March 21-25, 2010 (At Sea & South African Safari)

MARCH 21-22, AT SEA

We left Mauritius yesterday, and spent our time at sea packing for our second “overland” adventure.

MARCH 23 – ARRIVAL IN DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA

We arrived in Durban this morning. It is the third largest city in South Africa, with a population of 3.5 million. It is the busiest port in Africa. The first known inhabitants arrived from the north about 100,000 BC, according to carbon dating of rock art found in area caves. There is no written history of the area until it was first mentioned by portuguese explorers who came to the KwaZulu-Natal coast while searching for a route from Europe to India in 1497. Durban dates from 1824, when a party of 25 men arrived from the Cape Town colony and established a settlement. The British started the sugarcane industry in the 1860’s. Farm owners had a difficult time attracting Zulu laborers to work on the plantations, so the Brits brought thousands of indentured workers from India on 5 year contracts. Sound familiar? As a result, Indians make up a large part of the population. Does Durban suffer from the same affliction as Mauritius? We did not spend enough time in the city to “read” the energy. At least the modern inhabitants aren’t being pursued by the curse of the Dodo bird…

MARCH 23 – 25, PHINDA GAME RESERVE

We left Durban shortly after docking to drive North to the Phinda Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It was a tedious 4 hours in a mildew scented bus. Each side of the highway was banked with an endless procession of sugarcane fields and eucalyptus tree farms.

The safari experience is new to us (petting Kangaroos in Australia doesn’t count) and we booked this two night Cunard Overland trip as a “taste test”. Why a game reserve? Sadly, all of the “naturally wild” game animals in South Africa have been killed off by egomaniacal hunters over the past century.

Phinda comprises 55,000 acres and is surrounded by a 30 foot high electric fence. It is effective in keeping in all the animals except the occasional leopard and monkeys. Both can easily pole vault from trees over the fence and they come and go at will. After the animals are placed, they are left alone to live out their wild lives. There is minimal intervention, other to control the predator population. If all the zebras and impalas are eaten, it would hurt tourism.

We were transferred from the main gate to the Phinda Mountain Lodge in open jeeps. Our pilots were the rangers that would later be our guides. All white, all South African, all under age 30, and all looking like they just leapt off the set of a National Geographic Special. The main building, perfectly camouflaged in soothing browns and greens, melted into the lush landscape. We ate our meals here, buffet style, in an expansive wall-less room with sweeping views.

Each of the 22 guest cottages are secluded and nestled even further into the bush down a steep hill from the main lodge. There are no fences, so we were required to take an armed escort to and from our room after dark. An overfed human is easier prey to pick off then a wildebeest. Our air conditioned room had a private patio with a personal dipping pool, chaise loungers, and an outdoor shower (just in case the indoor one was tied up). On top of the fully stocked gratis mini bar was a bountiful bowl of Malted Milk Balls (yum yum) and dried pineapple rings. The king sized bed was wrapped in sumptuous sheets and a fluffy down comforter. Clearly, we were “roughing it”.

We were instructed to meet for tea and treats at 4 PM before embarking on our first game drive at 4:30. Not hungry after eating lunch an hour earlier, we showed up at 4:20, raring to go.

The jeeps were wide open with 3 tiered benches, so everyone got an unobstructed view. Ian was our ranger and Thomas ((who lives in the nearby Zulu Village) was the spotter. Hundreds of narrow dirt roads criss cross the reserve. The jeeps take off in different directions, but keep in touch via radio to share sightings of the more elusive animals. The first afternoon we saw giraffes, zebras, rhinos, wildebeests, and elephants. The highlight for me was a newborn wildebeest who darted around like a sugar injected toddler, testing out his new legs. Young male elephants put on a show by shoving each other to test strength. Eventually, this “play” will turn into hierarchic battles, sometimes fatal. We passed by the aromatic carcass of a “loser”. Not a pretty sight. After it got dark, Thomas used a powerful spot light to look for the reflective eyes of nocturnal animals. We saw a lone jackal hiding in the grass and a huge owl who regarded us with a cool stare.

Greetings short ones…
Rhinoceros

A Cacophony of Stripes

Warthog is such an unfortunate label.The wildlife sightings continued after returning to our room. The door was a mecca of “creepy crawlies”. A spider the size of my palm was weaving an intricate web over the doorframe. Steve almost hit it nose first. Toads in assorted sizes were stuck to the door while bathing in the glow of artificial light. The challenge was to open the door, get in, and slam it shut without anything tagging along. We succeeded, or so we thought, until we noticed an army of crimson colored centipedes marching around the room. There was a generous crack under the door so diminutive visitors could come and go at will. I spent the next hour coaxing them onto squares of toilet paper before releasing them into the wild on our back deck. I finally gave up as more troops joined the brigade. No reading material needed in the potty… we kept an eye on the lizards scaling the walls instead.

That first night was endless as phantom beasties slithered across our exposed flesh. At 1 AM, I traversed a minefield on the way to the bathroom. Lying in bed, I willed the time to pass speedily. When the sweet sound of the buzzing alarm clock announced 4:30 AM, we were ecstatic. The centipedes snoozing on the comforter were not.

