambian and Zimbabwean side. I can only say that the experience was quite breathtaking as you stand and gaze at the falls through the mists of the sprays and listen to the roar of waters plunging from such a great height.

There are only so many adjectives to describe these spectacular scenes, suffice it to say you will understand why it is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world when you see it. I will paste the link to my photos at the end of this post and let my photos do the describing, but truly it doesn’t do justice to the real thing!

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View from Knife’s Edge

This was a day of two halves. After a rather hurried lunch, we were off to an elephant-back safari. Now, I’ve been on elephants before in India and Sri Lanka but never sitting astride them! (In the sub-continent they have howdahs). The elephants we rode were either rescued or orphaned and each one has its story. Before our ride, we were told each elephant’s name and story. The proceeds of the rides go to elephant protection and care. Their handlers and carers very obviously love their animals and their jobs.

 

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Elephant Safari

And so it was that we got on to a tall platform and climbed astride our elephant, whose name was Liwa. We were escorted by an armed ranger as we slowly ambled through the bush. It was quite tricky taking photos from atop the elephant. Firstly, it kept moving (obviously), secondly you needed to hang on so you only had one hand to use the camera.

There was the usual safety briefing before our ride, we were told that we might encounter wild elephants or other dangerous game but we must always hang on. If a situation arose where they needed to use their rifles, we were not to worry, our elephants were trained to not be alarmed but if they for some reason decide to run, we were not to panic but to just ‘Hang On’ as it’s a ‘very long way down’! There was nervous laughter all around at this.

I am pleased to report that it was a peaceful and serene ride except at one point when one of the babies which was happily “skipping” alongside decided it wanted to feed and proceed to do so with the female in front of us and I’m not sure what the kerfuffle was but it seemed that Liwa (our elephant) got agitated and tried to get the baby out of our way and there was some pushing, shoving and trumpeting with us hanging on for dear life on top! That was more scary than anything we encountered in Sabi Sabi! Everything was brought under control by our able mahout, and peace reigned again. Jangled nerves soon calmed down and we enjoyed the rest of the ride without incident. There was a ‘thank you and farewell’ ritual at the end (because the elephants would always remember); we fed the elephant and petted them and in turn they would raise their trunk in appreciation. A gimmicky but nice touch.

 

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Liwa saying thank you

 

The rest of the evening, as they say, was at leisure. We hopped onto the hotel shuttle to have dinner at the Royal Livingstone’s sister property Avani (having already tried out the formal dining at the Livingstone last night) and tucked into some local fare (I gave the crocodile stew a miss as I’d already sampled croc meat in a previous trip to Sabah in East Malaysia). Great night, good food, even better company.

Tomorrow we head back to South Africa and the day will be virtually wiped out with our flight to Capetown where we will spend the next 6 days.

To view more photos, please click on the link below:

http://www.shobhagopinath.com/Travel/Livingstone-Victoria-Falls-2015/


The ‘Mother City’

Cape Town

We woke up this morning to the beautiful view of Table Mountain and Signal Hill, thanks to our travel consultant Sheena arranging an upgrade for us! It was a relatively late start of 9am. No getting up at dawn for the photographer’s light today.

Yesterday was a whole day lost on travel. We were met at the airport by the ever cheerful George Meyer who deposited us at the beautiful Cape Grace. What a lovely way to unwind for the night after a day of tiring air travel.

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View of Table Mountain from our room

George, (who by the end of the 5 days became a friend) picked us up at 9am this morning. It was to be a half-day introduction to Capetown. There was so much to do and see, no way a half-day was going to be enough, and we aren’t the to-be-rushed-about types! Thank goodness George was the most accommodating of guides who would let us take as much time as we wanted (“it’s all about the guests’  experience”) and the half-day stretched well into the afternoon. George was so well read, he had so much information to impart and made everything that much more interesting. We learnt a lot from him from history to botany – he covered a wide span of topics.

