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South Africa Beckons - Part 1

Updated: Apr 14

Having seen photographs that several family members took while on Safari in Africa, I decided I wanted to go. So, South Africa became one of those bucket list items.

About two years ago, one of my friends who understands my passion for travel, told me to check out packages on Travel Zoo. Generally, I travel a la carte but decided to subscribe to their newsletter anyway. Some of the packages looked really interesting and I took advantage of two and was quite happy. A few months ago an offer for a safari to South Africa came to my inbox with dates that worked and a cost within my price point. I decided to book a trip.

During our recent stay in Uruguay, ATM’s were scarce. Once bitten and twice shy, I decided to go to Wells Fargo and order about $400 American dollars worth of South African Rand. As it turns out, getting money out of machines is not easy in South Africa either. If you are out and about and want to tip a driver or server, having a little cash comes in handy. Interestingly, and undoubtedly related to covid, many business establishments only accepted plastic and refused to take cash. Nevertheless, having some pocket money was comforting.

As we researched our trip, we had to decide what would be appropriate clothing. We read that, if on Safari, the colors red and white were to be avoided. Red makes animals agitated (which my husband branded BS) and white makes them avoid you as you are more noticeable. Neither is a good option when in an open jeep. We also read that tsetse flies in Africa are attracted to black and blue. In the end we were pretty much down to drab shades of brown, grey and green. Although it was far from fashionably festive, this color scheme certainly seemed a sensible sartorial strategy, suited to several safaris. (you can thank my alliterate travel partner for that last sentence.)

Safaris are not canceled because of rain and can actually result in better sightings. That being said, you will need a rain jacket AND a waterproof poncho. Notice the word “AND”. Yes, you should have both otherwise your backside will get soaked when the rain comes into your vehicle. It can also be chilly, especially in the early mornings. So, you will need a lightweight vest and perhaps a lightweight cardigan or sweatshirt. Water resistant hiking or trail shoes are highly recommended as it can be muddy. As always, think of layers when packing.

When traveling abroad it is always important to be up to date on vaccines like hepatitis A and B, Typhoid, Tetanus, and Covid-19. If you are going on a Safari, Malarone (or its generic) anti-Malaria pills are highly recommended.

COVID wasn’t over and the Omicron variant may have originated in South Africa, but with testing, masks and vaccines, I decided to go. To make sure we would not have any problems going from one airport to another we had a test three days before, a test two days before, and a test the day before. Our connection adventures in South America made us a bit skittish regarding readily available test results meeting whatever time constraints the various documentation demanders desired.

Our flight was from Kennedy in the morning and so we decided to try a stay at the Radisson near the airport. The hotel had a “stay-park-fly” plan that provided the most stress free JFK experience ever. The shuttle from the hotel to our gate allowed us to sleep later, enjoy breakfast, not worry about traffic and took less than 10 minutes.

Masked up and ready to go
At Kennedy airport waiting to board | Masked up and ready to go

The flight from Kennedy was relatively uneventful. We had a short 45 minute layover in Doha, Qatar. So, I didn’t have time to take in what the airport had to offer.

When we arrived in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela was there to greet us.

Map of South Africa showing provinces
Map of South Africa showing provinces

We landed in Johannesburg, located in the Gauteng Province (north-central South Africa) and were shuttled to our hotel, Garden Court O.R. Tambo International Airport in the Kempton Park section. The hotel was lovely and served our needs but were advised it was “a very high crime area.” So we did not venture out of there. But, as it turns out, there was a recurring warning about venturing out at night everywhere. Depending on where we were, humans were not the only problem as leopards and even small lions find their way out of Kruger because they can climb fences or burrow under them. Since they hunt at night, an evening stroll may not be a good idea. We weren't completely sure these warnings were rooted in fact or paranoia. At one point the tour guide in Cape Town told the group to not walk around the city at night “unless you’re in a group of ten or more”. One can only imagine how many marauding futbol (soccer) teams are roaming that city preying on the touristas. Anyway, after traveling as far as we did, we were happy to be staying in a nice hotel with a restaurant where we could rest.

We have noticed in our travels to approximately 20 countries, and counting, Irish Pubs exist everywhere.

