Diamond In The Rough…

April 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s not always easy to find a nice place to camp. It seems that more often than not, it’s either a lovely setting with mediocre grounds or lovely grounds with a mediocre setting. On occasion, you do get both, though. Looking back, I can appreciate a number of the places we stayed; even those that were a little out of the ordinary.

Making it from Hermanus to Sprinkbok proved a little too ambitious for us. With the sun descending, we pulled off the main road and drove until we saw what looked like a small campground along the river. We stopped, got out, and immediately noticed something was, shall we say, odd. The area was fenced off and housed a group of cattle, lazily grazing about. Consequently, the entire area was covered in cow shit. We noticed another couple had pitched a tent, so we figured what the hell, and plopped down too.

We were told to stay wherever we’d like, as there were no designated ‘spots’. So, with no restrictions, we pulled right up to the river, rearranged the poo, and settled in for the night. Most people would be disgusted by this, but honestly, the area was so lovely, that even a heap of crap couldn’t deter us. We made dinner, watched the sun fade, then the stars shine, while enjoying a bottle of wine.

The next morning we watched as several cattle made their way down the mountainside, crossed the river, and came to join us. I had secretly wondered how just a handful of cattle could produce so much waste. Now I see that it’s a family affair.

While sipping our coffee, we also witnessed something rather special, if I may say so. An older Dutch couple, hand in hand, going for swim in the river. It turns out that they have been visiting that same spot for the past twenty-five years. Watching them, it was obvious just how much they care for one another, through simple and sweet gestures. I couldn’t help but wonder what that must feel like; to love someone completely for the rest of your days.

My mind shifted to my parents and a camping trip we took when I was a teenager. It was a lovely day in early August in the mountains above Estacada, not far from Mt. Hood. My parents, hand in hand, jumped off a cliff into a swimming hole, as I watched from below. I have a picture of them doing so – it’s my favorite photo. After they got a divorce, I carried it around in my wallet, pulling it out often. To me, that photo was a window back in time, to when life made sense and I felt safe.

I grew up believing that my parents were happy and whole. It took me twenty-five years to discover that wasn’t the case. That couple, probably in their mid-eighties, fit the image I had created for my parents at that age. On the one hand, it was comforting to see that it’s still possible for two people to have that connection, because I had started to believe it wasn’t so. On the other, it was sad to know that my vision was exactly that – a vision, a dream… and far from reality.

I’m often asked if I believe my parents’ relationship will forever affect my own, should I ever find myself in one, moving forward. I guess the answer is yes, how could it not? After all, I’m a product of my environment and all that transpires within it – we all are. I’m a firm believer that positive things can emerge from negative situations, should you choose to see it. Naturally, it’s not always easy… but then again, change never is.

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Grrrrreat Whites (Our Cage ‘Diving’ Experience)

April 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

After a lovely morning atop Table Mountain, we made our way to the tiny coastal town of Gansbaai. The region is well known for two things: great whites and whales. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any face time with Shamu, due to it being the off season; but we did manage to get up close and personal with the ocean’s predator.

I suppose you could say cage diving is something I’ve always wanted to do. Movies like Jaws and the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week helped to land it a spot on my ‘to do’ list, before I kick the can. I’m pleased to say it was a rewarding experience and far surpassed my expectations. If you get the chance, I highly recommend it. It’s a great way to admire these magical creatures, while learning about them in the process.

There are several operators in the area, but we decided to go with White Shark Project. From start to finish the entire process took about four hours and we were lucky enough to spend half of that in the water, shaking and shivering. The chumming process varies, depending on the day. Sometimes you wait minutes; other times, hours. Then, there is also the chance that nothing will show. Luck is something we rarely have, so I was cautiously optimistic, keeping my hopes in check.

Within fifteen minutes of tossing the chum, a nearby great white picked up the scent and came to say hello. Eventually his friends got word of this and wanted in on the action. We saw a total of three different great whites that day, although all were similar in size, making it hard to tell them apart.

We watched from atop the boat, as the first group went in. Having noticed that the sharks tend to go for the left of the cage, I made sure to snag that spot when our turn was up. The murky water makes visibility limited to around six meters in front. Fortunately, they come right up to the cage when passing, so at any given moment, their pearly whites and beady black eyes might be within inches – so close you could reach out and touch them. I thought about it… more than once, but decided I value my fingers and toes.