The drive-around started at Signal Hill where we got a wonderful hilltop view of this marvellous city – the ocean, the mountains, the cityscape, it was beautiful. Lucky for us the weather was perfect! Our cable car ride up to the iconic Table Mountain was not to be as they were closed for maintenance. That didn’t stop George from taking us up to the foot of Table Mountain though, just so we could get a view of the grand vista from up there.

Later as we drove around in the city, George played Nelson Mandela’s speech that he made from City Hall after his release. He tried to get us into the mood of the people at that momentous occasion and imagine what the atmosphere would’ve been like.

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Plaque outside District 6 Museum

We then made our way to the District 6 Museum. The museum was built as a memorial to the forced eviction of 60,000 coloureds and blacks from their homes in the 1970’s. The whole area was made into a whites-only residential zone and all of the original residents were forced to find alternate places to live. This was at the heights of the apartheid regime. The floor of the museum is covered with a big map of the district with hand written notes of former residents, which indicate where their houses were located then. Other pieces in the museum are old signs, banners and photographs of the people who lived there and the demolition of their homes.

There was a group of multi-racial school children on excursion and a old man with the most kindly face, telling them stories of life during the apartheid regime. His name was Mohd Noor Ebrahim. George told us a bit about him that moved us to buy his book in which he talks about feeling “helpless and hopeless”, of “witnessing a terrible evil” when bulldozers razed their homes to the ground without prior warning.

He tells about the prized racing pigeons he used to rear. After he and his family moved, he released them and none of them returned to their new home. One day he drove through the demolished site of District 6 and there he saw all 50 of his birds congregated on the empty plot that was their home.

Many of the photographs in the museum were taken by him and his brother. We stood around hoping to get his book autographed but he was likely to take hours with the school children, so sadly we had to get a move along.

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Mohd Noor Ibrahim’s pass during the Apartheid

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Mohd Noor Ibrahim today

We then visited the Castle of Good Hope, a 17th century fort built by the Dutch East India Company. George was a guard here when he did his military service so he regaled us with stories and even demonstrated how he used to stand guard at the guard post at the entrance.

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George at his old guard post

We joined a tour group led by a delightful Rastafarian who spoke with such equanimity of the horrific past. He was quite an interesting character. He took us into the torture chamber and there described to us in painful detail all manner of torture that took place in that very chamber for seemingly minor infractions.

He led our group into another chamber which was windowless and then switched off the light – it was pitch dark – you couldn’t even see your hand in front of you, just to give us a sense of what it would’ve been like back then.

We also caught the Key Ceremony which was accompanied by the tolling of bells and firing of a canon.

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Key Ceremony at the Castle of Good Hope

The vibrant, colourful Bo Kaap area (formerly called the ‘Malay Quarter’) was our next stop. Talk about life in technicolour!! The colours were so bright it was blinding! There are various accounts as to why the houses are painted these dazzling colours – one, that it was a way to be cheerful and keep spirits up; another account says it was done so that individual homes could be identified by their colour as there were no house numbers then. It was the most cheerful place! We spent a fair bit of time at the Bo Kaap museum and then we were introduced to Hamidah, one of George’s friends who lives in the neighbourhood. She holds cooking classes of local cuisine and invited us in to have a look around. She was so welcoming, but we didn’t have time for a cooking lesson!

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Bo Kaap technicolour

We ended the day at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront for a late late lunch and a leisurely walkabout. The place was heaving with activity – loads of restaurants and bars, buskers and artists. We took our time and slowly ambled back to the hotel where we stuffed ourselves again with a 3-tiered afternoon tea!

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V&A waterfront

Tomorrow – the Cape of Good Hope!

 


It’s All About the View

Cape Of Good Hope

We set off to the Peninsula this morning and a boat trip to Seal Island. The weather was grim so we weren’t entirely surprised when the captain of the boat we were meant to get on decided to call off the trip but made arrangements for us to go on another boat, evidently with a more intrepid captain. We decided to go ahead and boarded with the few others who were game to chance an outing in that inclement weather.

