Several of my friends back in the States have politely mentioned that they’ve missed seeing new blog posts ever since we arrived in Cape Town, but the truth is, I’ve simply been having too much fun to boot up the computer and start writing. However, we plan to clear out with South Africa Customs today and head for St. Helena and then Barbados, so I want to recap some of the last month’s highlights before my Internet service vanishes into the Southern Atlantic.
We arrived in Cape Town from Mossel Bay at dawn December 2, a few days later than planned, but my wife, Jamie, who had flown in from Ohio earlier, entertained herself several days sightseeing around town while waiting for her wayward sailors. Since we hadn’t seen each other since we were in Fiji last July, she had rented an apartment for us overlooking the Victoria and Albert Marina (V&A Marina), where our boat has been berthed since arrival. We left Travis in charge of “Nor’easter” and I was able to enjoy sleeping in a king sized bed for much of the next month.
After two days at the V&A apartment, we rented a car and headed to Wine Country, where we stayed at Webersburg Wine Estate in the Stellenbosch region. With that as our base, we spent several days touring other wineries, as well as sightseeing amongst the verdant hills and enjoying many fine restaurants, always a welcome treat after cooking at sea for many days. One of our favorite places was “The Thirsty Scarecrow,” which overlooked a huge strawberry field filled with elaborate figures unlike any “scarecrow” I’ve seen.
While wine tasting is a passion for many, daytime drinking is not our favorite pastime, so after two sessions in an afternoon, considering I was driving a rental car in a country where the wheel is on the right and the standard transmission stick shift was on the left, prudence dictated we seek out other attractions. One such locale was “Monkey Town Primate Center,” probably the most “natural” display of animals in captivity I have ever visited. While fences kept the monkeys from escaping the area, their habitats were generally spacious and filled with trees, vines, and ponds. While all the signs warned against touching the primates, one species we viewed had a hole in the cage through which a female monkey extended her hand repeatedly for human contact. As I held her hand, she stared into my eyes as if to say, “Get me out of here!” While Monkey Town’s mission is to increase awareness of how humans adversely impact the natural world, it nonetheless saddened me to see these creatures behind bars. Studies have shown that chimpanzees, our closest living relative species, share 96% of the human genome in their DNA, a difference that is ten times smaller than that between mice and rats. You have to believe they have emotions not unlike ours.
Upon returning to Cape Town, Jamie and I spent a few days on “Nor’easter,” then flew to Johannesburg, where we rented another car and drove five hours to Kruger National Park, which is 1.5 times the size of Israel, and the safari capital of South Africa. While Travis and I had taken several safaris near Richards Bay, which he has previously recounted, Kruger finally let us check of the last two of the “Big Five,” i.e., lions and leopards. The other three are the rhino, water buffalo, and elephant, most of which are ubiquitous in Kruger. Our first “game drive,” as they call sitting in a Land Rover and being jostled over pot-holed dirt roads for hours on end, was not particularly good. Our driver was unfamiliar with her vehicle, and kept trying to start from a standstill in third gear instead of first. She also talked so softly, amid all the vehicle noised and sitting several rows from the front, we could barely understand her. On one of the paved roads, with Jamie and I sitting sideways without seat belts, she slammed on the brakes, screeching the tires, to avoid running over a 4 inch gecko. My neck snapped violently, but fortunately we both caught ourselves before being thrown into the front seats. On a positive note, we encountered a pack of wild dogs and their pups, as well as several hyenas, which we had not seen previously. (Photo here)
As we were her only passengers (and now I know why), we told her we’d had enough after perhaps six hours of our scheduled 10 hour safari, so she drove us the 90 minutes back to our guest house in a torrential downpour. Once the rain stopped, she tried in vain to turn off the wipers for almost 20 minutes before finally succeeding. We were happy to get home in one piece.
The next day, we scheduled a twilight safari with one of the Kruger Park Rangers, who was everything you’d expect from such a guy. He looked like a Navy Seal, was extremely knowledgeable and engaging, and only spoke when the vehicle was stopped and he could face his passengers. I noticed he had a bandolier with six large cartridges in it, and when he stopped in the bush after a few hours for his passengers to answer nature’s call, he unsheathed an elephant gun, loaded the magazine from his bandolier, and told us we could walk a few yards into the cover, but no further. I think more than a few people decided to forego the bathroom break.
