Friday, August 26, 2011

Final email from Sourth Africa - private trip Feb 2011

Hi Again,
\Four sleeps to go before we fly Cape Town/Joburg/Melb/Syd. This trip to South Africa has been absolutely fantastic but I will be happy to go home; enough of living out of a suitcase for the time being.

Friendly creatures in SA

South Africa is a big, incredibly beautiful and diverse country- twice the size of Texas and the size of Spain and France combined. We have covered a lot of kilometers, seen a lot of very different landscapes and people and learnt a lot. Stats are interesting - 68% Christians (& attend Church), 2% Islam, 1.5% Hindu and 28.5% Indiginous beliefs. Crime is an issue but not nearly the issue reported in the press. All is not black and white here, ie 'Coloured' means South African of mixed race.
The population is made up of 77% Africans (indigenious South Africans) 11% whites, 9% coloureds and 3% Indian. Afrikkaans is the mother tongue. English is widely spoken. This is a nation struggling to find its identity. Unemployment is running at 33% so terrible poverty as a result. No government handouts until 60 for men and 65 women and only if you have nothing....Rand 1200 per month - approx AUD $161.

My last missive was written 14 days ago when we had just arrived in Zimbabwe. Our stay at the grand Victoria Falls Hotel was just magic. Here we met some very interesting people from all over the globe including Godfrey Oettle and his charming wife Pam. Godfrey was the Forensic Pathologist at Sydney Morgue when John was working at the Coroner’s Court back in the 60’s. This meeting naturally called for a sundowner or two to give the chaps a chance to reminisce.

John, Pam & Godfrey

Victoria Falls was every bit as breathtaking as I had imagined. The walk along the viewing path of the falls was like taking a shower wearing an ineffective poncho. It’s impossible not to get drenched.

Ian & John on the falls path

The 15 minute helicopter ‘flight of angels’ (scary name) gave a wonderful overview of the whole area and the raging falls. This flight is a must. Many adventures and activities are available such as absailing, white water rafting, bungee jumping into the gorge (been there, done that so didn’t bother).

Weighing in before Flight of the Angles

Victoria Falls from the air

Landed safe & sound

Instead we acted our age and had a private walk with the lions in a sanctuary where there is a breeding program to save this beautiful animal from becoming extinct. We were instructed how to approach the lion from behind and where to touch it, given a long stick to put in its mouth if it turned around and told not to jump or run if it did this…..fat chance of obeying that advise!!! I loved this experience. With their keepers close at all times, we patted and stroked these gorgeous big pussy cats, without feeling one bit threatened.

Having a rest

After four wonderful days being thoroughly spoilt in Victoria Falls Hotel, the Savages and the Hamiltons flew to Durban for two nights. A rather dull uninteresting city and not known for its safety, Durban’s population is almost entirely black plus a large number of Indians. John and I took the 3 hour hop on (no hop off) bus with commentary. This was a good way to get a better overall feel for the city. After our tour the guide agreed to take us into the heart of the colourful bustling Victoria Markets where whites are not exactly welcomed. It was a fascinating experience, particularly in the massive witch doctors ‘pharmacy’ area where all bits of various animals and plants are for sale and prescribed for every ailment known to man. Photography is a definite no-no. It is obvious what we would call witch-craft, is not a dying practice in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Victoria Market Durban

Pharmacy stall in markets
The hotel where we stayed in Durban is situated on the beach-front which is very lovely since it was totally revamped for the World Cup. The esplanade has a wonderful swimming pool; extensive children’s play areas, fun parks, and an overhead cable car and is safe to amble along during daylight but definitely not advised at night. There is a strong police presence everywhere in Durban but one gets the feeling the police are a bit slapdash and casual, although when walking alone from a shopping centre to our hotel in the mid afternoon, I was stopped and questioned by two police and warned that I should walk with a companion even during the daytime. I did not feel unsafe, however I did not venture out again by meself!!!

