Wednesday, June 28, 2017

On Safari – Kruger

Our safari itinerary said we would be picked up between 5 and 6 a.m., so we set 2 alarms for 4:15. At 5 o'clock we were both showered and dressed, and our bags were packed. Near enough. On the stroke of the hour a horn tooted in the road outside.

“Is that Jobovic Safaris?”, I asked. As if it could have been anyone else at that hour. “Yes” a voice replied. “I don't know how to open the gate.” It had not occurred to us when we arrived the previous evening that the security fence might prevent us from getting out as well as dissuading burglars from getting in. Luckily the manager appeared soon, opened the gate, and we dragged our bags out to the safari bus.

Luggage stowed, we were given a free choice of the 16 passenger seats. Of the two guides the one with “Piet” on his shirt was clearly in charge. “There's just one thing”, said Piet. This sounded ominous. “The other people who booked this trip have cancelled. They are going on our next departure. You are the only clients.” He closed the door and returned to the driver's seat while the news sank in. We had a 16-seater bus and 2 guides all to ourselves for 13 days. We're tough. We can take it. ;-)

It was, of course, a departure well before our normal breakfast time, but (see the last post) we had missed dinner, so we were quite hungry. Piet had a particular breakfast stop in mind and it wasn't close to Johannesburg. It was the best part of 2 hours, through staggeringly heavy dawn-tide traffic, before he pulled off the main road at a service area. And before we ate he had to show us why he had stopped there. The service area is located just outside a private game reserve. Until recently we had the chance of seeing rhino at the water hole, but they had been relocated to somewhere less accessible to poachers. We admired some ostriches and eland, while our stomachs kept asking, “Where's the food?”

In reality it was probably pretty ordinary fare, but seldom has coffee and a fry-up tasted so good.

Piet tries to organise an itinerary so that we don't have more than 500km to drive in one day. Day one was one of the longer drives, but we could hardly be bored while seeing so much new country. We decided the best view was from the front row. Eve took the left side and Bill spread himself on the right.

We tried to work out what crops were growing. We saw large fields planted with small trees almost hidden inside white protectors. Maybe they have rabbits or hares in South Africa, too.

Eventually we worked out that they were citrus trees of some kind – probably oranges.
Seedling trees in the foreground.  Hail protection in the back.  At least the hail netting is white.

Mature orange trees

Eve saw a monkey. Bill didn't. Grrr!

The route to Kruger National Park took us close to the Drakensburg Escarpment. Piet grumbled that there was only one place where he was still allowed to park without having to pay. Presumably this was not the best view of the Blyde (pronounce the 'e') River Canyon, but it was a pretty good place to exercise the camera. The Blyde River Canyon is the third biggest canyon on the planet, and the biggest 'green' canyon with vegetation growing down the sides.
Along the way

It's a big, deep, green canyon

A glimpse of the escarpment

An unidentified autumn-flowering plant

At the entrance to Kruger we had to stop for formalities like paying park fees. Piet told us to look out for wildlife now. It could appear anywhere. If we saw something we should shout “Stop” and he would.

Almost immediately we saw some antelope beside the road. “STOP!” we yelled. Piet drove on. We didn't see anything else before we arrived at the camp. When the bus stopped Piet explained that the antelope were impala and we would see thousands of them. He wasn't going to stop just for 4 or 5. Didn't he understand they were our FIRST impala?

There was also the matter of time. Piet wanted to be sure that there was enough of the day left for us to be coached in putting up our tent before we went on a sunset game drive. He and Meshack, the other guide, demonstrated how the tent went up. It was a modern design and really quite straightforward. Sorry, we won't be giving readers a good chortle over a collapsing tent. We were often quite slow, but we never made a mess of it.

There was no rush and we were at the pickup point early. Bill had vaguely imagined a “game drive” was something like cowboys driving the steers towards the railhead, but it's the tourists who are driven, not the game. We sat in an open-sided vehicle, so that glass would not distort our photographs. The ranger explained that if we kept ourselves completely inside the vehicle, the animals would not identify us as separate creatures and not bite us. Are lions really that stupid? We dutifully stayed within the perimeter of the vehicle and nothing attempted to bite us. We didn't even see a lion.

Our first drive was a great success. Within the first minute or two Bill was amongst those who saw a warthog. Eve wasn't. Grrr!
The ranger, cunningly photographed in his wing mirror.

