My African Experience

Day One

The flight was LONG. It was a 2.5 hour trip to Atlanta followed by a 15 hour flight to Johannesburg. I wish I had $5000 to spend on a first class ticket. We spent an hour getting a Land Rover for the next few days. We're five big guys with plenty of luggage and a long drive to the bush so we need something big. It cost $100/day which, all things considered, isn't too bad.

We got to Terry's folks place - it is great. A beautiful house with a spectacular view of Johannesburg and surrounding environs. Jo'burg strikes you as a surreal place. The crime is unbelievable; there is security and walls everywhere. I wondered why anyone would live in a place like this until I found out that 25% of the revenue stream for the entire African continent is produced in Jo'burg. It all comes down to Money.

Day Two (Images 437 - 460)

We leave Jo'burg at 6 AM with a 6 hour drive to get to the game farm. We stop in several small towns for breakfast and store browsing. The last 50km of the road is unpaved and Land Rover handles it beautifully. We arrive at the Simbambili game farm around 1:30 PM - the place is stunning. We are staying in the Owner's Lodge since Terry's family is a partial owner of the farm. I found out that Simbambili's prices are approx R2500/night per person + tips and food. This is about $250 at the current exchange rate. Our stay is free except for the tips. Excellent.

Our first game drive is at 4:30 PM. We get in this huge Land Rover Defender (hereafter called "the truck") without a top or windshield but with ampitheatre-style seats along with our tracker, James, and our driver, Koetzer (pronounced Koot-sir). The tracker sits in a seat in front of the truck and just scans the area for wildlife. The driver, aside from his obvious role, fills us with anecdotes and facts about the different animals. Their goal is to spot as many of the "big five" as possible over the next 3 days. The big five are the five most dangerous animals in Africa to hunt and consist of buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino. Soon we spot a waterbok, with his striped butt, and a bachelor herd of buffalo. One down. Awhile later a message comes over the radio that a goup of lions has been spotted a mile or so from us and we speed off to find them. It is a family group with a mom, 3 cubs and a male friend (not the father). That's two. It is amazing how close we get to them without them even caring. Apparently they percieve the truck to be harmless since it has never harmed them and does not smell like meat or danger. After 20 minutes or so, we start up and head off to find a deserted area for tea as the sun sets.

After tea it is dark and we start the night portion of the drive. The tracker shines a bright light all around in front of the truck very quickly looking for flashes from the retinas of nocturnal animals. Because of the construction of their eyes, nocturnal animals are not bothered by bright lights being shined in their faces and so we can see them fairly easily without undue stress. Unfortunately this is not true of day animals. I used a flash on an elephant and it didn't like it at all. It bellowed but did not charge us - a close call for both us and the elephant as the driver carries a .458 rifle that will stop basically anything that moves. The drive finishes around 8 and we head back to the lodge for dinner and bed since we need to be up at 5:00 AM for the morning game drive. Aside from the elephant, we saw nothing of note. A very quiet night drive.

A footnote about insects: they are everywhere and in great quantities. We are mainly worried about malaria spread by mosquito since there is no vaccine or cure. Mosquito repellant is used very liberally during the evening as this is when they are really active. During the three days I don't believe I was bitten once. Huzzah! The mosquito nets over the beds seem odd at first but you realize how useful they are once the number of bugs becomes apparent.

Day Three (Images 462 - 487)

Game drive starts around 5:30 or 6 AM and goes until about 10. We spot a herd of antelope (what kind?). That's it. None of the big five are spotted. We are disappointed.

During the day, we basically kill time chatting, napping, eating or playing games. Chess becomes popular after ChrisP delivers a spanking to me and becomes the reigning champion. Tomorrow he will beat Terry and Will also. We also played Hearts with Andrew being pretty good at it. I don't seem to be very good at games - maybe I'll give up playing them. :-)

After a less than spectacular morning we hope the evening fairs better. Almost immediately we spot a giraffe. Giraffes are big and tall. This should not be understated. Really big. We also find a dung beetle. Dung Beetles may not be cute or fuzzy but they are kinda cool in their own way. They collect dung into big balls and roll them to their underground lairs. You have to laugh when you see them in action - they roll the ball then climb on it to get a visual bearing on where to go. Roll for another 6 inches, get bearing, repeat... Another radio report informs us of a nearby leopard. Leopards are the hardest of the big five to find - it is quite common to not find one at all during a weekend of drives. The leopard is spectacular - they hide extremely well and the way they move is just so fluid. There is much rejoicing amongst the troops and so we break for tea. After tea we head back to the leopard to check him out at night. They're nocturnal so light is not a problem. After cruising around for an hour or so, the radio informs us of lions in the vicinity. It's the same group as the previous night but this time on the move. Break for dinner and bed.