Play area on the esplanade Durban
View from our hotel room in Durban

Our great Soooth Effrica driving adventure began the following day when we collected a Kia Sportive from Mr Hertz and set off on a 14 day exploration of the Eastern Cape through to Cape Town on the Western Cape.

Packing the car

We sought advice from various locals, guide books etc before we set off and I must tell you that never have I heard so many conflicting recommendations, suggestions or guidance’s in my entire travel experiences. Some said it is a lovely drive but by far the majority said it is a very boring drive until the renowned ‘Garden Route’ and couldn’t imagine why on earth we would want to drive it. Nothing to see they said; Unsafe, shocking roads. The last bit was right in many places I admit and we were very pleased we were in a hire car and not one of our own.

Some roads were a challenge

We are currently in Stellenbosch, almost at the end of this great drive. We took off-roads wherever possible and how rewarded we were with utterly stunning scenery, interesting and sometimes scary squalid third world African villages, desperately poor people living in disgusting squatter villages tucked away from the mansions overlooking fabulous beaches and inlets.

Typical village
We heed the warnings and travel with the doors locked and stop for no-one. We have stayed in an eclectic assortment in safe gated hotels, B & B’s or guest houses. The guest houses are really superb. The further west we travel, the safer the roads and areas seem to be but the security warnings are still stressed by the hotel operators and information centres.

Just love this photo.  This women was walking home - more than 20 km.  The goods she carried on her head were very heavy, we later gave her daughter and the goods a lift.

From Durban we drove The Wild Coast and it was just that. Our first overnight was in the rural seaside town of Port St John’s. What a sight, dramatic landscape of sea cliffs with Mt Thesiger covered in lush forests and a mighty river running to the ocean. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and followed the signs to second beach which we thought may be a good area to stay. Those thoughts were quickly dropped. The potholed road was lined with totally intoxicated locals drinking beer and goodness knows what else. One young chap stood at the side of the road with nothing on except his pants around his ankles displaying his God-given goods. Believe me, he had plenty to show!! We guessed the drinking may have been the Sunday pastime but were later told by the hotel owner that it is a daily event. The second beach is stunningly beautiful. It is the first time I have seen cattle grazing on a beach. Amazing.

Between Port St Johns and Stellenbosch, we stayed at Hole in The Wall, where the sea water gushes through a natural hole in a massive rock formation, Cintsa (gorgeous seaside village), St Francis (village where all buildings white with grey/brown thatch roofs), Plattenberg (spoilt ourselves and booked into the iconic Beacon hotel), Victoria Bay, Witsand (could have died in this sleepy fishing village and never ever be found) and the beautiful seaside town of Hermanus.

Hole in the Wall

The garden route runs 200km from Storm River Mouth to Mossel Bay - billed as the South African Paradise. It is indeed a beautiful drive but I was a bit disappointed. After the spectacular scenery on the Wild Coast and the Sunshine Coast I had expected more. According to The Rough Guide, long ago the area was all lush green forest with rivers from the mountains north to southern rocky shores and sandy beaches. Dutch woodcutters came and exhausted the forests and the birds and animals suffered as a result. Today we see pine plantations, tourist shops and resorts along the garden route. Growth in tourism plus city dwellers seeking a quiet life or holidays homes in relatively crime free areas along the route have obviously robbed the area of much of its tranquility.

Stellenbosch is a stunning university city with magnificent heritage protected homes and buildings. The very lively historic centre has gorgeous avenues lined with 200 year old oak trees. It presents as a wealthy city although we have been approached by many more street beggars here than anywhere in SA. Afrikaans is the everyday preferred speaking language; much more so than in the North and North East. The city surround is almost all under vine so very lovely indeed and the wine routes are a major tourist attraction. Today we enjoyed a wonderful long lunch at the Delheim winery.
Delheim winery

Wine vats at Delheim winery

Delheim winery

Vegie garden at Delheim winery
It never ceases to amaze how inexpensive it is to eat in South Africa. Accommodation is also very cheap compared to Australia and Europe. To give you an idea, our lunch at the winery today included two bottles of excellent wine, starters, mains and coffee – the bill with tip came to R360 a couple – about AUD$52. We are presently staying at a top 4 star guest house with full service (turn downs etc) the room is huge, king bed, free internet, tea and coffee making facilities, the pool outside our door and full breakfast included…. $160 per room. This is by far the most we have paid for excellent accommodation on the road trip. We celebrated Valentines in one of the best restaurants in Stellenbosch, The Big Easy restaurant owned by South African golfer, Ernie Ells. About $100 a couple. Petrol is about $1.10 per litre.

