Jed Appelrouth

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South Africa

South Africa: December 17- Dec 28, 2012

Cape Town has been calling for years. My friends have only raved about their sojourns to South Africa and the beauty of the Cape, and I was excited when my Dad expressed interest in accompanying me on this trip. I couldn't pass up a chance to see beautiful places, try out a new camera and spend quality time with my Dad.

Choose your own Safari

We had two options for the safari portion of the trip: Go Big- The Kruger National Park, or Get Intimate- one of the private game reserves adjacent to the park. The Kruger is a massive park, spanning 2 million plus acres, connecting up with parks in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. If your dream is to see a pride of 15 lions wandering the plain or a herd of 60 elephants tearing up the brush, your only option is Kruger. However, you run the risk of visiting Kruger and coming up with the big goose egg. It's a crap shoot. In the park, you cannot deviate from the established roads; if the animals don't happen to show up on your prescribed route, you're stuck.

The game reserves, albeit smaller, are designed for your viewing pleasure: when it comes to seeing the major African game animals, the reserves stack the odds in your favor. These smaller, private parks are stocked with all the animals you've come to see. There are no limitations on where you can go within the reserve; you are only limited by the creativity and driving skills of your guide. Additionally, your guide and tracker are not acting in isolation- they are plugged into a radio network of other guides who are likewise cruising the park to sight the big animals. As soon as a major game animal (i.e. leopard, not impala) is spotted, the coordinates are transmitted via radio, and your driver can head directly to a group of lions feasting on a fresh wildebeest or a pack of pachyderms at the watering hole. One of the locals advised us: If you have a week, spend a day or two in the Kruger, but if you've only scheduled a few days in the bush, the game reserves are the best way to go.

We were initially considering the Cheetah Plains lodge, part of the 60,000 acre Sabi Sands game reserve, but we ended up going with the Waterbuck lodge, part of the Thornybush game reserve, comprised of 10 private reserves who have pooled their land and animals to create a 11,500 acre private reserve. Waterbuck was reasonably priced, the service and amenities were great and the tours were capped at 10 people. I'd recommend the lodge in a heartbeat.

Our Waterbuck safari

We took the quick hop from Joburg to Hoedspruit airport and shuttled 30 minutes to our lodge. Along the way we passed dozens of reserves and were amused by dozens of animals on both sides of the road: giraffes, zebra, impala, baboons, warthogs and more. Dotting the landscape were massive 4-6 foot high termite mounds; in the distance loomed the impressive Dragon's claw mountain range.

Pulling into Waterbuck, we met Gareth, our guide. We learned that the average tenure for a safari guide is 6-18 months, but Gareth, with 2 full years of guiding experience, was a seasoned veteran. After dropping our bags in our plush safari suite, we grabbed a mid-afternoon snack and loaded into our safari mobile, a modified open-air Toyota Land Cruiser.

The name of the game in the world of the safari is seeing the "Big Five." As a game, it's somewhat arbitrary, but everyone gets totally jazzed if they see the big five: leopard, lion, rhino, elephant, and buffalo. How about the giraffe? Big, but not dangerous. The Hippo? Big and extremely dangerous, but easy to find, hanging out in the lake. If you see all five in the same day, Gareth promised us a round of complimentary Amarula shots back at the lodge.

As soon as we pulled out of our lodge, we saw dozens of leaping impala and the big eared, doe-eyed Kudus. Several male Kudus were scrapping, locking their twisting horns in displays of healthy aggression.

We spent most of the first hour driving deeper into the park, seeing fewer and fewer animals. It was a bit slow, but then the call came on the radio. A pride of female lions had just taken down a wildebeest! The feast was on. We quickly changed direction, left the road and headed straight into the bush. Gareth deftly maneuvered the truck around the brushy obstacles and trees, and his trusty tracker helped him cut down branches to allow us to navigate the tough spots. We finally pulled up to the scene: the lioness and her two daughters, splayed out on a bed of grass, panting heavily after having devoured the wildebeest. Having gorged themselves silly, with massive quantities of meat pressing against their diaphragms, the lionesses were breathing in a most belabored fashion. Gareth told us the lionesses would sleep for 20 hours to allow proper digestion of the beasty 'beest.

From our observation of the lion's postprandial stupor, we headed to a site where a female leopard was stalking a stray impala that had left the pack. In the bush, "impala" is Swahili for "snack pack." Several impala young have been born with nutritional information imprinted directly on their hides. Call it a miracle. This particular impala was alone, facing the hungry leopard as dusk encroached. As Gareth maneuvered our vehicle for a superior vantage point, the leopard took advantage of the engine noise, cloaking her movement as she advanced towards her prey. Suddenly, in a flash of white and beige, the impala bolted. The leopard turned and ran directly toward our vehicle, coming three feet from my seat. Sitting in a truck without any doors, staring at the sprinting, giant cat, my heart skipped a beat! What's she doing? Is she going to jump in? Then, without a moment's hesitation, she veered off towards the bush. Adrenaline coursing through my body. That was so exciting!!! I can see how people get into these safaris!

