Day One Hundred and Forty One November 6th

We love Hog Hollow.  The name alone makes you feel like you are staying in a fairy tale.  Everything about the place is enjoyable.

The rain stopped so we are off to the Tenikwa Rehabilitation Center to see cats.  The center is a non-profit that specializes in big cats. There are leopards, cheetahs, sevals, and a bunch of others.  They give us a private guide (we are the only ones here for the 11a tour) that takes us into the large free-range cages they have for the animals.

It is pretty crazy to be so close to such big cats.  They are no more than a few feet away.  Before we go in our guides asks us to keep the kids really close so the cats don’t get excited and lunge for them.  So, what about us?

Most of them are lying around and sleeping.  At one point he takes us into a run with two male cheetahs that have been at the rehab center since birth and are “used to” people.  Are you sure?  I clutch Vince to my leg and Teri has Adele in a vice grip.  We stand well within striking range.  It’s a strange experience.

We are so used to seeing cats in zoos, at a distance, and with good reason. These things are big and powerful.  It is no wonder they are in charge.

For lunch we drive down to a beach at the end of the road.  It is stunningly beautiful and completely empty.  I can now confirm that South Africa has the most beautiful beaches in the world.  They go one for miles and miles, each turn more impressive than the last.  The surf never ends.  Now if they could just do something about the sharks.

We lunch at a beach bar at the end of the Otter Trail, a five-day coastal hike famous in this neck of the woods.  The bar has a tree where the hikers toss their boots at the end of the hike and the boots are dangling from branches high and low.  The hike looks like great fun.  We need to come back and do it one of these years.

Evening finds us enjoying the surroundings of our “room” at Hog Hollow, Skyping back to the States to catch up with family and taking care of some logistics on the business front.  It’s another great day in the Crags.

Day One Hundred and Forty Two November 7th

We really don’t want to leave.  If we didn’t have a reservation up the road at Addo Elephant Park we would still be at Hog Hollow.   If you ever come to ZA, come here and stay a while.  It is one of our top three so far.

To further prolong our drive we stop just a few kilometers up the road for lunch at Natures Valley.  This is a collection of locally run shops supported by the surrounding businesses.  Tourism is the lifeblood here.

We find a beautiful necklace and earrings for Teri made by the women living in the village across the way.  There is also a great café where we sit outside and enjoy the warm sunshine.  A group of local school children are playing on the playground and singing beautiful harmony, very softly, as they slide and swing.

Our next leg turns out to be longer than we expected.  The Elephant Lodge is on the other side of Port Elizabeth by forty-five minutes and it takes some time to get there.  Again we drive by huge shantytowns full of intense poverty.  

At one point closer to the end of the drive we pass three bushmen standing on the side of the road in loin clothes, painted white and carrying spears.  No joke, these guys were the real deal.  They had just emerged from the bush and were standing there carrying on an everyday conversation with one of the men from the shantytown. It was a strange clash of old and new, both living a very difficult existence and undergoing tremendous change.  

Our hotel is just off the main road to the park and is tucked away under a grove of trees.  It is another great find.  We have a little house/hut in the back with two rooms, a thatched roof, a small porch and right next to a little pool.  It’s prefect.  

Dinner is in a café across the way that serves as the restaurant for the hotel guests as well as a rest stop for park weary travelers.  We eat quickly and rest our tired bones by 9p.

Day One Hundred and Forty Three November 8th.

Addo is must do if you come here.  It’s an Elephant Park by trade but it also houses the big five (lion, leopard, cheetah, rhino and water buffalo), as well as sharks and whales since the southern boundary is the Indian Ocean.  

Elephants are everywhere.  It is like they are falling off trees.  This natural, protected habitat suites them very well and this is the largest collection in South Africa.  I believe they said four hundred and fifty.

It’s hard to describe just how big these animals are.  They are massive.  When they stand next to the car or walk directly towards us then we are all on edge.  Even Vinny stops his constant chatter but not before whispering, “Dad, dad, these are HUGE!”

The park is great fun and we spend the morning exploring the dirt roads with animals around every turn.  It’s like a who’s who of animals.  By lunchtime we have fourteen checked off on our park list. 