Almost immediately after that we saw our first elephant. Everyone on board saw the elephant. It was very close to the road and seemed quite unmoved by the excited (but quiet – we remembered the ranger's briefing) tourists.
Our first elephant

There wasn't an animal around every corner, but there were plenty.
Our first hippo

A kudu

Another elephant!

This group of spotted hyenas was occupying space on either side of the road. We parked almost on top of them but they completely ignored us. The youngsters were being fed before the family group set off for their nightly hunt.

The very young cubs are black

We weren't yet in the tropics, but the twilight didn't last long. However, darkness didn't mean the end of game spotting. One of the first animals to appear in the headlights was an African wild cat. It's about the same size as a domestic cat, with very attractive markings. This one was also too nippy to be a good subject for a photograph.

But this critter hardly moved at all. Puff adders appear very sluggish, and are not sprinters. But they can strike extremely fast, according to the ranger. They curl up where they will not be seen and ambush their prey.
We saw two puff adders during the drive

This silly animal moved straight on down the road. The ranger had to stop the vehicle before the porcupine ended its straight ahead flight and trotted off into the bush.
"Porcupine by Night" - Rear view

We saw several night birds; spotted eagle owls and thick-knees. The latter, also known as the spotted dikkop (Burhinus capensis), is a medium-large plover. We saw several standing in the road and looking very offended that we had interrupted their meditations. Attempts to photograph them were less than successful.

Back at the campsite Meshack gave his first demonstration of cooking skills. It was immediately obvious that we would eat well on this safari. Since he cooked on a 2-burner gas stove the dishes were not complex ones, but they were well cooked and the portions were very generous. The bus was equipped with refrigeration – it would freeze if given long enough, but it needed an outside power source – and we were invited to chill our beer in it.

All the campsites were on level ground. Usually the soil was sandy and it was seldom difficult to hammer in the pegs. Some days we pushed them in by hand. We had mats under our sleeping bags. They weren't very thick, but they were very much more comfortable than sleeping directly on the ground. Our inflatable pillows (only R30 each in Cape Town) were not very thick, but comfy. We each had a torch for night-time trips to the toilet, and were very disciplined about zipping the tent up behind us when we set off, so that no snakes or scorpions could sneak in while we not looking.

The itinerary for Day 2 was to drive from the South of Kruger to the North, watching for game all the while. It was not a trivial journey, since Kruger is almost the size of Wales, and the speed limit is 50 km/h everywhere. From time to time Piet would use the PA system to let us know “Buffalo on the right” or whatever he and Meshack had seen. Later on, Meshack came out of the cab and joined us inside the passenger section. He was nearly always the first to spot an animal. He could make out a buffalo in the deep shadow under trees at 300m or more.

Yes, we did see more impala, and sometimes Piet stopped so that we could admire them. They have a black stripe at the top of each hind leg and down their tail, making an M shape. Piet pointed out the similarity to the Macdonalds logo. “Fast food for lions.”
Our first zebra in Kruger

Probably the same hyena family as yesterday evening.

Piet is not particularly sympathetic to birding. He wants to show clients the big mammals. When you come across a vehicle that has stopped, you slow down and check out what the passengers are looking at. They may have seen something interesting lying in the shade. Piet is probably not the only one. We saw a car with a bumper sticker, “Please pass. We are watching a bird.”

This was a shame because Meshack was very knowledgeable about birds. At least Piet stopped if the bird was especially large or colourful.
Woodland kingfisher - tick!

One of the Park's game drive vehicles

Yet another elephant!

He also stopped for toilets, which were available sufficiently frequently to avoid discomfort in the bladder department.
Our safari bus/truck

Bill didn't need the toilet so he studied the lizards.  Piet would not have stopped for a lizard, even one with a lovely blue tail like this.

This is a large enough group of impala to stop for.  Aren't they lovely?

The impala buck

Our lunch stop was at Olifantskamp. The kitchen and dining areas were infested with beggars and thieves. But very colourful ones …

A Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling
Close up

There was a large family of vervet monkeys alert for any food that wasn't closely guarded.  We even saw one steal a bread roll from a picnicker's plate.

The afternoon was more wildlife spotting.
Another kudu

Saddle-billed stork.  Bill spotted it before Meshak.

Nest of a Red-billed buffalo weaver colony

Our first giraffe

Another giraffe

Did you ever wonder why it's called thornbush veld?

We've forgotten the name of the river.  This is dry-season.