I’m sad to say neither of us took a single photo that day. We brought our cameras, but stowed them under our seats to keep them dry. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. Sad. The volunteers aboard the boat created a DVD, but we thought the price was excessive, so we passed out of principle. Sometimes we’re cheap. Sometimes we’re stupid. Often we’re both.

Cape Town…

April 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

There’s a lot of hype surrounding Cape Town. I’m not sure if I agree with all of it, but it’s definitely an interesting city, to say the least. After a long day of driving, we arrived unprepared for the sudden change of pace. Peace and quiet on the open road was swapped for traffic jams, a maze of one-way streets, and pedestrians lining the sidewalks. Oh, I almost forgot about the cyclists – they’re everywhere. Sensory overload, my friends.

After a few wrong turns and close calls, we made our way out of the city. We drove until we saw the ocean and proceeded south. Sometimes it’s best to get your feet wet before diving in, headfirst – this was definitely one of those times.

With the Atlantic on our side, we were able to breathe easy for a while. The drive was lovely, but we had business to tend to: we needed a place to stay. We searched high and low, but came up empty handed, forcing us to return to the madness. We eventually landed at a comfortable (overpriced) guesthouse on a side street, tucked away from the hustle and bustle. We camped out for a few nights, enjoying the little luxuries, like a bed with clean sheets and a kitchen – two things I’ll never take for granted.

On the top of our ‘to do’ list was extending our rental car contract for another month. We also needed to look into switching vehicles, as ours was due for maintenance. It all sounds easy, but I can assure you it’s not. We literally lost days dealing with Avis over the course of two months. Their slogan ‘We try harder’ should be ‘You try harder’, because that’s all we did. Try. Try. Try… and try again. I can’t even tell you how much time and money was wasted. I hate to say it, but Avis sucks. There is just no getting around it. Let’s just say that if I had a nickel for every time they made me drop an F-bomb, I’d be rich.

To make a long story short, the people at Avis don’t know the meaning of ‘extension’. They also don’t know that it’s a bad idea to lease out cars due for maintenance, or that a car might actually get dirty after a few weeks on the road; in Africa, no less. So, two migraines later, it’s out with the Polo and in with the Spark.

Once we got our bearings, we ended up having a great time in Cape Town. The area has some great museums; most notable are District Six and Iziko Slave Lodge. You can’t scratch the surface of South Africa without acknowledging Apartheid and the way in which it changed everything. District Six takes you back to 1968, when the forced relocations began. It offers a glimpse into what life was like for those at the time, struggling for a voice. The Iziko Slave Lodge was fascinating as well. The exhibit on Nelson Mandela is not to be missed. In fact, I’d love to revisit it. He’s one in a million; the type of person you can’t sum up if you tried. They did a wonderful job attempting too, though.

The next morning we got up early and drove out to the Cape of Good Hope, making several stops along the way. Looking back, that day lands a spot as one of my most memorable while abroad. I’m not sure if it was the weather, scenery, or sidekick that made it so enjoyable – I’m guessing a little of each.

Side note: If you make it to Cape Town, do consider staying at Scalabrini Guest House. All proceeds go directly to the Scalabrini Center, located below it. They’re doing some great things in the community, helping those in need. http://www.scalabrini.org.za/

Also, Table Mountain is worth a visit. Check the forecast, go early, and bring a jacket.

This just might be one of my favorite photos…

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Here, Kitty-Kitty…

April 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Few experiences in life have left me feeling more ridiculous than when I walked out of the Cango Wildlife Ranch in Oudtshoorn. I wanted to smack myself. I wanted to pummel Rich. I wanted to ring the necks of every half-wit teenage employee within the facility. I also wanted a refund.

I am fascinated by most wildlife, especially cats – big cats (not the kibble eating kind). Lions, Tigers, Cheetahs, Leopards – they’re amazing. When Rich told me that we could get up close and personal with these furry friends, I was skeptical. I usually shy away from these types of activities, but after reading about Cango, specifically their Cheetah Conservation Foundation, I was cautiously optimistic. It seemed that if I wanted to have an encounter with these animals, this would be the best place to do it. Sure, it might be a little cheesy, but I could handle that in exchange for 15 minutes of playtime.

When we arrived, we were grouped with a handful of adults and given a guided tour of the grounds. I enjoyed watching the Pigmy Hippos, Lemurs, and Flying Fox’s, but I could have done without our guides Disney Land display. If we were part of the 12 and under crowd, I’d be all for it, but that was not the case. In fact, I’d be willing to bet I was the youngest one there (besides our guide). That seems to always be the case, no matter where I go.