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Seal Island

To say the sea was choppy is an understatement. The cutting winds made the journey a rather frigid one. None of that stopped us from braving it with our cameras as we got close to Seal Island. Calling it an island is rather grand – it’s more like a bit of rocky outcrop in the middle of the sea on which are piled hundreds of seals. How the captain managed to manoeuvre the boat so close to it with the waves so unrelenting I really don’t know! The swells were not insignificant, but we made it safely back, slightly green with all that bobbing around. The captain didn’t linger too long, so it was just a quick ride around and back.

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False Bay

Seal Island is off the coast of the interestingly named False Bay; so called because sailors would confuse Cape Hangklip with Cape Point as they look very similar. And so Portuguese seafarers named Cape Hangklip  ‘Cabo Falso’ or False Bay!

From there we wound our way through the famous Chapman Peak’s Drive, which hugs the mountain from Hout Bay to Noordhoek. 9 km and 114 curves of breathtaking scenery, it is one of the most spectacular marine drives in the world.

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Chapman Peak Drive

Speaking of confusion at sea, on the Noordhoek beach, lies a huge rusty boiler. The story goes that “the SS. Kakapo and her captain were on their maiden journey; the seas were huge and accompanied by driving rain sweeping across the water and reducing visibility to virtually zero. The captain mistook Chapman’s Peak for Cape Point and turned the vessel to port. He suddenly saw what looked like breakers ahead and, although the order was given ‘hard-a-port’ and the engines put full steam astern, the Kakapo almost immediately ran hard aground on Noordhoek beach. The following wind and heavy seas drove the vessel well up onto the beach, where she came to rest, deeply embedded in the soft sand.” (Historical Media). The lonely boiler is still there half buried in the sand.(Trivia: the wreck of SS Kakapo was featured briefly in David Lean’s 1968 Academy Award winning film, ‘Ryan’s Daughter’)

Then the moment I’d been waiting for – the Cape of Good Hope! It’s a fynbos-covered (more of that later) desolate mountain area. The winds were gale-force, the waves were huge and deafening as they crashed onto the rocks. I was careful to anchor myself as I walked as I was being buffeted and carried by the wind! Quite comical actually. George with his usual wit, said it’s the only place in the world where the birds fly backwards (cos of the strong winds!)

He also clarified, just in case we were also under the misconception (which I was) that the Cape of Good Hope is not the southern-most tip of Africa. (That honour belongs to Cape Agulhas about 150 km further southeast!) He had a guest once who was most upset to hear this and was not pleased (!). It is however the south-western most tip of Africa and the point where ships from the west begin to travel more eastward than southward.

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Cape of Good Hope

There was a short queue of visitors waiting to take photos next to the ‘Cape of Good Hope’ sign and we did the same. Bartholomew Diaz called the cape “Cabo das Tormentas” (Cape of Storms) and what an apt name too! It was later renamed “Cabo da Boa Esperanza” (Cape of Good Hope) to lift the flagging spirits of sea-weary sailors.

A short drive later we were at Cape Point, which lies at the tip of the Peninsula. The ‘Point’ was treated with respect by sailors for centuries. It was a navigational landmark but at the same time the violent waves and dangerous rocks have caused hundreds of shipwrecks over the centuries. In 1859 the first lighthouse was completed and it still stands at 249 metres above sea-level on the highest section of the peak.

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Cape Point Lighthouse

That’s where we went on a funicular called “The Flying Dutchman”  (named after the legend of the Flying Dutchman ghost ship … that’s another story …). As we got off the funicular and made our way up the steep steps to the lighthouse, I thought I would be blown off onto the Atlantic. The winds were bitterly cold and hoods, hats and scarfs were flying. A storm was building up, the seas were rough, the wind was piercing through to the bone, the rain was horizontal but the view will take your breath away! Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay up there too long, for obvious reasons.