We had some great accommodation

If you have not been here, put it on your bucket list. It’s a perfect country to backpack if you are under 35!

Today we drive the scenic route to Cape Town via The Cape of Good Hope . Only have to pack the bags two more times – yippee!

Savages & Hamiltons at Cape of Good Hope
I visited the notorious bleak Robben Island.
Entrance to Robben Island

Double security fences

The cell of Nelson Mandella

The mainland from Robben island

Australian Eucalyptus trees on the island

Cape Town

Multi coloured house in Capetown

Children busking in Cape Town

See you soon all being well.
Jeanette 18.2.11

Friday, August 12, 2011

First email from South Africa - private trip Feb 2011

WOW/AWESOME - one hundred times over! That sums up Sth Africa for me after 12 days.
John says I should not to make my emails too long. I say there is so much I want to tell you about.
Dilemma solved by two versions – your choice!!!

Abridged version for our busy friends –
Arrived JNB on 20 Jan. Toured JNB, Soweto & Apartheid Museum. Spent one night in interesting Sun City. Went on 7 day safari – 3 nights in Kruger National Park and 3 nights in Game Park in Zululand with another fun couple from Italy…perfect travelling companions. Saw 4 or the big 5 (missed the elusive leopard) and saw many beautiful and some ugly animals, stunning birdlife and fascinating fauna. Returned to JNB via Swaziland. Very beautiful and green countryside. Feel very safe, people of every colour are friendly and welcoming. Racial tension not evident. On a South African Airways flight to Victoria Falls with friends Ian and Fay Hamilton now.

Unabridged version for those who have time -
20 Jan, we flew V Australia from Melbourne to Johannesburg (JNB) premium economy – comfortable roomy seats but somewhat sluggish service. Our base in JNB is the Holiday Inn hotel in Sandton, one of the better suburbs close to Mandela Square.

Before venturing on our 7 day safari to Kruger National Park and Zululand, we did the tourist bit beginning with a full day private tour of JNB. Firstly we were driven though the beautiful tree lined avenues in the exclusive suburb of Houghton where amazing mansions hide behind high walls topped with extensive hostile electric wiring. All appears very tranquil but the high security is a clue to reality. In days gone by this was the Jewish area of JNB. Nelson Mandela has one of his homes in Houghton. In fact he was taken to this home after his recent stint in hospital which caused much concern to everyone but that’s another story.
Nelson Mandella Square
From this affluent area we drove through the CBD (Newtown) now the art and cultural centre and the no-go suburbs such as Yuoville and Hillbrow where unemployment runs at 30% and illegal immigrants congregate. Our driver told us there has been a police blitz the previous day resulting in the detention of over 300 illegals who will be deported to their country of origin. We saw historic Constitution Hill where the British troops had a maximum security prison during the Anglo/Boer war about 1899. According to our guide, Gandhi, Mandela and Winnie were all incarcerated here at some later stage. The Boers had a monopoly on everything including the gold mines. JNB was founded on a gold mine.The Anglo-Boer War left a legacy of painful memories and mutual hatred. The British incarceration of Boer women and children in concentration camps left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Boers and lessened respect for the British Empire abroad.

The poor side of Soweto
The population of JNB is 10.2mill including Soweto. Soweto surprised me. I expected an area of abject poverty.