Egyptian geese

Our first Nile crocodile

We like this safari!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Train to Johannesburg

You miss so much by flying. Our researches had found that travelling on the Shosholoza Meyl Tourist Class train was safe, comfortable and inexpensive. The scenery was supposed to be delightful. We also noted that the train had a bit of reputation for being late, but we did not have a tight connection in Johannesburg so that didn't matter. All our expectations were met.

Rather to our surprise we were instructed to check in an hour before departure. This seemed to be excessive for a train, but we nonetheless arrived at the appointed hour. Signage in Cape Town station was a bit vague, but we found a queue for the Johannesburg train. It was moving very slowly. A single window was open, where a lady unhurriedly performed her duties. Eve stood guard over the luggage while Bill joined in the queue. After a longish while someone called out for anybody who had made an online reservation. Maybe we should have formed a separate queue, because Bill was directed to a different office where our booking was checked and some mysteries were performed that allowed Bill to go back to the first window (without queueing again, thank goodness) and receive tickets. Hooray.

We traipsed along the platform, past wagons loaded with the cars of those who had chosen not to drive for 13 or 14 hours. The train was scheduled to take 26¼ hours. Beyond them was a lot of empty platform, where the passenger wagons were due to arrive. We sat on a bench with another couple, Brenda and Patrick, who turned out to be from Vancouver Island, Canada. During our conversation they asked which compartment we were in. We pulled out our tickets to see, but there was no indication. “Oh, that's on the board by the platform gate”, advised Patrick, so Bill marched back past the wagons with cars to where there was a list of berths pinned to a notice board.

After that the train arrived, we climbed aboard, found our compartment and the journey got under way more or less on time. We trust that the queue of hopefuls at the ticket window all got aboard.

We had a 4-berth compartment to ourselves. The weather was very fine; just right for a sightseeing jaunt through the Karoo. We relaxed and, as we passed through the built-up areas of Cape Town, considered the continuing gulf between the lives of white and black South Africans. It is illegal to set aside areas for one race or another, but wealth and income still severely limit the number of non-whites that can afford to live in the nice suburbs behind spiky fences and razor wire. The poorer areas varied enormously, from shanty towns built with wood and whatever other materials can be scrounged, through boring but apparently sound brick buildings 3 or 4 stories high to what look like quite new and nice bungalows, and quite a lot of variation in between.

Life at the bottom of the heap.

Possibly the worst we saw, with particularly bad littering.

Much more solid buildings.

We saw many buildings that had been started, but had no roof.  Presumably the money ran out.  We are sure the residents of those shacks would prefer to move on to a modern, brick bungalow.

Not a township!

High-rise living.

We were surprised at the number of buildings in the townships with Sky dishes, even in the roughest shanty towns. We were told that Sky is very inexpensive, and presumably television sets are too. At least it argues that electricity is available.

In one collection of ramshackle one-room wooden dwelling places Bill saw a car parked behind padlocked gates set in a solid fence. Ownership of a car would be rare in that community and it was worth protecting.

We were well looked after on the train. A man came and, for R60 each, turned our compartment into a bedroom. We slept well.

The dining car was not far away. It wasn't an extensive menu, and not even all that was advertised was available at any particular time, but the food was well cooked and tasty. The train wasn't crowded, and we spent a good deal of time in the dining car talking with Brenda and Patrick.

There was little obvious wildlife. Birds generally shun trains, but we did see a group of 3 cranes in a farm paddock. Bill thought at the time they were crested cranes, and since the other species have no crest that is most likely what they were. Any crane is uncommon in S Africa, and the crowned crane is endangered.

We had been alerted to look out for a lake “about 10 minutes after you leave Kimberley on the left” where we were bound to see flamingoes. We were having breakfast with Brenda and Patrick when we stopped briefly in Kimberley. Possibly only 5 minutes later we saw the lake. It wasn't right up to the tracks; in fact it was a fair way away. Our companions were a little sceptical when they were told that the pale smudges in the distance were flocks of flamingoes. The train's course did take it a bit nearer the water, and it was admitted that we were observing flamingoes. There are only two species of flamingo in S Africa and they both frequent this lake, so we have probably seen the complete set. But all of them looked quite pale – almost white – which is typical of the greater flamingo. To be certain of identification you have to see how much of the bill is black, but the range was far too great for determining such detail.

In little New Zealand we are used to many hills and, particularly here in the South Island, mountains. South Africa is a large country and has some hills and mountains, but where it really scores over NZ is in large tracts of wide open and pretty flat land. The first few hours were spent rolling across such a plain, with large hills in the distance. They gradually got closer and the transition from plain to hills was so sudden we could almost time it to the second.