(P/S: We were lucky to have been able to do the drive through Chapman’s Peak as the weather got worse the following days and the road had to be closed temporarily!)

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View of the Cape from Cape Point

Lunch was a supremely satisfying experience at the amazing Harbour House restaurant. The location, the ambience, the service and oh my god, the food! We savoured every morsel of the crayfish, prawns, pork belly etc with ooo’s and aaah’s aplenty! We had a leisurely 2 hour lunch!

We were supposed to visit the penguin colony at Boulder’s beach and the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens but with the weather being so horrendous and it getting late in the day, we had to drive back to Cape Town with George promising to take us to another penguin colony on one of our remaining days; which was fine by us.

We drove through the pretty towns of Kalk Bay and Muizenberg, stopped at the beach to watch the surfers for a while, wondering how on earth they could get into that freezing cold water. Took some photos and as we drove back to Cape Town, George made two unscheduled stops – the first was the Rhodes Memorial (Cecil Rhodes remember?) and once again the winds drove us back into the car in double quick time and the second unscheduled stop was the actual District 6, which now has special significance to us after visiting the District 6 museum. We drove through the neighbourhood and George pointed out the only building that was not demolished, a small church.

We spent the evening at the place of some friends and we were quite chuffed that the hotel arranged a limo to take us there! Such things are always a good laugh! So we arrived at our friends’ place in style … and ate and drank late into the night.

 


Winelands and the Long Walk

Stellenbosch, Western Cape

I woke up to the rain beating horizontally against the window. I stood watching it, mesmerised – like hundreds of needles coming at you – and I braced myself for another cold day.

As we drove out of the city, we passed Khayelitsha (meaning “new home”), one of Cape Town’s largest townships, which is not unlike the slums of India. It stretches for kilometres. It is one of the poorest areas of Cape Town. We didn’t visit it but there are tours you can take to visit townships. We also made a detour to take a closer look at ‘old’ sailing ships which were actually props of the Cape Town Film Studios. (Trivia: the Halle Berry movie ‘Dark Tide’ was shot here).

We drove through picture-perfect countryside as we headed towards the winelands. It’s yet another beautiful part of the country. We visited the Waterford Estate for a chocolate and wine pairing experience. The Waterford Estate, and I quote here from their website ” … is situated in one of the world’s most visually arresting pockets of paradise.” It’s an accurate description. Nestled in this picturesque Blaauwklippen Valley, is also the Blaauklippen Manor House, where George stopped for a while just so we could “see what a 333 year-old manor house looks like”.

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Waterford Estate

We drove on to the town of Stellenbosch. Stellenbosch, as all wine drinkers would know, is synonymous with wine-making. It is a historical town, the second oldest town in South Africa. We stopped at the ‘Oom Samie se Winkel’ (Uncle Samie’s Store), an institution here at Stellenbosch. It’s a typical olde trading post that sells just about everything. We walked around this pretty town in the drizzle making sure not to miss the historical homes and buildings that George pointed out. The architecture here is a mix of Cape Dutch, Victorian and Georgian which makes the town so interesting and charming.

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Oom Samie se Winkel

Our drive continued to Franschhoek (Dutch for “French Corner”). The valley was originally settled in the 17th century by French Huguenot refugees. Our particular destination was “La Petite Ferme”, a restaurant where the lunches are “legendary” with “a feast of culinary delights that beguile and entertain”. I don’t know about ‘beguile’ but the food and their house wines were certainly excellent!

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La Petite Ferme

Once again having stuffed ourselves silly, we continued on our lovely leisurely drive of the region. And before we knew it, it was time for our second wine tasting. We hadn’t realised just how full or how tired we were so we didn’t really do much justice at the Boschendal Estate, despite the enthusiastic efforts of the sommelier to get us to appreciate the “bouquet” of the various bottles we tried. Not sophisticated, I know. But the delightful thing was, he gave us each a bottle to take home!

