The Southern Cross has changed since we were last south of the equator two and a half months ago. It is slightly more upright and higher in the night sky. It's good to see it again. This is my fourth visit to the southern hemisphere and seeing it is like meeting an old friend after a long absence.
We arrived in Johannesburg a week and a half ago after a long but comfortable flight from Doha. After retrieving our rental car, we went back into the airport for some breakfast. Two things struck us almost immediately. First, the people are very friendly here. They love their country and seem to take real joy in sharing it with visitors. Second, despite the deteriorating state of the Canadian dollar (at least it was deteriorating the last time I looked at the news weeks ago), this is a very affordable destination. A good bottle of wine runs about $5.00. A flat of beer is $10.00 and a typical entree at a decent restaurant is about $4.00. Easy on the budget.
Our first destination was Kruger National Park for our fix of African mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. We decided to spread the six hour drive to the Park over three days and see some of the extraordinary countryside en route. The Blyde River Canyon is the third largest canyon in the world and is simply out of this world beautiful. We sat on our perches one kilometre above the river bed and stared out at the vast splendor of it all. Every 3 km or so there was a viewpoint offering an irresistible view down onto some of mother nature's finest work. The imagery is right out of the Lion King. Classic Africa.
On our second day we stopped into a private elephant reserve just before the entrance to the park. We had mixed feelings about introducing the kids to wildlife in a controlled environment as opposed to in the wild but, in hindsight, we are glad we did. They have six elephants there that have been rescued from unfavourable conditions around the country. We learned so much about these amazing creatures and were wide eyed when the largest lay down on the ground before us and let us explore him trunk to tail. We each held his trunk while we fed him and stared directly into his massive brown eyes, stroked his large ears which are shaped like the African continent and act like the radiator in a car, felt the sensitive and course hairs on his back and the plastic-like strands at the end of his tail. We learned how his legs and feet are custom made to cary the load of his superstructure and how the circumference of the delicate feet times two is exactly the animal's height to the shoulder. I never would have believed it if they didn't prove it right before my eyes. Elephants are among the most intelligent creatures on earth and can understand and respond to hundreds of words. The girls were glued to every word and bravely walked between the massive front legs (arms) for a photo-op. Road schooling done for the day.
The owner of this place is a white South African gentlemen commonly referred in these parts to as the "Elephant Whisperer." He is obviously very knowledgeable and committed to the long term well being of the species. After a half hour ride on Timbu, a large bull, we headed to the cafe for a light lunch before entering Kruger. The owner dropped by as we were finishing up and asked again if we'd enjoyed the experience. He gave us some "insider" tips on game viewing in Kruger. "Next time you visit a zoo," he told us, "pay attention to how they treat the animals. If you don't like what you see, do something about it." What a great message for the kids to hear. Take note of the injustices you see and take action any way you can. When we told him we needed to get some groceries, he gave us directions to one of the local stores. "Make sure you go to this one," he added, "it's where all the whites shop." Ummmmmmmm (long, awkward silence) ohhhhh kaayyyy.
Only a few months after the death of Mandela, decades after the official end of apartheid, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the election of successive ANC governments and the hosting of the World Cup of Soccer, South Africa is still a country deeply divided and struggling to find its way. The whites are resentful of their tarnished legacy and what they see as the decline of the nation they built. The blacks are struggling to adapt to a western, wage economy and are increasingly impatient with the slow progress in getting a greater share in the country's impressive economic output. Everywhere we have been, the whites are the owners and supervisors and the blacks take care of the service end of things and never the money. We headed a bit off course on the way to Kruger and ended up on a dead end road in a rural black village. They were not enthusiastic to see us and, unlike everywhere else we've been, did not return our smiles and waves. The whites seem to take satisfaction in telling visitors about every pothole and un-emptied trash can as if such things never existed during apartheid. We stopped to ask one white resident directions to the police station. "Have you had some trouble with the locals?" she enquired. She seemed almost disappointed when we advised that we were simply looking for a restaurant situated next to the cop shop.
I'm not sure how to feel as a white tourist from a country that formally opposed apartheid and made Mandela an honorary citizen. I feel like celebrating everything that South Africa has achieved in the last 25 years. I'm just not sure who I'm supposed to celebrate with. I do sense hope and optimism here and understand that centuries of repression take time to reach a new equilibrium. I wonder what Mandella thought of it all in his final days. Hopefully with each successive generation, the memories of the past will fade and Mandela's Rainbow Nation will come closer to reality.