After completing the tour, we coughed up the cash, and headed to the back. We both opted to spend time with adult Cheetahs and baby White Tigers. The Cheetahs were first. It’s hard to put into words just how amazing they are. They’re incredibly gentle, purr when you pet them, and have the most mysterious big black eyes. I wanted nothing more than to cuddle up with them.

All was going well for the first minute or two, but alas, all good things must come to an end. The ‘keepers’ swept in and we were lost in flurry of activity. Young, obnoxious little boys, snapping photos left and right, barking orders at us – and just like that… it was over. Next was the White Tiger cubs. The same whirlwind ensued, but primarily around Rich. I sat there, hovering over a little one while he drank. To be honest, I think they took one look at Rich and thought ‘jackpot’. Is all you have to do is glance at the photos below. He struts in there looking like Fabio with his pearly white smile and coiffed mane – it’s an advertisement in the making. Sorry, Rich… you know it’s true. I bust up every time I look at them.

We walked out of there, feeling slightly confused about what just happened. Our senses were overwhelmed…and not in a good way. Without talking, we both knew exactly what the other was thinking: did we really just drop $100 on that??? The answer is yes. Yes, we did.  

We were hoping the experience would be enjoyable and educational, but in the end it was a glorified photo shoot. No matter how you toss it, we still had the chance to be around them, so it wasn’t a total loss. Hopefully, with enough feedback, they swap out the kids for qualified professionals. With a few tweaks, it has the potential to be something truly special.

Oudtshoorn happens to be the Ostrich capital of the world, with farms surrounding the city. We intended to visit one, but after our Cango experience, we were feeling a little dejected. We needed to get away. The next morning we hit the open road, making a loop through the Swatberg Pass. The sun was shining, scenery stunning, and we were smiling. For an afternoon, all was right with the world. 

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In Good Company (Storms River Mouth)

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve always said that I’m easily pleased, but hard to impress. Storms River Mouth, along the Eastern Cape, was one of the few places that left me wanting more – it was simply love at first sight. I could have easily spent days, if not weeks, spellbound – getting swept away by the sights and sounds of the ocean swells.

Regrettably, we didn’t partake in the five-day hike along the Otter Trail, but we did manage to spend an afternoon completing the first stage, along the coastline to a lovely waterfall. The Otter Trail is extremely popular and the park recommends making a reservation well in advance. On a whim, we inquired about cancellations and were pleasantly surprised. Several openings were available, but we’d have to depart the next morning. With not much time, we weighed the pros and cons. In the end, we decided against it. We were up against the clock and feeling unprepared. In retrospect, we could have pulled it off with a little extra effort. Sigh…

Regardless, I still feel lucky to have had two nights there. Side by side, we watched the waves break with our coffee in the morning and wine in the evening. We talked. We laughed. We listened to lesbians sing. I was in good company and it was bliss – pure bliss.

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Elephants = Awesome ( Addo National Park)

April 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Let’s talk elephants – African elephants. I’ve been in love with these cute, cuddly creatures for some time now. Prior to landing in South Africa, my only ‘interaction’ with the species had taken place at the Zoo. I did manage to see a few Asian Elephants while traveling in Thailand and Cambodia several years ago; but sadly, they had been domesticated and forced to carry tourists on their backs and eat a crap load of bananas. No bueno.

Luckily, that’s not the case for those living within the national park of Addo. The park was founded in 1931, when only sixteen remained in the area. Today, the population inside the sanctuary is estimated at 550 and growing strong. It is also home to a wide variety of other flora and fauna. Lions, zebras, hyenas – you name it, they’ve got it (including the awesome flightless dung beetle).

We pitched our tent, replenished supplies, and immediately wanted to explore. Over the course of two days, we spent a good 15-20 hours getting ourselves in and out of trouble – that’s just what we do. Throughout the park there are signs telling visitors to stay inside their vehicles. At first, we agreed with this logic, but after seeing several maintenance workers lounging around by the watering holes with their sack lunches, we decided to make an exception… or two. Okay, maybe five or six is more like it, but who’s counting?

Now, before I proceed, I should probably mention that we’re both (somewhat) level-headed, considerate, law-abiding citizens, with enough common sense not to go chasing down a pride of lions on foot or running into a heard of buffalo. When we did exit the car, it was to take a peek at the beetles, snails, and tortoises, while sticking to the road. Does it make it right? No. Do we condone or encourage this type of behavior? Definitely not. Would we do it again? Probably.  Are we morons? Eh, on second thought, don’t answer that.