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Boschendal Estate

The next stop was another unscheduled one, thanks to the lovely George! By now he gauged correctly the kinds of things that interests us and he took us to the Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly known as Victor Verster Prison) which was not far from where we were. It was here that Nelson Mandela walked to freedom and where I felt like giving the well known ANC fist pump and saying “Amandla!” as Madiba did. (Amandla means ‘Power’ in Xhosa.)

After 27 years of imprisonment, one can only imagine the emotions he must have felt at the moment when he took his first steps towards freedom to a world that waited for this moment just as he did. (Because of the years he had spent in hard labour in the limestone quarry, his eyesight had deteriorated and his eyes remained extremely sensitive. He had one strict rule for the press, which remained until his death – no flash photography).

Of course we couldn’t go into the grounds or see the quarters where he was moved to after Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison and kept under house-arrest for the last years of his imprisonment. We took photos of his statue just outside the main gates. We were so thrilled to have been able to go there and thanked George profusely.

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Of Whales and Penguins

Hermanus, Western Cape

It was quite a stunning morning with the sun peering above the meadows as we drove to Hermanus early this morning. We had to leave before 7am to get to our whale boat by 9.45am as they leave on the dot. Oh to see a whale in its natural habitat would be quite phenomenal! We meandered through beautiful scenes of sunrise and a scenic coastal route.

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Morning drive to Hermanus

Hermanus, is a town on the southern coast of the Western Cape, well known for its whale watching. Apparently whales sometimes come quite close to shore and can be seen from the bay area. About 15 mins out of Hermanus, George gets a call from his office informing him that the captain has called off the outing due to the weather. I can’t tell you how disappointed we all were. It was such a let down. For George, it was the third cancellation in as many trips he had made with his guests in recent weeks.

Although we were disappointed, we weren’t going to let that dampen our spirits. We carried on to Hermanus. (Hermanus was formerly called Hermanuspietersfontein, named after its founder Hermanus Pieter; but the post office found the name too long and shortened it!)

We got to the port and walked around for some photography. As we stood by the sea wall watching the huge waves and swells incessant and urgent as they relentlessly crashed against the rocks and wall, we agreed that it would have been too treacherous to make that boat trip.

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Vicious waves at Hermanus

Thus comforted we had a whole morning to explore the town. We walked along Walker’s Bay, standing at Gearing’s Point and various other lookouts along the bay, squinting and peering out to see if we could spot any whales. Hermanus after all is one of the best places for land-based whale watching. We did make out intermittent blow hole sprays in the distance but couldn’t really make out the whales themselves. We were hoping and wishing to see just one whale breach the waters … it was not to be.

Having walked the full length of the bay, we then went on to explore this small town. Clearly a tourist destination with souvenir shops a-go-go. We spent a bit of time at a local gallery and S bought a painting.

Once again lunch was arranged for us, this time at the ‘Lemon Butta’, a lovely restaurant with views of the ocean. Good food and good wine has been a constant on this trip. We had a leisurely lunch while still looking out for whales.

Keeping his promise, George then drove us to Stony Point Penguin Colony at Betty’s Bay (since we weren’t able to go to Boulder’s Beach colony the other day). You walk to the colony through an abandoned whaling station.  The whaling station closed in the 1930’s and the penguins took over, starting with just two penguins. Now the colony has more than 3600 African (or Jackass) penguins.

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Stony Point Peguin Colony

A boardwalk along the coast made it possible for us to get quite close. Another first, in terms of experience! From all accounts, Stony Point is more rustic and less touristy. There was hardly anyone else there, which was great as we virtually had the colony to ourselves as we watched totally captivated by them.

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That’s how close we got

A word about the local flora or ‘fynbos’ (pronounced ‘fine bos’). South Africa’s Cape floral kingdom is one of the richest areas in the world for plant biodiversity with more than 9,000 plant species found here. South Africa’s Western Cape is more botanically diverse than the richest tropical rainforest in South America, including the Amazon.