At this point, night had overtaken the veld, the bush, and we returned to the lodge for our fireside dinner, passing a herd of nearly 100 cape buffalo and a group of 60-80 impala.

Thursday morning, 5:00 AM, we get the wake-up knock on our door. By 5:45 AM we are back in the Land Cruiser. Our schedule was fairly simple: 5:45-9:00 AM morning safari. Brunch at 10:30 AM. Mid-day rest while the animals are less active. 3:30 PM Snack. 4:00 PM- 7:30 PM evening safari. 8:00 PM dinner by the fire pit. Early to bed and early to rise.

The next three safaris were replete with amazing sights, a herd of cape buffalo standing off against a family of hippos; an adorable baby rhino, excited and nervous in the presence of our vehicle, hopping like a kangaroo after his mamma; the junior warthog club, a female cheetah and her 1-year old son, the only surviving offspring from her litter of four cubs; tree-scampering baboons; impala kindergarten where dozens of newborns were gathered, separated from the rest of the herd; giraffes playing a furious game of chase, spooking the skittish zebra; eagles lofting on the majestic, crowned acacia trees; bright blue kingfishers; ornery cape buffalo; gassy rhinos; mating buffalo; sleeping lions, and wandering nyala, with their cautious movements and beautiful patterns. We stalked the female leopard for an hour, and when she emerged from the bush, she loped fearlessly toward our vehicle, coming within a foot of our truck, looked up at my Dad and ran off into the bush. That was truly awesome.

We saw three of the big five on Wednesday, went 5 for 5 on Thursday (shots all around!), and 4 out of 5 on Friday. As we drove through the reserve, taking each turn was like reaching into a box of animal crackers, wondering what animal would be served up next. If you were on the cusp of boredom, you'd round a bend and bam!: hello rhino, cheetah, or herd of impala.

Voyeurism with boundaries

I couldn't believe how close the guides came to the animals, but they always knew how much space to provide and when to back off if the animals seemed agitated. Always give them an exit route; watch, but don't harass the animals. The guides really managed this well, never sending more than two vehicles to observe an animal sighting. Additionally, Gareth was vigilant that no one stand up in the vehicle when we were near the animals. It was so tempting to stand to jockey for a better photographic angle, but the silhouette of a human, distinct from the larger shape of the vehicle, to which the animals had become accustomed, could startle them. On numerous occasions Gareth insisted that I take my seat, and he would reposition the truck to provide a better shot of the lion or the leopard.

Manufacturing Paradise: maintaining the balance

The reserves certainly felt like untamed wilderness, but we learned that this "natural" environment was tempered by human hands. The owners of private game reserves, unlike the administrators of Kruger Park, were driven by profit as well as preservation; the animals were corporate assets. Maintaining the equilibrium of the ecosystem was key to the bottom line, as well as good for the health of the biome.

When the dominant male lion (father to the 3 young lions we saw) was gored by the horns of a massive cape buffalo, the reserve owners sent in veterinarians to try to save him and preserve their lion's share. This would never happen at Kruger. Gareth said that in the event the pride of lions becomes too successful and begins to deplete the reserve's stock of herd animals, the owners will actually sell off one or more of the lions to another reserve to reestablish the balance.

The owners were seriously considering another "Big Five" intervention. The dominant elephant bull, lacking any competitors, was in a constant state of musk and testosterone overload; we watched as he relentlessly drove after the females of the herd. To keep the balance, the owners were looking into bringing in another male to give the bull some competition, inhibit his musk, and give the female elephants a much needed respite!

Maintaining the rhino population was another significant challenge for the reserve owners. When I first met Gareth, I noticed the sticker on his folder: "Save the Rhino- Hunt the poachers." The owners of Thornybush recently picked up a 6-pack of white rhino for $1.5 million, $250k a rhino. But the owners are grappling with external economic forces. Unscrupulous buyers in Asia will pay up to $1000 for an endangered rhino's horn. The prospect of earning $1000, several years of salary for many residents of Southern Africa, brings thousands of desperate poachers to the reserves and parks. Electrified fences surround the park to help keep the poachers out and the animals in; additionally, all the guides have high caliber rifles. But the laws of supply and demand dictate that as soon as one poacher is killed, another one is right behind him, seeking the promised payday. Until the demand in Asia abates, or the king-pins of the black market are stopped, the rhinos will remain threatened.

From Joburg to Capetown, a tale of two cities

From Hoedspruit we headed back to Johannesburg before departing for Cape Town. By design, we spent very little time in Johannesburg, another big city, with plenty of big city problems. The family from Johannesburg who accompanied us on safari had recently been the victims of multiple violent attacks, a domestic hostage situation last Christmas and several carjackings in their home town. Following their most recent trauma, the family had headed straight to the bush to heal, to take solace in the natural environment. They saw the struggles of Johannesburg only increasing as the ANC leadership falls farther and farther afield of the inclusive path set by Mandela, moving more in the direction of Mugabe from neighboring Zimbabwe. Escalating political corruption, a leadership vacuum, entrenched poverty, and continued "white flight" foretell harder times ahead for the state. The father told me he hopes his children will both leave South Africa, and he and his wife will soon follow.

