Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cheers!

Being on Safari was great and it was hard to leave but we were off on a short flight to Cape Town airport where we picked up another rental car and headed about an hour northeast to the winelands. Not only were we driving on the "wrong" side of the road now but we had a stick shift this time!

We had rented a gorgeous private home that was across the street and part of a guest house so we had the luxury of having breakfast prepared for us each day but had the privacy of our own large home to relax in.

The winelands (as it is called) is made up of 3 main towns- Stellenbosch, Paarl & Franschhoek. We were staying in Franschhoek as it is small- everything in walking distance- and has the most shops, restaurants, galleries, etc. Stellenbosch is a university town and is quite large and Paarl is a bit more spread out and industrial. All have great wineries and having a car was the best way to get around and avoid the tour buses! And as most of you know I love being around wineries!

It was still quite hot so seeing Christmas decorations in the restaurants and around town was funny! Because of the heat we also used a consolidator for buying our wine and having it shipped home to us- we didn't want to have cases of wine boiling in our trunk! We did buy quite a few bottles to open at the house and to take to dinners. The prices were amazing- $7- $14 was quite the norm, $25-30 was reaching the top of the spectrum.

One day we picked up a friend of Forest's who happened to be visiting Stellenbosch but lives in Jo'burg and we went to lunch at an awesome cellar- Haute Cabriere. The restaurant is quite well known and everything on the menu sounded good so we ordered small sizes of everything except for 2 items! We had a ball- the waiter did not.

Gregory then was nice enough (to not make fun of my left handed stick shifting) to show us around the area a bit. We drove out past Stellenbosch and up a large hill to fantastic views of the area, beach resorts and False Bay. It was a great day!

Our favorite wineries that we tasted at were Byerskloof and Meerlust but we had lots of good wine and food. Our favorite dinner was at a restaurant called Topsi.

Topsi is an 80+ year old sassy woman who cooks and runs a tiny restaurant in Franschhoek. She is quite a legand. We asked her to join us for a glass of nice dessert wine which Forest's roomate back in Paris had sent along as a gift. She was already drinking a large goblet of pastis and seemed flattered that we were interested in speaking to her. She was a riot and told us many stories of the area and of her growing up in the region. Her daugher also cooked with her in the kitchen and Topsi referred to her often to jog her memory! Soon the entire kitchen and restaurant staff (all 3 of them) had left and we found ourselves alone with Topsi and her amazing stories. This woman is a gem!

On the way out of town towards Cape Town we passed a large vineyard completely aflame! The fire was so large and right on the road that we could feel the heat through the car windows! We stopped at the next winery we came across to report the fire- not being sure if it was a planned burn or not. The people seemed very surprised. We hope that the vintners didn't lose too much.

This is just a beautiful area to spend time in, very relaxed with gorgeous views of the mountains and some really nice wines. I can't wait for my delivery!!!
Photos from our time in the winelands can be found here

Thursday, January 17, 2008

What Do You Get When You Cross an Elephant With a Rhino?

Elephino!!

(For some of our non-native-English-speaking friends: that's actually a really funny joke. Trust me.)

After far too long of a drive, changing a flat tire, and trading in our car for a new one at the Nelspruit airport, we finally got to the Grand Kruger Lodge, which despite its name is actually located just outside Kruger National Park in the privately-owned Marloth Park. It was dark by the time we arrived, so we really didn't see much. We made the decision to get up pretty early the next morning and hit Kruger itself (entering via the nearby Crocodile Gate) for a few hours, and then planned to come back for lunch and a planning session for how to best spend the next couple of days.

What we had not really conceptualized well was the fact that Kruger is not a zoo. It's not just a simple in-and-out. Within a kilometer of entering the park, we'd already had to inch our way past a giraffe (the handsome fellow pictured at the end of our previous post), had seen some distant, napping lions, and encountered a small herd of zebra complete with recently-born colt. Then we were off on one of the many dirt tracks until we got to a "blind" -- similar to a hunter's blind, except this was for viewing, not shooting. While there, we had a perfect view of a little soap opera playing itself out in a shallow river, as a pod of hippos argued among themselves, while others tried to edge their way past two elephants that were playing affectionately with each other. Turns out hippos and elephants don't really get along, and the elephants are the alpha herbivores in that relationship.