Our route back was through Clarence Drive – yet another magnificent scenic coastal drive long the Hottentots Hollands mountains. We stopped at various amazing lookouts along the way, “towering mountains meeting rugged coastlines”. With George, there were many ‘sho’t lefts’ (i.e. detours) which allowed us to see far more than what was planned as we always took the ‘scenic route’.

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Clarence Drive

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Scenic route

As he dropped us off late that evening, George reminded us that tonight was the night of the ‘blue moon’ (a blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month). We had every intention to look at the moon but got quite side-tracked as we met up with Marius Coetzee and his wife. It was with Marius’s company, Oryx Photographic Expeditions, that S and I had gone on our Ethiopian photography expedition two years ago. We had a lovely evening swapping stories and the blue moon slipped our mind.

Tomorrow we visit Robben Island and pay homage to a great soul.


The Island

Cape Town

“It sits in the inhospitable Atlantic Ocean, 7 km from the mainland, a wretched monument to centuries of misery it has seen. The island, a flat oval about 11 km in diameter, was once a leper colony where unfortunates were sent to die. Later, it was a quarantine station housing sick animals. But its natural God-given purpose must surely have been a prison. A low-lying, windswept place tantalisingly in sight of land but from where escape was virtually impossible.” 

You’d be forgiven to think that those lines were written by a prisoner, it was in fact written by Christo Brand, one of Nelson Mandela’s prison warders. That extract was from his book “Doing Life with Mandela My Prisoner, My Friend” which came out last year. He wrote the book on Mandela’s insistence and in it he tells of the unlikely and extraordinary friendship that they built. We got to know about the book through George, who knows Christo Brand personally. Obviously we got a copy.

The warders were not all of them heartless and cruel and the book describes the small acts of kindness that the prisoners were shown and the enormous respect they had for Mandela and his group. The rules they had to enforce however, were cruel and inhumane.

We got the morning ferry to Robben Island. Thank god the weather was good today, cos if this trip got cancelled, the disappointment would’ve crushed us! I do not have to spell out the significance of Robben Island. The visit actually begins at the V&A Waterfront at the Mandela Gateway where there is a museum and multimedia exhibition. The ferry ride itself takes about 20-30 mins depending on weather. The island is now a UNESCO world heritage site, a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, suffering and injustice.

We disembarked at Murray’s Bay Harbour situated on the east coast of the Island and walked a short distance to waiting buses. The bus takes you around the island while the bus guide narrates the history and points out the many significant places as we drive by – Tuan Guru’s kramat, the leper colony cemetery, the lime quarry, Robert Sobukwe’s house.

I pause here to say a bit about Robert Sobukwe, a lesser known hero. Robert Sobukwe was imprisoned, kept in solitary confinement in a small house for more than 3 years for inciting protests against the Pass Law,  which required black citizens to carry a pass and severely limited their movements. At the end of his 3 years of solitary confinement,  he was still considered to be too dangerous and kept for a further 3 years in solitary, and thereafter, he was placed under house arrest until his death in 1978. Unimaginable.

 

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Entrance to the Robben Island Prison

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Prison Grounds

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Cell Buildings

 

Sitting in the bus, just across from us was a kindly elderly man. A few minutes into our ride, our bus guide introduces him as Eddie Daniels. Mr Daniels was in Robben Island at the same time as Mandela. It was sheer coincidence that he was leading a small group of students on a private study tour of the island. How we wished we could’ve joined him instead!

The bus guide narrated the story of the time Mr Daniels was very ill, unable to move and confined in his cell. Nelson Mandela would visit him in his cell and would even take out his toilet bucket for him, clean it and dry it in the sun. Christo Brand mentions this in his book too ” all of these actions, without a word being exchanged were making us realise the extent of the comradeship, the solidarity between these men.”