Shortly afterwards, one of the other park rangers drove by and said something excitedly to our guide in Afrikaans, which we couldn’t understand, but figured it was good news. Our driver took the next dirt road on our left, and we soon saw a large male leopard sleeping in a tree adjacent to the road. He had a partially eaten impala hanging on a nearby branch, and seemed oblivious to our presence, in spite of the somewhat raucous group of passengers in the rear of our vehicle. The ranger warned them to please stay seated and be quiet, but they were so excited, several jumped up to take photos, and the big cat growled angrily and started down the tree. I thought we were going to become this alpha predator’s next meal, but once on the ground, he slunk into the bush. I asked the ranger what he would’ve done had the animal entered the vehicle. His reply: “I couldn’t shoot him because the bullet would kill many tourists, and besides, I told them to sit down and be quiet. I loved that guy! He reminded me of Al Pacino’s character, Tony Montana, in the movie “Scarface,” who said to the fellow assassin he had just shot, “Look at you now, you did not listen to me!”
As night fell, we drove along a paved road with spotlights shining on either side of the vehicle, which reflect light from various animals’ eyes. One of the lights revealed a pair of lions walking a few meters off the road, so we slowed down and they actually came onto the pavement in front of the vehicle, completely ignoring our presence. As we watched these impressive felines amble about, our guide related several interesting facts: Before the invention of gunpowder, humans were a staple of lions’ diets, primarily because they were so easy to kill. Lacking horns, tusks, hoofs, thick skin, or big teeth, they were also pathetically slow on the foot. Lion DNA is so geared to eat humans, when an experiment was conducted in Kruger Park recently with a human baby crying in a secure vehicle, within 20 minutes, a dozen lions were milling around the scientists and their test baby.
While lions no longer routinely feast on humans, every year a few unlucky people become meals as they illegally try to migrate into South Africa through Kruger Park. Once a lion eats a human, it needs to be killed, because it then knows how easy (and perhaps tasty) we are as prey, and will favor humans over its normal fare of impalas, gazelles, etc. Scary stuff!
Another highlight of our Kruger Park stay was the Needles Lodge. While constructed to blend into the bush, it was clean, elegant, and had excellent service. Best of all, zebras, impalas, kudus, warthogs, and water buffalo would roam around the grounds just outside the patio. The staff often give the zebras appropriate animal feed, so they appear regularly and actually eat out of guests’ hands. I felt like Marlin Perkins on “Wild Kingdom” staying there. Insert Photo
Having seen all of the “Big Five,” we drove back to Johannesburg Airport, flew back to Cape Town, and spent several days enjoying the area around the V&A Marina called “The Waterfront.” This is a modern shopping and entertainment area which reminded us of Newport Beach, complete with Ferrari and BMW dealerships, fine dining, live entertainment, and, unique to the area, several shipyards that can accommodate 300 meter freighters. Table Mountain looms over the harbor, and a few days ago, Jamie convinced me to hike to its summit, which we did. While the orthopedic surgeon who installed my new knee 2 years ago may not have recommended this trek, I was fine doing it, but caught the gondola back down to the car, thankfully.
We also spent one night at a guest house overlooking Camps Bay, where we took some long walks on one of the most spectacular beaches I’ve seen (and I’ve seen lots of them!).
Jamie left December 23, and Travis and I began our trans-Atlantic preparations in earnest. However, Travis already had a lot of friends his age in the area, so I didn’t see much of him. To keep from getting lonely, I played golf on several excellent courses, including Metropolitan Golf Club, right in the center of town, and the spectacular Milnerton Golf Club, which could be renamed “Pebble Beach South.” It is built so that most of the holes parallel the ocean, which, when the wind blows, as it often does, is filled with kite surfers,
I also enjoyed a few days of tennis at Green Point Tennis Club, which has about ten courts, all in excellent condition. Travis and I played together one day, and I went back last Saturday for “social tennis,” where I somehow got paired with three young and exceptionally good players. Having played only once in the past six months, I did not distinguish myself over the three sets we played. I had hoped to be paired with my more senior peers. The next day I booked an hour to hit with the club pro, Kenny, who is probably the top 59 year old player in South Africa. Some of the old sparkle came back to me over the time we hit, but I’m still a long way from “competitive.”
We expect to reach Barbados, after stopping at St. Helena, on February 2. Two oceans down, one to go! While I’m sad that this adventure is over half finished, I am looking forward to having “Nor’easter” in the Caribbean for 4 months and then touring New England this summer.