We knew that we would be carried across “the Karoo”, but there was go guide on the train to tell us which part was the Karoo and what was special about its vegetation. Karoo lamb is a prized meat because the shrubs the sheep eat make them 'ready-herbed'.

The following photographs were taken from the train, but we don't know exactly where any picture was taken, and we can't tell you anything about the geology or ecology of the region. But it's still nice scenery.

A farm and track.

More farmland.  The other end of the field is over the horizon!

We cannot remember now when the first announcement was made that the train would arrive late in Johannesburg. At that time the estimate was 3 hours late. This was quickly amended to 3 hours and 40 minutes. Our friends looked uneasy. They had a plane to catch in Johannesburg at 5:50 to make an important appointment in Windhoek. If the train arrived at the revised time of 4pm they would not have much time to get to the airport in time for check in.

The train stopped. This was the second time it had rested and the passengers had been told that there was no power in the overhead line to take us forward. The sunshine of the first day had been replaced by ever darker cloud. The first spots of rain fell.

Motion returned, and the train continued its unhurried way. No, there was no chance of catching up time. There were speed limits on the track. Playing with Google Maps on the tablet I found that we were little more than 4 hours driving time from Johannesburg. Brenda and Patrick went to have an urgent conversation with the train manager. We gather that it took several conversations before a plan was devised for them to leave the train two stops early and continue by road. Presumably the train company would arrange a taxi.

We haven't been in touch with them since the left the train, so we can only hope they caught their flight.

The delays were not catered for. The dining car stopped serving after lunch. Maybe they had run out of food?

Further delays were not announced.  The scheduled quarter past 12 arrival at Park Station in Johannesburg became a reality of 8pm. It was well after dark when we hopefully followed the crowds along the platform that indeed led us to the exit. Our accommodation for that night had recommended the gautrain, Johannesburg's modern, fast rapid transit system. But we would have had to haul our luggage and change trains, so we thought we'd do it the simple but expensive way and get a taxi. A porter helped to get us and our bags to the pick-up point. Well, his English wasn't terribly fluent. Had he understood?

Out with the trusty tablet and summon an Uber car. The app guided us to a pick up point, which agreed with the porter. A driver picked up our request, and was only 10 minutes away. So far, so good. We want this to go quickly and smoothly because Park Station is in a bad part of a very dangerous city according to Wikitravel. We were pestered by a (white) beggar.

The Uber app allows you to watch your driver approach. We knew his name, the model and colour of his car and its registration number. The little car image got close and we started looking for silver cars in the station forecourt. Not that one. No, that's a Honda. The little car on the map stopped in the street. As soon as the traffic lights change. But no, it stayed where it was. After what seemed an age the ride was suddenly cancelled.

If there had been a regular taxi in the forecourt we would have taken it, but there was no sign of a taxi – and no sign to direct us to a taxi rank. We tried Uber again. It was picked up by the same driver and the same frustrating sequence was followed. We could even see what may have the car, about 150 metres away. What do you do in a bad part of town after dark? We decided to stay together with the luggage. Many private vehicles had come and picked up or dropped off passengers so we must be in the right place. Another car drew up beside us and dropped off a young couple. “We're waiting to be picked up by Uber. Is this the right place?” we asked. It was, but by great good fortune the car was operated by Taxify. The driver wasn't working. He was doing a favour for his neighbours, but he took pity on us. “Where are you going?”

On the way to the guest house the driver told us about friction between the regular taxis and Uber/Taxify. Some Uber drivers have been beaten up and their cars burned. Maybe the Uber driver was scared that there was a trap in the station forecourt? We will never know.

The driver told us that he was on the waiting list to become an Uber driver. When that happened he hoped to earn enough money to buy another car and employ someone to drive it. A budding entrepreneur.

The guest house was a house in a suburban street with no signage. There was no answer to the buzzer, and once again we had to telephone to get in to our accommodation in Johannesburg. At least this time the manager was on the premises.

The room was large, particularly the bathroom, and the bed was huge. The room scored only 5 out of 10 for cleanliness, but the bedding was freshly laundered and the plumbing worked.

It was now approaching 10pm. We had had no dinner and the safari would be picking us up between 5 and 6 a.m. on the morrow. We brewed ourselves a cup of indifferent tea in our room, had a bath, and turned in.