That also reflects the measure of the man, although a great and respected leader, did not find the task too menial and did it voluntary and out of friendship. Our busload was lucky as Eddie Daniels spoke to us briefly of his experiences. The beauty of it all was that there seemed to be no bitterness or rancour in him.

 

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Eddie Daniels

The prison tours are led by ex-political prisoners. Ours was a soft spoken man called Seepo. He told us of the discrimination even in the food that was given to the prisoners. The Black prisoners were discriminated more cruelly than the Coloureds or Indians. Black prisoners had 12 ounces of maize-meal porridge with no sugar or salt for breakfast and a mug of black coffee. The Coloureds and Indians had 14 ounces of porridge and bread and coffee. The Blacks received no bread. Christo Brand writes of the daily prayer sessions that the prison warders attended, that when it came to the line in ‘Our Father’, ‘give us this day our daily bread’, he would feel bad for the prisoners.

 

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Rations by skin colour

The tour went through the various sections of the prisons and culminated with a viewing of Nelson Mandela’s cell. There was a hush as we walked down the corridor. The cell is a smaller space than I imagined.

It is said that when Mandela laid down, his head would touch one wall, and his feet the opposite wall. This tiny space was where he spent 18 years. Christo Brand describes in his book, “The cells were as cold as fridges, all year round. They were made of cement and unpainted. Overnight the prisoners would freeze. they slept on the floor with two mats, one hard sisal mat and another softer one. They had 3 blankets with no extra one allowed, even in winter.” The mats were too small for the tall Mr Mandela. He would always be cold. It didn’t faze him. He would be up at 5am, doing exercises for at least an hour – running on the spot, sit-ups, push-ups whatever exercise was possible in those confines.

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Mandela’s cell for 18 years

The visit left a profound impact on me. Another memory that will stay with me forever. We assembled at the harbour again and took the ferry back, each in our own thoughts.

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We were met by an eager George who wanted to hear our thoughts and impressions as we drove to lunch. This time at ‘The Roundhouse’ at beautiful Camp’s Bay, a old guardhouse built in 1786 by the Dutch East India Company. Once again, we enjoyed a delicious spread of tapas-like servings of a variety of local, cape malay and european style dishes.

We squeezed in a quick visit to the renowned Kristenbosch Botanical Gardens, taking an educational amble through the Canopy Walk with the stunning view of the cape mountains.

Our last evening in South Africa. We got on the Cape Wheel just as the sun was setting and got a marvellous aerial view of the V&A waterfront, Table Mountain and Signal Hill. After dinner at the waterfront, it was back to the hotel for a glass of sherry to nurse our end-of-holiday blues.

View from the Wheel

For more photos, go to:
http://www.shobhagopinath.com/Travel/Capetown-2015/


Farewell

Cape Town

We paid our bills, said our goodbyes to the lovely hotel staff and took photos with George and made promises to keep in touch. He even packed us a small bag of gifts – Mrs Ball’s chutney, biscuits, chocolates, amarula etc … we didn’t expect it at all. What a lovely gesture! We in turn surprised him with James Michener’s ‘The Covenant’, a book we were surprised he hadn’t read and decided he simply must!.

As we sat in the airport, we talked about the highlight of the trip for each of us – it was her first sighting of the Victoria Falls for S, the surprise champagne breakfast for Son No. 2, it was a tie between the safari and Victoria Falls for Son No.1…  if I had to pick one, it would be that night in the bush with the leopard, the hyena and the unfortunate bushbuck, a scene that I can still see in my mind …  with the visit to Robben Island a close second.

We were out of our comfort zones, we felt fear, excitement and wonderment simultaneously (as we did in Sabi Sabi); we stood and marvelled at the sheer beauty of one of the natural wonders of the world (as we did in Victoria Falls); we made a new friend (George) and discovered new places in a new city (Cape Town) and even felt a connection with the spirit of a great man and his comrades.

These experiences will stay with me always.

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