Before we knew it, it was already past noon, and we were barely inside the park. We stopped for lunch at one of the internal lodges, then hit the bushveld again for the rest of the day. By the time we returned to our lodge in the evening, it was dark again; the staff was actually a little worried about us because we'd told them we were only going out for a little while!

A chronological listing of everything we did and saw in the park would be a little tedious, so I'll just say a few things about some of what we observed.

It seems like all the animals had just had babies. We saw extremely young elephants, giraffes, hippos, monkeys, eland, and just about everything else.

The elephants in particular were very protective of their young -- we had one very large mom move herself in front of her calf and stare us down until we moved. Since the elephant outweighed our little Nissan by several tons, we were more than happy to move along!

At our lodge we even had tiny 2-day-old baby warthog living under our porch, along with its protective and very homely mom. We saw a couple of confrontations with a larger and more-fierce warthog when one of the two felt it's
territory or youngsters were threatened. The first time we had the two adults start snorting and charging each other, right past our railing, it took us totally by surprise; I've never seen Wendy move so fast!

We were slightly disappointed that we never saw any leopards (the only one of the "Big Five" -- Elephant, White Rhino, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard -- that we didn't see), but apparently they're so elusive and so rare that very few people ever catch site of them. Maybe next time.

Did I mention that it was hot? We had at least one day where it reached 40°C (104°F), and most of the other days were only slightly cooler. Christmas Day itself was in the mid-90's, a welcome change from our home in Seattle (or Forest's in Paris), but at the same time we were definitely not very fresh at the end of each day.

We went on a night drive on Christmas Eve. Unlike the self-drives that we did during the day, only park rangers can conduct the night excursions, for the safety of both humans and animals. Although we didn't have anywhere near the quantity and variety of sightings that we'd had during the day, we did get to see am immensely huge herd of mixed herbivores, all visible with glowing eyes from the spotlights that we used, and we drove right next to an adult male lion for a while. He mostly ignored us, and was definitely on the skinny side [though I would not have wanted that cat to decide he wanted to come through the open windows of the Jeep...]. Our guide told us that many of the lions in the park are afflicted with tuberculosis, which they contracted from eating buffalo. The buffalo, in turn, got it from mingling with domestic livestock across the park boundaries. Although it's unfortunate that Kruger and other parks need to be fenced in, that's just one more reason why it's necessary.

Our full set of Kruger photos can be seen here.

One of these days we'll maybe get back to visit the north end of Kruger, to see "the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees", as Rudyard Kipling described it, or come into the same area through bordering countries now that the
Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park allows access via Mozambique and Zimbabwe as well as South Africa. However, we really had a fantastic time, and I don't think we could have asked for much more from the experience!

Friday, January 11, 2008

South Africa! Dec 2007


As many of you know Dayne and I try to plan a trip around each New Years Eve with our friend Forest who lives in Paris. In years past we have gone to Paris; St. Petersburg, Russia; New York. Sometimes other friends our ours from the states, Canada and Europe join but this year it was just us three and we decided to go to South Africa. I don't know how the idea originally came up but it was a good one!

We met Forest in Johannesburg where we just stayed for one night before heading out to Kruger National Park for safari. Our guest house was in a very nice area of Jo'burg called Melville but even though this is quite an affluent neighborhood we were completely fenced in by a cement wall, barbed wire and electricity. And there was a guard on duty 24 hours. 

We left the guest house the night we arrive to have dinner in Santon City at The Butcher Shop, a very large restaurant specializing in both steak and games meats. The restaurant was in an indoor mall type of space that was like a giant food court. We read later that this is very common for safety purposes. We had Eland, Ostrich, Lamb and Springbok. Some great, some good, some completely overcooked as we would find to be the norm around the country. 

As we took a cab back to our guest house we noticed the cab driver roll up our back windows as we passed through certain areas, "California Stop" through certain intersections and wait right at our curb until our security guard opened the gate to our place. 

The next day before heading out to pick up our rental car we walked to the cash machine and bottle shop for provisions. Again we noticed lots of security around the local mini mall and houses in the neighborhood completely surrounded by walls and barbed wire. 

We didn't see much of Jo'burg but all discussed living locked in, what a bizarre feeling! I'm sure like anything you get use to it but to have to constantly think about safety and crime would be exhausting to me. We were happy to leave and pick up our rental car and get on the road to Kruger! We would each take our turns driving- on the wrong side of the road!!

Pictures of our very nice guest house are here
Coming up soon............