In stark contrast to Joburg, Cape Town has managed to keep the ANC out of power and the rule of law largely intact. Corruption hasn't become endemic, and things "actually get done" in this city. Because of its incredible beauty, Cape Town has attracted a significant population of ex-pats, both European and Asian, contributing to the cosmopolitan feel of the place and the increasing development of the city. There are more jobs in Joburg, but more people with money are coming to settle in the Cape.

Cape Town is forever associated with its chief landmark, Table Mountain, recently designated one of the seven wonders of the natural world. My hiking mate Larry G. told me I absolutely had to hike up Table Mountain, and that was the first thing I did once we arrived. Our host at Four Rosmead, our Cape Town B&B, insisted I hike the mountain with a guide, to protect my new camera and simply stay out of harm's way. I'm not sure how much protection she provided, but I did enjoy the company of Hendre, my sporty 26-year old, Afrikaans-speaking guide.

After the hike, it was wonderful to come back and crash at Four Rosmead. It's a lovely little bed and breakfast, well-designed, with good art, a fab breakfast, great location and superlative service from Nadine, our hostess-of the-year. Nadine set us up with all our dining reservations- good fish at Millner's Thumb (where I ran into a former McKinsey partner I had worked with in Atlanta), Harbor House on the high-energy waterfront where the Yellowfin tartar is insanely delicious, and the stylish Savoy Cabbage, famous for their flaky and savory tomato tart.

We took advantage of the touristy offerings of Cape Town: paragliding off of Signal hill with Manu the friendly Zimbabwe surfer dude, riding the ferry to Robben Island to visit the prison where Mandela was incarcerated, riding the cable car to the top of Table Mountain, where the famed Table "cloth" clouds crawled over the big hill.

The Winelands

From Cape Town we drove our car to the Winelands, remembering to stay on the left hand side, and pass on the right! I loved how casual the drivers were with the street signs; every stop was a rolling stop- I could get used to that! Our destination was the valley of Franschhoek- French Corner- where the Huguenots settled centuries ago after being chased out by the French monarchs. French names adorned many of the valley's properties including our beautiful little B&B, L'Auberge Dauphine, nestled between sloping hills, overrun by a family of friendly dogs. We grabbed dinner on the strip at the French Connection where we were serenaded by several Christmas caroling choirs. They really shined when they broke from the off-the-rack, campy holiday jingles and integrated some high-energy traditional African music into their repertoire. We drank some good vino from the Haut Cabriere vineyard and ended dinner with a crisp créme brulee.

The next day we toured the local vineyards looking for the most scenic views: Haut Cabriere, La Petite Ferme, Dieu Donne (Roca restaurant has stunning views!), La Motte, Rickety Bridge and the Grande Provence, where we tasted some quality wines and were entertained by a talented musical group.

We drove through the Franschhoek mountain pass, down to the coast of the False Bay. We took the scenic route from Gordon's bay to Betty's bay just in time to see the noisy Stony Point African penguins. We made our way back to Stellenbosch just in time for the sunset. Stellenbosch was visually stunning. We hit up Waterford vineyards and then drove straight to the Helshoogte Pass to catch the views at Tokara and Delaire Graff vineyards. Epically beautiful, the landscape reminded me immediately of New Zealand, one of my favorite places on the planet. As it was Christmas day, without a car in sight, it was easy for us to hop to and from the vineyards, looking for the best views. My father was a trooper as I dashed from one vista to the next, looking for the best shot.

When the sun fell, we arrived at the Wedgeview lodge. We grabbed a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and had dinner and desert on the porch as the holiday revelers sang songs into the night. Great wine, great music, great views of the darkening hills, followed by a starry sky. My kind of night! The Wedgeview breakfast was over-the-top, easily the best we had in all of South Africa.

Kirstenbosh and the Cape Driving Tour

For our penultimate day, we hit the road back to Cape Town, dropped our bags at Abbey Manor Guest house, where the views of Table Mountain were stunning, and drove straight to the Kirstenbosch gardens. Against the mountainous backdrop of the park, the fynbos flowers of the cape region were lovely (couldn't get enough of those Agapanthus!). We embarked upon the Cape Point Tour, grabbing snacks at Olympia Café in Fish Hoek, viewing the singing penguins at Boulders Bay, and driving past ostriches and baboons in the Cape of Good Hope park. We arrived at Chambers Peak in time to see the Boxing Day revelers raise their glasses as the sun descended below the Atlantic.

We returned to Cape Town and slept our final night on South African Soil. The morning entailed a quick drive to the city center, picking up a few touristy nick-nacks in the markets, enjoying the street dancers, and moseying through the Company Gardens and surrounding museums. From there we headed to the airport, back to Johannesburg and back home.

It was a great trip: delectable eats, lovely lodges, exotic flora and fauna, fine company. I'd definitely go back, but Asia and Europe are certainly calling. Until the next adventure, thanks for following along.

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