Day Four (Images 488 - 526)

We decide to start the morning drive even earlier in the hopes that more animals are up and about. We start at 5 AM. Impala, Kudu and other antelopes are abundant. We spot a warthog - wow they are cool. A radio report comes in about a leopard. We speed over to check him out. We do so and soon another report comes in about a nearby rhino. As this is the last of the big five, we speed off to the location. The rhino is in a relatively inaccessible location so we drive through bush, over trees and just generally ignore common sense in order to get a good look at the rhino. He obliges for about a minute or two before wandering off. We get stuck. To unstick ourselves, it is necessary to use a jack and wooden board to gain traction in the mud. After 5 minutes of work we are free and putting fear into the hearts of all the vegetation between us and the trail. End of morning drive.

Koetzer and James volunteer to take us on a game hike around the some of the nearby trails to get a closer look at the land and vegetation. They warn us about wandering into deep grass since it may contain disease-carrying ticks. I begin to realize that there is very little in the bush that does not kill you. Our two guides lead us around and show us various trees, flowers, insects, etc. I focus on staying as far from grass as possible.

The evening game drive is one for the record books. We first spot zebras. Zebras are cool. They look like clown horses. Ya gotta love em. Then we spot giraffes. You already know my feelings on giraffes. Next is a cute little baby kudu. Finally we track down an elephant. We spotted all big five during the day over the course of the past 3 days and have the pictures to prove it.

That evening we have a big meal outside with Tiki torches along with after-dinner scotch and cuban cigars. All in all, an excellent 3 days that I will never forget.

Day Five (Images 528 - 570)

We get up at 3:45 AM to get the gate out of the game park at 5 AM. The gate only operates from 5 AM to 11 PM and they make no exceptions. We got there at 4:45 and were off to Jo'burg at 5 AM. The drive took about 5.5 hours. Terry almost killed us when he took a sharp turn way too fast right before the airport; the Land Rover squealed horribly but stayed upright. We dropped off the car and flew off to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

You have to pay hard currency to get into and out of Zimbabwe. This is the first sign that things work very differently here. $20USD to enter and $20USD to exit. Our taxi driver informs us that the "official" exchange rate is 55 Zim dollars to 1 US dollar. The blackmarket rate (i.e. the rate everyone else uses) is 170 to 1. He takes us to a change place where we all exchange USD for ZIMD. I change $60US and get $10200ZIM. A bottle of water is $120. This is a pretty good deal.

We are staying at a relatively new hotel near the falls. This hotel is modern and has all the appeal of a Las Vegas hotel. It is garish, touristy and expensive. It is also mostly empty; the recent political events in Zimbabwe have slowed tourism. We unpack and head off to see what we came for: Victoria Falls.

The falls are very impressive. Much cooler than Niagra. What else can I say; stop reading this and check out the pictures.

We finish the night with a buffet dinner and a little blackjack in the casino ($200 minumum bet - another good deal!). I win $1500 and think I am really cool until I realize that that is $9USD.

Day Six (Images 572 - 575)

Four of us (minus Andrew) decide to go whitewater rafting on the Zambezi River. This turns out to be one of the most dangerous and exhilirating things I have ever done. The descent down the cliff to the rafts on the river was the most dangerous thing I have ever done. It was extremely steep with a minimum of construction to guard our descent. I could easily see someone slipping and getting killed in the fall.

There were several injuries over the course of the rafting. I slipped on the descent down and beat up my left leg pretty badly. It is now 9 days after the rafting and I still have a huge blotch of hematoma near my foot. Terry and another member of our boat, Michael, both hurt their ankles in the foot braces on the raft. Of course once they complained of the pain our guide told us not to put our foot in the braces. Thanks for the forewarning...

The actual rafting itself was absolutely amazing. I consider it the finest adventure during this trip and quite possibly my life. The Zambezi is considered a class 5 river, where rapids are graded from class 1 (trivial) to class 5 (most dangerous commercially raftable), which means that it contains at least one class 5 rapid. In fact, most of its rapids are from class 4 to 5 and all are a blast. I fell out of the boat several times and never felt in danger. The grip line around the boat along with my lifevest provided plenty of security.

Getting back up the riverside cliffs proved to be almost as hellish as the descent. This time the pathway was essentially safe - just extremely arduous. I was exhausted by the time I was only half way up. I eventually reached the top after 20 - 30 minutes of climbing and we were driven back to town in a truck.