Street in Soweto Squartter Camp
Yard and veggie garden in Squatter house
Looking over JBurg
Home security fence
Sure there are the informal squatter camps where people live in huts mainly built of corrugated iron and whatever else is available. We walked through one of these camps with one of the young residents. It was surprising how clean and ordered it was with enviable veggie gardens in nearly every yard. No electricity and one toilet shared between 3 homes, running tap water the same. Gas or kerosene burners for cooking and candles provide light. Soweto covers 140 sq km and there are many very nice areas and lovely homes including nice-looking B & B’s. If I come back here, I would like to stay in one and really meet and mix with the locals.

Matchbox house.
Many of these homes began as ‘matchbox’ houses which were given to the renters on a 99yr lease after apartheid. Until then blacks could not own houses. We drove down famous Vilakazi Street. Famous because it is the only street in the world where two Nobel Prize winners lived at one time i.e., Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Winnie still lives in Soweto. We saw the place outside the school where Hector Pieterson was shot and killed during the 1976 Soweto uprising.

Hector Pieterson was shot and on the square killed during the 1976 Soweto uprising

Hand signals for hitch-hiking
Lastly but certainly not least, we visited the sobering Apartheid Museum, entering through segregated passages as allotted on our entrance tickets. Immediately, before even seeing any exhibits, one can sense and further imagine the uncomfortable denigrating and humiliating existence blacks and coloureds led before and during Apartheid. Thank God for Nelson Mandela, the ANC and the others who fought against apartheid and campaigned for the freedom charter and justice throughout the world.

 Apartheid Museum
Segregated passages as allotted on our entrance tickets to Apartheid Museum

Walkway inside Apartheid Museum
This is probably a good time to mention racism. If it exists it is well hidden. I see everywhere young coloureds, blacks and whites enjoying each other’s company, eating, laughing and working together. This current generation I believe will end racism here. One 23 year old white game park ranger told us that all white and colours were friends in his generation, no discrimination whatsoever. It is the people of earlier generations whose memories will not allow them to completely forget and forgive. The worm has turned here and naturally not everyone is happy about that. One chap expressed his real concern about what may happen when Mandela passes on. Although Mandela is 92 and not politically active, he is astoundingly widely respected and nobody wishes to upset him.

John showing the photo of himself with Nelson Mandella

This is a copy of the photo which enthralled everyone.
John has a photo of himself and Nelson Mandela taken in 2000 when Mandela came to Australia for Sydney Uni’s ‘Champions of The Mind’ conference. Savage Communications did the PR for the Uni. The photo is becoming rather tatty having been shown to almost everyone John has met since getting off the plane. The response is astounding. In absolute awe, they ask where, when and how John met him and many, white and black, say they would give anything to touch or talk to Madiba as he is known. I mentioned before that Mandela recently had a stint in hospital with a chest condition. The whole country almost went into true heartfelt mourning. I can only imagine the turmoil and anguish his death will cause.

Now back to our travelogue!!
Without doing any research on the place, we decided to spend a night in Sun City. Somewhat an odd experience but one we are happy to have had. We took a local shuttle bus (14 seat people mover) to travel the 160km from JNB.

The countryside on the way was stunning with green undulating farmland with a backdrop of mountains, lots of market gardens and new estate farms. Also many squatters huts dotted along the way. Sun City is like a giant gated theme park.    It was Saturday and crowded with families and because we hadn’t done our homework, a little baffling at first trying to work out what it was all about. I’m still shaking my head a little but I actually I think it was just about having a jolly good time.  
Entrance to Sun City

Cultural village
In the Sun City Casino
Auditorium Sun City
Meerkat at Sun City Croc farm
Loved the colours of the bird
Sky train at Sun City
Sun City Pool
We had not booked accommodation and were very lucky & relieved to finally part with a lot of Rand in exchange for a lovely chalet or rondavel (African hut) in a small privately run hotel built like an African Village. This hotel is attached to a crocodile farm, home to over 700 crocs. I didn’t fancy that much but we had free entry with our inflated room rate and it was fantastic as was our stay. Sun City offers just about any type of entertainment or activity one could imagine with free shuttles or sky train to take you from one to another.