Lunch is terrible.  I actually have water at the bottom of my salad.  They tell you not to drink the water here so to see a small pool at the bottom of my plate is disturbing.  I would have ordered a burger but they eat anything and everything here so you never know what the “meat of the day” is.  Between this water thing and the malaria pills we are all a bit freaked.

Since we are the only ones around most of the time and we are on dirt roads out in the middle of nowhere, the kids take the wheel.  Both Adele and Vince are “driving” and could not be more thrilled.  It’s such fun to see them light up with excitement.  

With about an hour to go, so maybe five hours into the drive, we find ourselves tired and hungry on a small dirt road ready to throw in the towel and call it a day.  That’s when we round a corner and come head on into two male lions sitting RIGHT next to the road.  So they are RIGHT next to us.  I MEAN RIGHT NEXT TO US.  And a third, a female, circles in from the side.  

Lions rule for a reason.  They are clearly in charge.  Nothing fazes these guys.  These three sit, stretch and move at their own pace, completely at ease, not worried about anyone or anything.  They could care less that we are there because they know they can take us down in a heartbeat.  We are alive because they chose to let us live, not the other way around.  This is an unbelievable feeling.

You get an overwhelming sense of awe.  I keep whispering, “EVERYONE STAY CALM!” over and over, despite that fact that I am the only one freaking out.   Teri is rapidly snapping photos, Adele is hiding under the seat and Vince is shouting something about the Backyardagins. 

I stop the car.  The big one stands up.  The female stands and stares us down.  Then all three stand and move with in a few feet of the car.  We are truly scared for our lives.  A car window offers no protection what so ever.   Seriously this is very, very scary.

At the same time it is exhilarating.  They are majestic.  The most efficient animal I have ever seen in the wild.  And they are so confident and arrogant.  I have never felt outmatched out here in the open like this before.  I have had a few close encounters with bears and wolf in Yellowstone (OK maybe it was a coyote) but nothing compares to this.  And it’s just us and one other car with two people cowering in the front seat.  We are very much alone and out of control of the situation.  All we can do is be still, watch and wait.

Eventually they pass by.

In many ways this was the most exciting half hour of our trip. 

After that the rest of the day and night are a blur.

Day One Hundred and Forty Four November 9th

The next morning we are still recovering from the lions.  The feeling is hard to shake.  It’s like any adrenaline rush.  All you do is want more.

In the morning the kids have school and I spend the day tackling travel logistics and dealing with ATT back in the States.  We are having Blackberry issues again. No emails, not good as we head to Kruger tomorrow and will be off the grid for five days.  These communication issues are frustrating.  

We have decided to splurge on a safaris ride this afternoon at the Schotia Reserve just up the road.  The reports from other guests are all very positive and they tellus  it is more intimate than we will get up north in the national park.  Schotia has a drive from 3p to 9p that bridges afternoon and evening so you get a taste of both a day and night drive.  Plus, they take kids: many of the others do not.  We are beyond excited.

When we check in they give us a piece of paper with rules and regulations.  One of the rules is: if you run out of fuel, feed your ranger to the lions.  They claim no responsibility for: dust, rain, mud, snakes, spiders, hail, lightning, thunder, cold, lions, punctures or mechanical failures.  The last piece of advice: hold on to your hats!

This is the most exciting six hours of our trip thus far.  I know I said yesterday was the most exciting half hour and it was because we were on our own without a safety net stalking Leo the Lion.  Here we are in a Land Cruiser with six others and protected by our driver but the experience is just as phenomenal. 

First off the lions are here.  There are eight total, we see six, and they come within a few feet of our “Landy.” (Their term, not mine.) They are close enough to make us all nervous.  Plus they have all kinds of animals here: giraffes, zebras, buffalo, and many types of antelope, hippos, and a gator.

And then there are the rhinos.  I should say that Adele is sitting right behind me and we are both on the outside in the back half of the “Cruiser.” (My term, much more appropriate.)  The rhinos come down a hill, stop by a waterhole and come over towards us to munch on some grass.  They are massive.  One of them is pregnant so she is even bigger than usual.