Politics aside, this country is simply magnificent. It is green and warm and summery here with songbirds sweetly chirping at dawn and crickets humming away at night. The sky is big and blue with pitch black nights full of strange stars. Our last trip to Africa included a guided tour through a private game reserve in Tanzania. Not this time. Kruger is tailor made for the independent traveller. We rented a mid-sized SUV and headed out of Johannesburg onto the country's excellent and safe highways. Once inside Kruger's massive territory, you're free to explore its endless roads and trails as you please. There are about ten government-run rest camps that close their gates promptly at 6:30 pm - just before sundown. I don't plan to find out what happens if you're late, but scenes from Jurassic Park keep running through my mind. The gates open again at 5:30 am and there is always a line up to get out. The rest camps are fenced off to keep the critters outside. The little round bungalows that you rent are cosy and air conditioned. We are thrilled to be doing our own cooking again and the charcoal barbecue outside our door, or braai as they call it, has been going steady. The mangoes are in full season here and we purchased a massive bag along with a dozen oranges for 50 Rand ($5.00). There is usually a store and a pool at each rest camp. The latter is a godsend when you arrive mid-afternoon to plus 36!!
The animals. Well what can you say? This place is world class. You can hire a park guide to take you around at sunrise or sunset, but frankly we've had a blast bumping around the trails on our own. I'm still amazed they let you do it. By the end of our first day we'd spotted all the Big Five except the elusive leopard. On day three something caught my eye in a tree above the dirt track we were driving down. A leopard was lying on a thick, shady branch with its four legs dangling down trying to stay cool. I was proud as a Pumba when other vehicles began to stop and celebrate bagging the hardest of the big five with their cameras. He finally got sick of being watched and climbed head first down the tree. He gave us one last look before he disappeared into the grass that seemed to say "just you step out of that jeep and you'll see what nature really looks like!" We all high fived at this rare and intimate spotting. After that we worked on the Splendid Seven, the Small Six and the Ugly Five. Shannon worried that we might be hurting the feelings of the Kudus, Impalas, Warthogs, Elephants and Giraffes when we drove by without slowing down anymore to ohhhh and ahhhh after day three.
One morning we set the alarm for 4:30 am and were fourth in line when the gate opened at 5:30. We were disappointed to be behind another vehicle that was headed to the same track as us that we'd heard from some Canadians the night before was a good place to spot lions. He turned out to be our good luck charm. At about 6:00 am we pulled up behind him to see five big males relaxing in the grass right on the side of road - their long manes shinning golden in the morning sunshine. We could look right in their eyes as they cast bored glances at us. We saw their sharp white teeth as they yawned cavernously. After 45 minutes of silent awe, we reluctantly moved on. Five kms down the road we met the girls. There were three lionesses lying right on the road with about ten tiny cubs climbing over them playfully as they tried to nap. There was no way to proceed through them so we turned off the engine, rolled down the windows and just watched. We had to keep reminding ourselves that we were not in a zoo. If we stepped outside the car and tried to touch one of the irresistible little cubs, we would be torn to shreds. The vehicle in front of us finally decided to move forward and the big cats begrudgingly sauntered to the side to let us pass. We were less than two feet from fierce, penetrating eyes as we slowly drove past. My hands were shaking as I lowered the window a crack for a close up photo. I swear I could smell her breath. Smelled like kudu! I don't care how good your high-priced guide is, you can't get the same experience from the top seats of a Land Rover with a schedule to keep.
We had a full week in Kruger and it felt good not to be rushed. One night we were treated to an African lightening storm. It gently rained as I sat in the screened porch of our bungalow writing, listening to John Prine and missing my buddies who can sing the words to all those great songs. It's wicked hot here, even at 9:15 pm, and there are strange noises coming from the trees and bushes around us. Just about time to finish this glass of Chenin Blanc, jump in bed and turn out the lights. I'll say good night to the creatures before I head in. Don't want to hurt their feelings!
We will miss Kruger. It's somewhere I've dreamed of visiting since watching Lorne Green's Wild Kingdom as a kid. There's only so much amazing wildlife and jungle you can process however. Tomorrow we head into downtown Jo'burg for a few nights before catching the overnight train to Port Elizabeth on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Then it's two weeks of beaches and vineyards before a stopover in Cape Town prior to making our long voyage to Europe (Turkey). I'll touch base before leaving Jo'burg to reassure some of you who I know are fretting that all is well.