BIG croc.
Brave John holding small croc
There is a Gary Player Golf Course, Casino, horse riding, cultural village, a massive games arcade, heaps of excellent restaurants and possibly the most amazing is the Valley of the Waves….. a huge man-made swimming area where waves are somehow generated and released, just like a Bondi surf at its best.

Man made surf beach called 'Valley of the Waves'
Everything is man-made including the sandstone rock formations of the main entertainment buildings. Fascinating, so very glad we made the effort.

Sun City where everything is man-made
Now onto what we had envisaged would be the highlight of our trip. Our 7 day safari. We were not disappointed for a second. One other couple shared this fabulous experience with us and we could not have selected better travelling companions, Ralph and Nadia from Italy. Ralph is a Vet in Rapallo (some Interlude travelers will know that is a where we catch the ferry to Portofino.) Nadia is a Simultaneous Interpreter based in Milan. They were very good fun people who made the Savages seem like honeymooners!! No kidding!

John, Nadia, Ralph & Jeanette on safari.
Throughout the entire safari we had wonderful informative driver/guides. We travelled the scenic Panorama Route to our first stop near Hazyview. This route has spectacular scenery of gorges, valleys and canyons all the way. Thank goodness we chose not to fly. We stopped along the way for lunch at historic and quaint Pilgrim’s Rest, the site of the first major gold rush in South Africa, God’s window and the breathtaking Lisbon Falls.

The first 3 nights we spent in a luxurious suite under thatch in Umbhaba Lodge on a high hillside above the Sabie Valley just outside the Kruger National Park. From here we went into Kruger once on a night game drive and twice on full day game drives starting at 6am. Kruger Park covers 2 million hectares, twice the size of Israel so ‘they’ say.

Our suite at Umbhaba Lodge
Our suite at Umbhaba Lodge
The area has had lots of recent rain so the grass was tall and plenty of water lying around which meant that the animals did not have to go to the watering holes to drink. The watering holes are where they are mainly spotted. We saw 4 of the big five, only missing the leopard. Other than miss seeing the elusive leopard, we were so very fortunate to see many other wonderful animals roaming free and spectacular bird life and flora. We saw scores of elephants, impala, hippos, kudus, zebra, rhinos, warthogs, lions, and lots of regal giraffes (probably my favourite). They say there are 110,000 impalas in the park and I’m sure we saw 109,999 of them.

Thankfully we did not come across the scary black mamba, one of Africa’s most aggressive snakes. One ranger told us it was good that the grass was so long as the animals come out to the open tracks to get out of the wet grass. We did see heaps of animals on the tracks so he was right. Mozzies were not a problem either.

The long grass
Although long, the drive from Kruger Park to the Ubizane Safari Lodge in Zululand offered more remarkable beauty with green rolling hills, grasslands and valleys dotted with pine and blue gum plantations, sugarcane crops and overflowing waterways. Cole trucks take this road to get to the eastern harbour port of Richards Bay. These heavy trucks have caused heaps of giant potholes so it was rather rough going in places. Our accommodation was again in very modern self contained thatched African huts in a game reserve. Giraffes, Kudu and impalas wandered freely past our door. We were treated like royalty here. Two more games drives, one through the famous Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and one through the reserve where we stayed.

Ubizane Safari Lodge in Zululand
Buffet under the stars at Ubizane Safari Lodge in Zululand
Morning Tea on safari
View from Ubizane Safari Lodge in Zululand
We had a day trip to St Lucia for a boat cruise in the St Lucia estuary of the Indian Ocean. Saw heaps of hippos and crocs in this waterway plus magnificent birdlife. I think I got some really good photos with my little old camera even though it was somewhat intimidating snapping away beside the serious photographic gear a lot of tourists had. It was on this cruise I decided that bird watchers are a breed of their own!
Hippo and croc sunning themselves
We have learnt a lot about the animals and their habits, the birdlife and the flora. One has to wonder at the brilliance of Mother Nature. Did you know that hippo cannot swim or float? They actually sink to the bottom of the waterways and walk along the floor. These massive mammals can travel at 50km an hour and do so every day looking for food.