We decided to take a selfie.

Maria and Stephan
Maria and Stephan

Stephan and Maria
Stephan and Maria

The image on the right was flipped horizontally in Photoshop to fix the mirror effect of a selfie on the letters.

My husband in front of an Irish pub in Kempton Park (Johannesburg)
My husband in front of an Irish pub in Kempton Park (Johannesburg)

Early the next morning, we began our journey to Hazyview, Mpumalanga. The ride was incredible and I absorbed the views like a sponge. Generally the rocking of a vehicle as it moves is enough to lull me to sleep after an hour or so, not this trip, I did not want to miss a thing.

Here are some photos of what we saw from the bus.

We learned rather early in our trip that waffles are as important to South Africans as pizza is to Americans.

The bus ride was four hours and during a lunch stop my husband wandered into a “deli”. It turned out to sell only different types of jerky. He recognized some as our nephew Rob makes similar tasty treats but there was one variety that was rather unusual looking. So he inquired of the young lady behind the counter “What’s that”? “Biltong” she replied. “Ah, but what IS it?” he continued curiously. “Biltong” said she. He bought two and left, later determining it to be “some kind of meat that was pretty good.”

Further down the road we passed a park that guaranteed the sighting of the big five. Of course they were only statues, with one give-away being the rhino has his front tusk, (more about that later.)

One of the really nice things about this park though is that it puts things in perspective. The animal statues are all life sized, and placed in settings like those where the living breathing animals are likely to be seen.

A little down the road, a lush landscape with trees, grasses, canyons and mountains came into view.

So on our first real day of the tour, the very first place we visited was Blyde River Canyon, Mpumalanga. Blyde River Canyon is one of the largest canyons in the world. Although smaller than the Grand Canyon it still expansive and has remarkable geological formations and breathtaking views.

A selfie at Three Rondavels
A selfie at Three Rondavels

Three Rondavels are part of the canyon and look like enormous huts with grass roofs. There is a short walking trail which afforded us the opportunity to stretch our legs, get some fresh air, and take in the scenery from several vantage points that were not obstructed by glass. While the walk is not very long we stayed a while to absorb the beauty of our surroundings.

As we walked on the trail at Three Rondavels a butterfly landed on my husband's head. I think it just hitched a ride because we were heading in the same direction and the butterfly’s wings matched his hat.

To see more photographs of Three Rondavels click on the link below:

The next place we visited in Blyde River Canyon was God’s Window.

The first time we saw a Vervet Monkey in the wild was in southern India when one walked in front of our car. I thought it was absolutely beautiful with its black, chestnut colored eyes and light hair. I actually planned a trip to Florida because there is a colony in the Fort Lauderdale area but that trip was canceled because of the pandemic. Anyway I had the opportunity to see these magnificent creatures on several occasions while in South Africa and was greeted by a few raiding the garbage can at the foot of the trail to God’s Window.

Further up the trail was a wonderful panoramic view of the area.

Back into the bus where we headed towards our accommodations in Hazyview, Mpumalanga. We stopped along the way at a mall to see if there was a bank or an ATM where money could either be exchanged or withdrawn. Thankfully, after learning our lesson in Uruguay, we had purchased Rand in the USA. Unfortunately for my fellow travelers who did not do the same, they would have to try again.

Shortly before sunrise, the safari jeeps came to take us to Kruger National Park. This is not like Lion Country Safari in Florida or like Great Adventure in NJ. The animals in this park are as free in a natural habitat as they can be. Covering over 7500 square miles, Kruger National Park is larger than many countries. It is roughly as big as the country of Israel and larger than Cyprus and Puerto Rico. So needless to say, you can’t see it in one day. Even though it is fenced along the perimeter, the animals have plenty of space to roam.

Safari Jeeps
Safari Jeeps

What I find amazing is that large animals like giraffes and elephants can easily hide. The first animal that only our guide saw was a giraffe. Its markings were the same color as the leaves and he blended in pretty well despite being mere feet from our jeep. Here is the first photo I took of him. (once I could see him well enough to focus.)

To be continued.....

Join us in our next blog segment "South Africa - Part 2 - SAFARI" as we explore Kruger National Park

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