The sky was brightening as we scurried to the main lodge to meet our group at 5 AM. Impalas foraged on the tender grass that lined the walkways. Bird calls punctuated the stillness. Everything was covered in dew and a misty sheen hung in the air. It was glorious. After a quick cup of tea, we headed to our jeep. We had 3 hours to look for animals before it got too hot for them, and us. The highlight of the morning was spotting 3 cheetahs and 2 lions. Cheetahs hunt around dawn and dusk to avoid competing with the big guys who are active at night. When we saw the lions at 7 AM, they were looking for a comfy spot to slumber the day away, although they did gaze lustfully at a throng of zebras before flopping down in the shade.

Come a little closer…

Our next game drive wasn’t until 4 PM, so we booked an excursion to a nearby Zulu Village to learn about the people and their customs. We had no idea what to expect, and were stunned by what we witnessed. A local guide took 6 of us to see a “Sangoma” (healer and fortune teller) at her home. In the Zulu culture, a “guiding spirit” chooses one person they want to communicate through. If that spirit no longer feels the “vessel” they are using is worthy, or if the vessel dies, they will move on to someone else. It is not a tradition that is handed down through the generations, like in some cultures. The Sangoma had a younger woman with her, who had recently been “chosen” by a spirit and was learning the proper ways to open the “channel”.

In rural villages, many generations of a family tree live in a single compound. The one we visited was comprised of 7 one room buildings with thatched roofs. Some had concrete walls, others were built from mud. The spongy floor? Cow manure. No windows. No electricity. No running water. Farm animals barely stirred in the static air. Grim faced kids watched us in eerie silence. No one had shoes.

We were summoned into an airless room where the Sangoma and her apprentice crouched over smoldering herbs. We sat facing the action. Two other women picked up drums as the herbs were mixed into a liquid that was smoking, like dried ice. After a long incantation and fierce drumming, the potion was consumed. Within seconds, the healers disgorged guttural unearthly sounds as their entire bodies convulsed. It was wild! After a few minutes they calmly opened their eyes… and we were no longer looking at the same people. There was something (someone) else sharing their vision. Our guide translated the spirit’s messages, and asked if we had any questions. I was speechless (I know, impossible to believe, but true). Steve was teeming with questions and quickly became the “Sangoma’s Pet”. If he wasn’t already married… she would have attempted to match him with her 16 year old daughter. Payment to the bride’s family is always 11 cows. Steve was a little short, so I guess he’s stuck with me.

Sangoma and her apprentice.

We ate a late lunch back at Phinda, and had a couple of hours to relax before heading back to the jeep. I couldn’t wait to take a shower. We opened our (creature free) door and stepped over the welcoming committee of centipedes. As I started peeling off my sweat stained shorts I notice that the sliding door to the patio was open. Hmmm… that’s funny… I’m sure we shut it before we left…

OH MY GOD… our room had been ransacked!

We quickly checked the in-room safe and it was still locked tight. Phew… we still had our passports and money. Hey, why are my Q-Tips all over the floor? Did the intruders stop to clean their ears? Where are the Malted Milk Balls! What happened to the emergency Pepto Bismol? You’ve got to be kidding me… swiping sunscreen, are you serious!?! Don’t tell me they stole the vitamins! The pineapple was gone too! Wasn’t there a bottle of olive oil on the mini bar?

As we stood there utterly baffled, Steve glanced outside and saw a huge monkey regarding him, unperturbed, from a nearby tree. He was holding a Zip Loc bag of Mercury Free Omega 3 Fish Oil Capsules in his thieving fingers. Did he bow before bounding away? I think so. I swear he was laughing too.

How many monkeys were in the room? We don’t know, but they marked the territory by peeing at the threshold of the sliding glass door. Now we know why the floors are concrete. Steve went outside to see if they left anything behind, and found most of our stuff strewn in the woods behind the deck.

Back inside, I started to clean up monkey feces with a handful of tissues… swearing like a sailor each time I bent over. But, something seemed “off”. Granted, I’ve never analyzed monkey poop before, but this stuff was perfectly round, super light weight, and hard. Single balls were everywhere, no piles. Under the sink, on the bed, under the couch, on a throw pillow, and in the bathtub. When Steve came back with a bagful of chewed trash, he saw my perplexed look. In a flash of genius, my brilliant husband figured it out.

Those dastardly primates sucked the chocolate off the Malted Milk Balls and tossed the cores around the room!

Remember how we skipped Tea yesterday? Well, apparently, the group was gravely warned to close and latch the sliding glass door when leaving the room. Opps.

We never did find my SPF 30 Sunscreen.

On our game drive that afternoon we headed about 20 miles north over deeply rutted roads to track an elusive leopard that one of the rangers had seen earlier in the day. We found him! I got one blurry photo! We lost him! We plunged into a deep hole trying to track him! It was pitch black by the time the “boys” (Steve included) extricated the jeep. Securing the picture below (I later used for blackmail) was worth it.

Opps! And the elusive leopard got away!

I slept better that night, passing out from sheer exhaustion. Steve dreamt of being devoured by monkeys. The last morning we saw hippos and more cheetahs. We spent over an hour watching a male giraffe patiently teach a youngster how to bend his neck. That may sound boring… but we relished every minute of it.

I’m sleepy!
Come on in, I won’t bite…

We had to leave at 9 AM to drive back to Durban and catch a flight to meet the Queen in Cape Town.  This adorable Impala foal (below) was just outside our door, where “Mama” had stashed her before going off to forage.

Precious.
Ladies selling fruit through the bus windows.

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