Mango tree
Another fascinating fact is that the mangrove trees which line the edge of salt water estuary cannot grow in salt water. So how do they live? The tree soaks up the water and somehow sifts the salt and deposits the salt to a sacrificial branch or limb which of course dies. Another very lovely tree called the fever tree which grows in areas with plenty of water does the same, only it’s sacrificial branch receives the toxins from the underground water which in turn kill that limb.

Traditional welcome to Zulu village

The Zulu women dance

When in Zululand, we realized how close we were to Swaziland and decided to travel though there if possible instead of skirting around the country on our way back to JNB. Swaziland is a Kingdom and not part of South Africa. Because this detour was not pre-arranged, our gorgeous driver James, (who looks as if he just stepped out of the ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ film) did not have his passport and the vehicle did not have the necessary permit to enter Swaziland. Not to be discouraged, with much help from the Management of the Wildlife Lodge, it was arranged for a Swazi tourist car and guide to meet us at the southern Lavumisa/Golela customs boarder and we travelled four hours through the middle of Swaziland to Oshoek border post on the north-west side where James met us.
Ralph & Jeanette at Immigration

Security is tight in all shops.
A gorgeous Swazi girl.
Swaziland is only small and although it was indeed a whistle-stop glance between the borders and thanks to Lucky our very informative and candid guide, we got a feel for this beautiful country and its attractive people. They are a much better looking race that the Zulus. We even had time to visit the famous Manzine market and the candle and craft centre and drive around the Ezulwini Valley (Valley of Heaven) at the bottom of the Malagwane hill.

Candle shop
Market in Swaziland
The majority of the people are very poor. Unemployment is sky high. Aids is a huge problem but small steps are being taken to stall this dilemma. Free condoms are on the counters at immigration and customs and in service station toilets. It is amazing that the 42 year old King Mswati 111, who was educated in Sherborne School in England, is so popular when his fourteen wives each live in magnificent homes and are driven around in BMW’s with at least two escorts and apparently travel extensively and engage in massive spending sprees. At the same time people live in poverty, particularly in rural areas, schools are not free so many children are not getting a chance to be educated; there are no government hand outs for the underprivileged. Sugar cane is the main crop and cattle. A man has to pay 11 cows for a virgin wife. If she is not a virgin, the man can negotiate!!!

A village in Swaziland
Off to Swazi Church
Food has been fresh, plentiful and varied and very inexpensive compared to Sydney. Meat is big here as are the servings. A wide variety of lentils and beans and veggies are usually on the menu. Wine is excellent and again inexpensive.

Last night Ian and Fay Hamilton joined us in JNB. Today the four of us flew to Zimbabwe to the world heritage site of Victoria Falls; named by David Livingstone when he first sighted them in 1855.
Jeanette, John, Fay & Ian arriving in Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls Hotel
Our room at Victoria Falls Hotel

View of falls from hotel
Jeanette, John, Ian & Fay
Resting in the hotel
We are staying at the magnificent stately Victoria Falls Hotel which first opened its doors in June 1904. This majestic hotel rightly boasts a fascinating history and is a worthy member of The Leading Hotels of The World. I’m looking forward to the next three days exploring this breathtaking area before returning the South Africa.

A little bit of Victoria Falls
We get snippets of news from Australia. South Africans are sports mad and this is a fact well supported by the extraordinary number of TV sports channels compared to news channels. The sports section in the papers covered the Aust Tennis Open well which was great and we got delayed TV coverage. We know that Jimmy Buffet took a tumble from the stage at the Hordern Pavilion, that Julia has put some sort of scaled ‘flood’ levy on Australian tax payers and that Sydney is presently roasting in high temperatures. Oh my poor roses and pot plants! Thanks everyone for taking care of them. Our thoughts are with people in the flood areas.

Until my next installment take care
Jeanette 2.2.11