We changed and headed off for a sunset booze cruise upriver from the Falls. Nothing really to speak off except for the beautiful sunset and the sight of a hippo's nostils. It was a welcome respite after the day's activities.

Day Seven (Image 576)

I woke up in misery. My legs were so sore I was barely able to walk. Walking would be a problem for the rest of the trip for me. We packed up, bought some pictures of the rafting and shopped in the local marketplace for curios that morning. I had brought a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt for trading purposes and I was surprised at how well this was received. The guys went nuts once they saw them. Shoes also seemed big - I was propositioned several times to trade for my sneakers. Too bad I didn't have any other shoes. I spent every dime I had along with the clothes at the marketplace and picked up some sculptures and a chess set. I had spent my last $20 at the marketplace when I realized that I needed it to get out of the country. I asked around and everyone else told me they had spent all their money except for the last $20 they needed to get out! I was starting to worry and wondering if they would take my watch in lieu... I got back to the hotel and found Terry waiting with a $20 bill for me. "Put this in your pocket and don't lose it." he told me. I forgave him for almost killing me three days before. We flew back to Jo'burg and caught a flight to Cape Town. Terry's sister and her boyfriend were waiting for us and helped us with the luggage back to the Angelos vacation home. The place was amazing. It is really high up and has an awesome view of the ocean and the town below. We went out to dinner with them and a cousin.

Day Eight (Images 578 - 599)

The next morning we headed up to Table Mountain. Table Mountain is a mesa overlooking all of Cape Town and the surrounding area. The view was clear and spectacular. We then toured the wine country near Cape Town. There are several world-class wineries within 30 minutes of Cape Town. I don't really like wine and was pleasantly surprised when I found their wines to be quite palatable. I also met a large pig. For dinner we went to a restaurant named the Green Dolphin. It is a restaurant on the waterfront devoted to live jazz. Needless to say I was in heaven. The jazz was superb and the food just as good. Afterwards we went to a local club called The Fez. We felt it was our destiny to go there due to our fondness for a local Austin bar called The Red Fez. Andrew and I went home early (1AM) while Terry, Will and ChrisP stayed out late.

Day Nine (Images 600 - 610)

We spent much of the morning at the waterfront shopping. Due to the weakness of the rand, prices were quite reasonable, even in the worst of tourist traps. After lunch we went on a cruise around the Cape Town harbor. We saw some local penguins and some crazy birds that actually dive into the water to catch fish. Dinner and bars followed.

Day Ten (Images 611 - 625)

Today we went to the Cape of Good Hope where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. The view and scenery were spectacular. We stopped in Simon's Town for breakfast and a little shopping. Troops of babboons live in the Cape Point area which can be dangerous if teased with food. We saw one such troop on the side of the road on the way back from the point. I did my best not to look like food. That afternoon we went to the beach - it was overcast so it was nothing to write home about although the sand was fine and white. On a sunny day, it would be great. We had daquaris at the Ambassador Hotel on the beach and then went home at 7:30 PM for a quick nap before dinner. We woke up 4 hours later hungry and rushed out (minus Andrew who was inclined to keep sleeping) hoping something would still be open. We went to a local establishment called News Cafe. This place was great. Combine a bar, restaurant and coffee house all in one and make the prices cheap. I never wanted to leave. There we talked the waitress into keeping the kitchen open past midnight to cook us food. The food was great and ChrisP decided we needed to get a drink. He had noticed a drink on the cocktail menu called a "Flaming Lambourghini" and we collectively decided this was a drink that was calling to us.

Five minutes later the waitress and two bartenders come to our table with two trays full of shots and 4 big glasses. Apparently this is a drink that requires an owners manual. The bartender explained to ChrisP that the initial shot is lit on fire and you need to suck up the first shot while the others are poured into the glass. The final shot is cream which puts out the fire. In all, you suck up about 4 shots in 15 seconds. We downed our drinks in turn and chatted with the bartender/owner for a few minutes. He gave us passes to a party at a great local club called the Rhodes House. We exited posthaste - destination Rhodes House. To make a annoying story short, the Rhodes House would not let me in due to my wearing sneakers (or tackies as they call them) despite our passes and pleas. We instead went to Club Dharma, which was very low key, and then to The Fez where dancing girls, impromptu make out sessions and angry bouncers make for a story inappropriate for the kids. Suffice it to say the last night was the most memorable in Cape Town.

Day Eleven (no images)

Spent the day packing, had brunch at a beautiful, local botanical garden and went to the airport to begin our long journey back. 6 movies and 30 hours later, we arrived in Austin tired and glad to be home.