Saturday, November 29, 2008

Into Africa

From Richard's Bay we cruised through whale-infested waters to Cape Town, the last stop on our cruise. Everyone we've ever met who has been to Cape Town has raved about the place, and now I know why. It's one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen. Think San Francisco with African music. Like San Fran, it's situated on a peninsula with a bay on one side and the ocean on the other. Cold water comes up from Antarctica and keeps the place cool and windy but not freezing. The waterfront is lively and chock-full of great shops and restaurants. South Africa is making some world-class wines nowadays. And with the dollar being strong (for reasons passing my understanding) everything is ridiculously cheap. A top-flight dinner for two with drinks, wine and dessert is less than $100.

We spent three days touring around Cape Town and its environs, including a baboon walk. The area around Cape Town is lousy with baboons. They are wild, but accustomed to human presence so you can approach them quite closely. The government keeps close tabs on them, and each troupe has a little group of human "baboon minders" that essentially live with them and follow them around wherever they go. They are there mainly to insure that people don't molest them, and that the baboons don't get into trouble. (Skipping ahead a bit, at the Singita game lodge, where we are now, the baboons have figured out how to open the sliding doors on the units, which knowledge they employ to raid the mini-bar when people forget to lock the doors. Yesterday baboons stole someone's entire supply of anti-malaria medication.) We hung out with one troupe for the better part of an hour. I now have more pictures of baboons than I know what to do with.

The other wonderful thing about Cape Town (and South Africa in general) is the extraordinary level of service. Everywhere we go everyone is friendly and eager to help. I've never felt so warmly received anywhere else in the world, not even in my own country (maybe especially not in my own country).

This part of the world is absolutely chock-full of wildlife, and not just in the national parks and game reserves. Baboons, as I've already mentioned, are everywhere. We visited a Cheetah rescue facility in the Cape Town winelands and got to pet cheetah cubs. Cheetahs live a tough life. They are at the bottom of the large-predator pecking order, underneath leopards and lions, both of whom will kill cheetahs if given half a chance. But by far the greatest threat to these amazing cats is farmers killing them to protect their livestock. They don't actually rescue Cheetahs at this place; they breed turkish shepherd dogs which protect livestock from cheetahs so farmers are less apt to shoot and poison them. The cheetahs that they have are there to help educate people about their efforts. All of the cheetahs are cubs rescued from the wild when their mother was killed. They are hand-raised so they can't be re-introduced into they wild.

After Cape Town we headed into the African bush for the week-long safari. It was not quite as rustic as I imagined. I thought we'd be in places that were hundreds of miles from anywhere, accessible only by air. Not so. All these places are accessible by (mostly dirt) road, though it's a several-hour-long drive to the nearest city. But a small airplane gets you there in thirty minutes.

We've spent a week in the bush at two separate lodges, Rattray's at Mala Mala, and the Singita Lebombo, where i am writing this. From my window I can see a giraffe munching on leaves. (We've named him "Tiny.") And off in the distance, if you know exactly where to look and have a good pair of binoculars, you can see hippos bobbing in the river.

It gets ridiculously hot here, so the routine is to get up at the crack of dawn and do a morning game drive for three hours or so. You return to the lodge around 9:30 or 10 AM (when it's already 95 degrees or so) for breakfast and a siesta. For the more masochistic adventurer there are mid-day walks you can do, and we've done a few of those. Fortunately there are laundry facilities out here or we'd be through all our clean clothes in 24 hours.

Mala Mala is a private game reserve, which is to say, the land -- some 40,000 acres of it -- is privately owned. But it's adjacent to the Kruger national park and there is no fence on the boundary, so it is effectively an extension of the Kruger park. But because it's privately owned the guides are under fewer restrictions regarding where they are allowed to go. For example, Mala Mala land rovers are allowed to go through riverbeds; Singita rovers (because they operate under government license within the boundaries of Kruger park) can't.

We had amazing game sightings at Mala Mala. We saw all of the so-called "big 5" -- lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and water buffalo -- as well as giraffes, wildebeests, zebras, jackals, waterbucks, impalas (lots and lots of impalas) and so many different kinds of birds that I lost count. Some of the sightings we had were truly extraordinary. We saw four separate individual leopards, including a cub. We followed one around for over an hour. We saw a leopard with her cub and a kill up in a tree and hyenas waiting for scraps below.

To put that in perspective, leopards are the hardest of the big cats to find. Many people consider themselves lucky to get even a glimpse of a leopard off in the distance. And we saw so many that it almost got to the point where we were saying, "Ho hum, another leopard. What else ya got here?"

But the most amazing thing we saw was a pride of lions chowing down on a water buffalo. It looked pretty much like what you see on the Discover Channel, but there are two little details that DC leaves out: bugs, and the smell. A rotting water buffalo carcass smells unbelievably bad, and it attracts bugs by the zillions.

To truly appreciate the impact of this I have to go into a little bit of detail about the viewing conditions. We are in an open-air Land Rover. There is no roof. There are no windows. There are no doors. There are four rows of seats. The first row consists of two bucket seats, one of which is occupied by the driver and the other of which if full of gear. The other three rows are bench seats. Four guests sit in the middle rows, and the tracker (invariably a local, and invariably a man) sits in the back. Our tracker, a gentle giant named John, was truly amazing. He could see critters waaaayyy over yonder with his naked eyes while the rover was moving that I could barely make out with binoculars while sitting still.

Oh, it's night. So John was wielding this amazing spotlight to illuminate the spectacle before us: a water buffalo carcass, probably about 15-20 hours old at that point. The lions are all over it. Some of them have already eaten their fill and are lounging around with distended bellies. But a few are still going at it, ripping off hunks of flesh, while hyenas and buzzards wait on the sidelines. We're maybe fifteen yards from the kill and downwind. The smell is overpowering.

And up the beam of the spotlight, towards our rover, attracted by the light, is coming a continual stream of bugs.

Now, this is no ordinary stream of bugs. This is a stream of bugs drawn from a reservoir of bugs that have been gathering from far and wide for hours and hours, and is being attracted in the pitch darkness by the only light source for dozens of miles, and it's a doozy. This is like being at the end of a fire hose of bugs. They fly up to the spot light, slam into it, and fall onto the head of the passenger seated just below where John is holding the spotlight. Which just happens to be Nancy.

I have to say she handled it like a trooper. She did not shriek, or jump screaming out of the rover and go running off into the night, which is a good thing, because even with satiated lions around it very likely would have been fatal.

Before we went on this trip we'd talked to a lot of people who had been on Safaris before and they all raved about the experience. They used words like "amazing" and "life-changing." I have to say that while it has been amazing, I wouldn't call it life-changing. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that you get much better wildlife viewing on Animal Planet than you do out here in the actual wilderness. The extra reality that you get from reality is mostly not so pleasant: It's buggy. It's smelly. It's hot and sweaty. And most of the time it's boring. I'm glad I had the experience, but in retrospect I'm not at all certain I wouldn't rather have someone else go out there with a good camera and just give me the highlight reel.

Unfortunately, I didn't bring a good camera. This was a deliberate decision. We didn't want to weigh ourselves down with bulky equipment, so we decided to spend our long-lens packing budget on binoculars instead of cameras. In retrospect I think this was a mistake. We brought two pairs of binoculars, a lightweight Nikon Eagleview zoom, and a Canon with image stabilization. The Nikons are great; I enthusiastically recommend them. They pack a whole of lot binocular into a very little space and weight. But if I had it to do over again I'd leave the Canon EIS binocs at home and instead pack a camera that had more than a piddly little 3x optical zoom. Oh well, maybe when we go to Botswana.

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