First Impression of South Africa

Hello All from South Africa (sent November 28/2008)

Africa never ceases to amaze me. After spending a summer in Kenya 14 years ago it is still a life changing experience and something profound resonates within me when I come here. Whether it feels for some like coming home or the beauty, warmth and spirit of the people inspires you it will always remain as one of my favourite places to visit. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity I’d recommend making it a priority. It will change your outlook and your life, putting everything into perspective. After a long flight from JFK with a refuelling in Dakar, Senegal (not Darfur as some of you thought – touchdown amongst genocide, come on people) my colleagues and I landed in Johannesburg on the evening of November 15th.

Total travel time from Toronto with layovers was 23 hours, total in air time from JFK w 1 hour in Senegal was 15.5 hours. We arrived at our first lodge on the outskirts of Johannesburg and hit the ground running w a meal of crocodile, impala and chicken. Beers at $0.50 each helped me with my meal and we were off to bed in our tented chalet, basic but beautifully appointed. Sleep came quickly but unfortunately between the various species of birds, toads and bullfrogs in the bog it was a mix between a symphony and WWIII and not a lot of sleep was to be had that evening.

Early the next morning we drove past Johannesburg (a big city with little character from what I hear) and passed informal settlements, shanty towns where refugees and illegal immigrants live and formal settlements also known as government housing which were very basic one room homes with water and electricity, some incredibly sad and dire situations. As our guide spoke of apartheid as we drove past one could not help be moved to tears, the frustration was overwhelming, at least for me. GPS systems announced in high crime areas where not to stop by any means and in some places businesses were surrounded by mile high barb wire fences with armed guards; the poorest live two minutes away without running water and electricity.

We continued our journey and began the long but interesting and beautiful drive through Afrikaans country, passing through a few resort towns with tons of trout fishing (go figure), past landscape resembling Canada with plentiful pine forests on the sides of mountains, (planted to feed SA’s forestry industry) and into mountain villages with some incredible panoramic viewpoints such as God’s Window, Blyde River Canyon (3rd largest in the world), the Three Rondavels, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, Pilgrim’s Rest (mining town) all located in Mpumalanga.

 

Rondevals

Rondevals

I love the Zulu language, it rolls off the tongue. The area is filled with Jacaranda trees, native to South America, fragrant with bright beautiful purple flowers, astoundingly beautiful and very romantic.

The day finally came to an end and we rolled into our first camp located just outside Kruger National Park, stopped to see a giraffe by the front gate, settled into our lodge, had a few beers with a meal that was not as adventurous as the first and slept soundly under our mosquito nets. It must be said though that dreams were always compared in the mornings after some experienced violent and vivid dreams brought on by Malarone, our malaria medication. I was reminded though that it is always good to have it as a friend on my trip to Kenya in ’94 almost died in a Nairobi hospital with a fever of 106F.

The next morning was an early one as we took off on a bush walk in the small protected park belonging to the lodge. As great as this experience was, the animals in this area were brought into the lodge so it wasn’t as real as Kruger National Park would be, but still cool as we came across a family of giraffes and one stood in the back of our group photo staring at the camera, towering over our heads. We took photos on a giant termite hill, and admired herds of zebra and wildebeest.

Giraffe in Photo

Giraffe in Photo

After breakfast we headed off to Kruger National Park. Along the way we stopped at a one room schoolhouse for the disabled and dropped off half of the school supplies I had purchased the night before the trip and spent time interacting and hugging the children. Unfortunately they came from small remote farming communities where their parents don’t have the resources to see them grow up. Ages ranged from 12-33 and a small boy latched on to me which made me an emotional mess, brings tears to me eyes as we speak and the pull in me to switch from travel to philanthropy became even stronger. Just need to find a way to combine the two. One had Downs Syndrome but the other disabilities were unrecognizable to us. Our guide had never encountered such a situation in his 40+ years and as a result of our tour company, we are all now coming home with a new purpose in raising funds for this small struggling community. If I come home with one memorable memory it was this.

We then continued to Kruger National Park which is a private game park that is the size of England. It contains four distinct biodomes and roaming free in their natural habitat are 15,000 elephants, 250,000 impala, 3,000 lions, and not knowing the numbers, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, wildebeest, water buffalo, cheetahs, giraffes, leopards and zebras to name a few of the hundreds of species. We were incredibly lucky as we drove through the park to our lodge as we witnessed a pack of lions kill and feast on an impala, families of giraffes and elephants walking close to the road, baboons and their babies sitting in the middle of the road, a black rhino threatening to charge our vehicle and zebras galloping by. Evidently we were extremely lucky to have witnessed some of these events.

That night we slept well in our lodge as content as a pig in shit, or let’s say, as a cackling hyena.

On Day 3 we woke early to go on a game walk. After hearing stories of two separate incidents involving two mauled and skinned rangers by leopards (the memorial for one of them is today at the park) some opted out but it ended up being amazing as we again witnessed two impala kills by packs of beautifully spotted wild dogs. After the dogs ran off scared I had a photo taken of me holding up the head of the freshly killed impala with the ranger’s gun. It was disgusting but had to be done, it is after all the circle of life and I wasn’t pulling a Sarah Palin. Note: Inserted is a photo of our guide with the kill, unfortunately I cannot find mine.  We continued along this incredibly dangerous walk, I pointed out a snake inches from us that ended up being a rare poisonous snake that causes death in people from internal bleeding, and yet again it became an experience I will never forget. Armed guards in front and back of us made it feel much safer than it was.

The day rounded out last night with a sunset game drive where we also saw hyenas and massive hippos waddling along, a treat to see them out of the water. You really need to remind yourself that you’re not at a zoo when you’re in Kruger and that this is where they truly live. It is too surreal.

We’ve just crossed the border into Swaziland today and I’ll write again tomorrow. Thanks for reading, it’s a long one but I’m the daughter of a writer and he has obviously rubbed off on me. My first impression of South Africa will forever stay with me; a lesson in culture and humility combined with beauty and adventure.

Final thought for today…for the third time on this trip, my iPod, on shuffle, keeps playing the song Africa by Toto, an associative memory that will really stick for years to come. Currently “blessing the rains in Africa, taking the time to do the things we never have.”

Love you all, wish you were here. Julie

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