How cute they are munching on grass and wandering our way.  And they look so menacing with the enormous horn dangling in front.  I swear the horn takes up a quarter of their bodies.  Munch, munch, munch, here they come getting ever closer.  Ha, exactly when do we start to drive?  

We sit very, very still and the rhino munches his way right up to us and scratches its horn on the Cruiser.  SCRATCHES ON THE CRIUISER! It is inches from Adele and I.  INCHES!  I hear, “I am really scared” in a loud whisper.  She is a trooper and so very brave.  My hands are shaking.  There is nothing we can do but sit and wait for him to pass by.  

The adrenaline rush is crazy, the impact a lasting memory.  We will tell this one at family parties forever.

They only way to calm down is a big bowl of warthog stew.  

After dinner we drive around in the DARK looking for lions.  Why?  I have no idea.  Having been there it now seems like lunacy to me.  I don’t really like the night drives.  It is chaotic and hard to focus as the high power light beams bounce around looking for shinny eyes in the night.  We freeze in the rain wrapped in layers of blankets and rain gear.  How incredibly great is all of this?

By 10p we carry two sleepy children to bed and call it a night.  Come see Addo and take a tour at the Schotia Private Game Reserve.  They are both incredible.

Day One Hundred and Forty Five November 10th 

The 5:30a wake up call comes all too early.  We need to head back to Port Elizabeth to catch an 8:45a Kulula flight to Jo’berg (that’s the hip way of saying Johannesburg).   

We get there with time to spare.  When we check in the Europcar they do not even bother to look at the car.  In fact they don’t even re-check you in, they just take the keys and email you a receipt.  All that worry about the rims and the hubcaps for naught.  Don’t worry, be happy.

The flight is really rough and the landing very choppy.  When we get off on the other side we are all a bit shell shocked.  No wonder the six-hour drive feels like and eternity.  

For the first two hours we are lost going in the wrong direction and then retracing our steps back to the airport to start again going the other way.  It is all very frustrating. 

It starts to pour down rain, from all directions, simultaneously.   Then the drive turns out to be much longer that we though and we miss the cut off time for the entry gates to the park.  That’s how we came to stand in the pouring rain at 6:29p (the gates close at 6:30p) discussing with the park guard how we need to drive to another gate, three hours away, to be escorted in to our camp.  And that we need to be there by 9p so we better hurry and drive fast, in the dark, and the rain, after six hours of driving, after a 5:30a wake up call, a zillion diet cokes, no real food, and a handful of Pringles.  Not a chance.

We make a half-hearted attempt at the drive and end up in a Southern Sun hotel somewhere along the way to where we think we are supposed to be going.  Africa is really dark at night and they don’t have road signs.  Tension is running very high by the time we unload.  Good thing we all get to sleep together in a tiny room with two double beds.  And to think it only costs an arm and a leg at such a late hour.  

Travel days can be hard.

Day One Hundred and Forty Six November 11th

The good news is that the breakfast buffet is included! After a terrible nights sleep it is nice to have an endless supply of coffee.  Another please, better yet just leave the French press.

More good news.  By shear chance we are next to one of the best shopping malls we have been to all trip.   It makes stocking up on supplies for Kruger down right enjoyable.  We are staying in a self-catering camp for three of the nights and we need to pack in all food and necessities.  Lucky the park supplies guards and ammo.

The meat section is crazy.  You can buy blesbuck, buffalo, bushbuck, crocodile, duiker, impala, kudu, springbuck, warthog, zebra and god knows what else.

The park list includes: aardvark, ardtwolf, giraffe, hare, hippo, impala, jackal, kudu, lion, monkey, mongoose, porcupine, reedbuck, rhino, wildebeest as well but I am not sure any of these are edible.  

The drive is almost three hours all in and passes through and endless stream of poverty.  For some reason the street is packed with school kids, all dressed in school uniforms with pressed white shirts and blouses.  I have no idea how they do it.  They live in shacks held together by twine and they step out each morning looking starched and pressed.  It is such a contrast to what it appears to be outside looking in.  

