Thursday, June 09, 2005

South Africa Whirlwind, Part 1: Animals
My trip to South Africa was rather short for being on the other side of the world, but I still got to see an awful lot. After a combined 27 hours of flying through and waiting in various airports, I arrived at Johannesburg International Airport, where Danola convienently works. She took me back to her place, on the wrong side of the road, in her very cute little car, with the driver's seat on the wrong side and shifting gears with the wrong hand.

I managed to stay awake until a reasonable bedtime hour, and then slept 14 hours straight. An exciting first day in South Africa, no? I was up before Danola got back from work, though, so then she took me to see the scenic Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, a very high-end area of Johannesburg. The square is surrounded by shopping on all sides, where I conveniently procured film, but in the middle there is a humongous statue of Nelson Mandela (doing his famous "Mandela Shuffle") and a temporary installation of a parade of cows. My favorite was the literary cow wearing a tie and being skewered by a pair of pens. Danola being the popular people person she is, we also ran into one of her old friends.

On Saturday, Danola and her mother took me to the Oriental Market, a giant, predominantly Indian bazaar. It is possibly the most confusing place I've ever been, with stores that are inside, outside, underground, upstairs, with proper walls and aisles, in tents, in stalls, spilling out into the walkways, and on and on. We had samosas and coffee for lunch, and then ran into one of Danola's aunts. I began to get the impression that Danola knows everyone in Johannesburg. That night, we went out to dinner and then to a party with Danola's best friends, who I had heard a lot about in Japan, since she used to live with them. One of them still lives in that house, and it was interesting to see all these people and places I had only heard about.

Because Danola had to work during the next week, she arranged a trip to the Kruger National Park for me, so on Sunday afternoon I took a bus to the town of Nelspruit, where my guide, Andre, picked me up. I spent the first night in the backpacker's inn/hostel that his family runs, and the next morning we hit the road. We actually saw quite a lot more than the Kruger. During the 3 days I was out there, we saw Blyde River Canyon and two private game reserves before even entering the Kruger.

Blyde River Canyon was, I think, my favorite part. We went there during the morning of the first day. The views were spectacular. One of Danola's friends was worried that I would find it boring, being from the country with the Grand Canyon, but the two are nothing alike. For one thing, it's a green canyon, seemingly covered with giant flowering aloes, and other trees and bushes and grasses and green things, even though it was supposed to be winter. My favorite area was the Potholes, where the river takes a lot of twists and turns, forming many eddies and whirlpools. Rocks fall into the whirlpools and erode nearly perfectly circular holes in the canyon wall and river bed, over and over again. They're also called Bourke's Luck, because the first person to discover them also found the pools full of little gold nuggets washed down from the areas upstream.

In the afternoon, we went to the first private game reserve. This one was not a Big Five reserve, meaning it didn't have any particularly dangerous predators on its grounds, so we were able to go out hiking in the bush all afternoon. We were able to get pretty close to a lot of the animals, especially the giraffes. There was a whole family of them, with two babies. I also saw zebras, warthogs, wildebeests, and the ubiquitous impala. That night we went for a night walk, and saw some bushbabies (monkey things), and a really huge porcupine. Oh, and a male nyala, which really surprised Andre, because he didn't think the park had any.

One of the neighboring reserves does have lions, and Andre takes great glee in telling a story about another night walk he did not long ago. He was taking two very talkative Dutch girls for a night walk, and they had been annoying him a lot. Suddenly, he heard a noise and saw something in the dark, so he turned on his flashlight, and there was a lion from the next reserve over lying in the middle of the road. Then there was a roar from the side of the road, and another from the other side, and then one from behind! "We're surrounded! We must be very quiet, and move very carefully." The Dutch girls shut up quickly and cried all the way back to their cabin. Andre didn't tell them that all the surrounding roars they heard weren't really lions at all, but male impala in the act of mating, and therefore quite harmless. I didn't see any lions there.

I did see lions the next day, when we stopped by the white lion breeding project. The white lions of this area are much like the black squirrels found in Michigan; a natural but rarely occurring coloration pattern. The white lions were thought to be a myth for a long time, but finally some hunter brought back proof, either with a trophy or a picture, I forget which, and one particularly rich guy decided to start the breeding project to increase their numbers. They know the lions are not albino because they have grey eyes and when they are born they have the same fur spotting pattern as regular baby lions, which fades as they get older. They were very pretty, but the yellow male on the opposite side of the fence from the three white females looked rather frustrated.

Then we went to a second game reserve that is known for having more of the rare animals that are very hard to spot in the Kruger. All of their cabins overlook the hippo pool, but during the day, usually all you can see of them is their noses and ears. Apparently, hippos can stay completely submerged underwater for up to 20 minutes at a time. Late in the afternoon, we drove around the reserve looking for animals on their way to the various watering areas for an evening drink. We saw many zebras, wildebeests, and impala, as well as lots of different kinds of rare antelope, like the eland, duiker, waterbuck, kudu, and tsessebe. When it got dark, the hippos came out and started wandering around or at least lying on the shore. They are really loud, as it turns out, kind of a really carrying, low mooing. The reserve has "Beware of Hippos" signs up where all the cabins are, because hippos are actually quite territorial, don't like people, and can move really fast. Andre said more tourists get hurt by hippos than any of the other "dangerous" animals in South Africa.

The third day we finally went to the actual Kruger. We got up at 4:30am in order to be there for the gate opening, supposedly because there would be more animals around early in the day. The Kruger is huge. Really, really huge. You're not allowed to get out of your car, either, so basically you just drive around, hoping the animals will wander close to the roads. If you've actually seen an animal recently, park etiquette is to motion to other cars to roll down their windows so you can tell them where to go. You can always tell if something big has been spotted, by the line of stopped cars on the road. Besides the various animals I had seen at the other parks, I got to see 4 of the Big Five. The Big Five are elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. I technically saw everything but the leopard, which is the hardest to find. I say technically because the rhino was so far away I couldn't really tell what it was, so it's more of a faith rhino. We had one elephant threaten to charge the car because he had a thorn in his foot and was in a bad mood, but apparently elephants do this a lot. They don't like cars very much.

We had to leave the Kruger early in the afternoon, though, to get me back to Nelspruit in time to meet the bus back to Johannesburg. Good thing we made it, because that's when I had the aforementioned conversation with the young guy on the bus, and besides, Danola and I had to go to Capetown the next day. The Capetown adventures will be next.

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