Its clear the Christians have been through.  The schools are all biblically based.  Saint so and so, Nazareth Christian, Jesus and Mary.  I have no idea if Christianity rules the roost here but its tentacles are obvious everywhere.  

By mid-afternoon we arrive and check in to our camp. Unfortunately they refuse to refund last night since it was clearly our fault that we could not make the late night drive to meet the escort.  Luckily they held our cabin.  

This is the Skukuza Main Camp the largest in the park.  Kruger is the size of New Jersey.  It is not to be confused with New Jersey’s Cougar National park where you go to spot 40 somethings on the prowl.  The joke is completely lost on Vince.  He keeps saying “Cougar? There are Cougars here?” We are staying in the lower third for four and a half days to see some animals and relax a bit before the Asia leg of the trip.  This camp is the jump off point for many and has the highest human traffic.

Our hut is large and comfortable in a roughing it / almost camping sort of way and is right next to the pool that is almost clean except for the brownish water and the bugs.  Welcome to safari.

We unpack, swim with the bugs, checkout the monkeys trying to break into the hut next door, get out our sleep sheets, lock all of our windows to monkey proof our hut and head out for a drive.

Animals are everywhere.  Impalas seem to be overrunning the place.  Hippos are wandering around.  Elephants and giraffes meander aimlessly; water buffalo herd up and mosey about.  Wildlife abounds.

In the evening we head up to hear a ranger talk that is actually a really bad movie made way back it in the early 80s about elephants.  For some reason they are focused on death and dying and the kids are a bit freaked out.  So are we. There is no need for that sort of thing in national parks: they should keep the message positive.   

This is followed by a terrible buffet dinner at the main lodge.  Not a great way to end the day and certainly not a good impression of the South African National Parks.  The infrastructure is clearly lacking.  How could a country with such natural resources be so far behind the rest of the world in terms of managing them?

Day One Hundred and Forty Seven November 12th

We wake to clear skies and hot sun.  Our first stop after school is the swimming pool for some exercise and play.  The pool has filled up with some very cool looking bugs.

Kruger is mostly dirt roads with a few paved sections connecting the dots.  We are spending our time here in the most southern section, the part closest to Jo’berg and easiest to access for a short stay.  The dirt and solitude make a great place for the kids driving lessons and both take to the task with great gusto.  I think Adele has a future in Formula One.

Once again animals are everywhere.  We see elephants, giraffes, and more impala than I thought possible, water buffalo and so on.  They don’t seem to notice us much as we creep along trying to be quiet.  It is so much fun.  

For lunch we stop in a dedicated camp so we can get out of the car.  They have a rule that you cannot exit your vehicle unless you are in a marked area.  I’m not sure why they need to make this a rule: the thought of getting out never crossed my mind.  When we start back out again we find a rhino waiting for us as we turn onto the road to our next camp.

Our camp for the next three nights is a “bush camp” tucked way off a side road with only fifteen cabins and one ranger.  It is enclosed with an electric fence to keep us in at night.  Our hut sits on a bend in a river that is running from the recent rains.  It has a thatched roof, monkeys trying to get in and a screen door without locks.  It’s spotless, comfortable and empty and we are the only ones there when we arrive.  The others are out and about.

This is an amazing place to be.  We are in the middle of Africa staying in a hut on a river surrounded by wild animals.  We’ve come a long way from home.

They should tell you to shut the windows while it is still light outside so the bugs don’t seep through the screens and charge the light bulbs after dark.  That is useful information out here in the bush.  Instead we are covered in bugs.  Adele is not a big fan of bugs.  They are everywhere.  But that’s not as bad as the lizard that crawls out of the light fixture while she is brushing her teeth.  Then again that is not as bad as the noises coming from outside.

We hear roars. Big roars. And elephant trumpets, and a deafening chorus of various bugs.  It is over powering and all encompassing.  Plus it is all happening right out side our hut on the riverbed.  We stand trying to see out the screen door.  It’s a rock and a hard place: stay in and fight the small creatures go out and risk the big ones. 

We don’t sleep much the first night.  But this is really, really exciting!