The park hours change depending on the day. While we were there, the closing time was 6:30PM. We had every intention of exiting by then, but just as we were heading out, we spotted a group of lions off in the distance. The clearing was just outside a tented camp and ‘hide’ (a camouflage viewing area), which we assumed was specifically for the guests staying at the camp. Feeling jipped, we did something stupid. Very, very stupid. Instead of kissing our kitty-cat dreams goodbye, we decided to ignore the ‘Do Not Enter’ sign and drive along the camp, towards the back. Thankfully, our Polo couldn’t preform and we were forced to retreat. We’re idiots – what can I say?  I’d love to blame Rich, as he was behind the wheel, but I’m equally at fault. Imagine the look on our faces when we later learned the hide is open to everyone. In the end, we got what we deserved.

Our little detour put us behind, so we made a mad dash for the gate. We came flying around a corner when along came a hyena, strutting down the road, without a care in the world. We stopped, rolled down the windows, and stared. Those things are crazy. They could literally rip you to shreds in seconds. Foaming at the mouth, it came within a few feet from us. I could have easily reached out and touched it – surely losing my hand in the process, but awesome to know nonetheless.

With all the activity, we arrived at the gate 20 minutes late. To our surprise, everyone had already cleared out. Locked inside, I called the headquarters to inquire about getting out. The lady on the other end was less than pleased. She said an employee would be sent to unlock the gate or we’d have to wait for the scheduled night drive to arrive. So, unsure of what would happen, we waited. Eventually a disgruntled employee showed up with a half-naked child in tow. He wasn’t about to let us out without receiving a little ‘something’ for his troubles. We assumed this would be the case and scrounged up a few rand. Not enough, I’m sure.

Things took a weird turn, as they often do, when we arrived at our campsite. We had neighbors – very unhappy neighbors. Apparently our car was too close for comfort. We parked next to our site, which was close to theirs, but by no means in their way. They disagreed. Instead of asking us to move, they erected a tent on our back bumper. We sat there side by side, sipping our wine in disbelief, as the wife made it a point to squeeze between the two, as if to say, “F-YOU”. Is it really that hard to come over and ask politely? Had there been another spot, we would have gladly parked elsewhere.

They huffed and puffed for a while. Honestly, we found their passive aggressive display entertaining, which only added fuel to the fire. We discussed the many ways to mess with them, but didn’t, fearing retaliation. Waking up to slashed tires would have really put a cramp in our day. Eventually another couple took notice and asked if we wanted to move to their side. They didn’t have to ask us twice.

Day two can be summed up using one word: AWESOME. Elephants were everywhere. On multiple occasions we found ourselves surrounded – scary and exciting, all at the same time. Watching these powerful mammals up close is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. If you need an elly fix, Addo is surely the place to go.

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Coffee Date

April 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

I like coffee. Do you like coffee? I like it cold. I like it hot. I’ll drink it in a mug or a jug. In my car or at my house. On a plane or in a train. Cream and sugar, plain and black. Sweet or spiced, it’s all just nice.

Coffee with roadside rhinos. Enough said.

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Pushing Our Polo Once More (Central & Northern Drakensberg)…

April 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

We swapped southern for central, as we weaved our way to the tiny town of Winterton. Showing signs of improvement, we ventured into the Champagne Valley for a short stroll near Monks Cowl. The area is breathtakingly beautiful and home to an extensive network of trails. Unfortunately, the weather was dreary, so we kept it simple, sticking to the lower portion of the park. As we made our way out, the rain swept in, and lightning let loose – it was quite the display.

Next on the list was Royal Natal National Park, farther north. With the sun attempting to shine, we managed to stretch our legs and hit some trails, spending a lovely day hiking to a waterfall. The previous rains kept most away, so we took our time, enjoying the scenery, snapping photos and splashing around.

After a few nights in the area, we continued north towards Tugela Falls. It is said to be the second highest falls in the world and a spectacular sight during the rainy season. After inquiring about road conditions and camping accommodations at a nearby hotel, we were told to proceed to the Sentinel car park, where we could stay in a hut at the trailhead. This seemed like our best option, as it would allow us an early start for the full day hike atop the amphitheater, along the escarpment, and up the chain ladders to the summit.

Sadly, my knowledge of the falls is limited to Wikipedia and the friendly folks on Flikr. We tried and failed – miserably. Looking back, I’m guessing the lady behind the front desk didn’t catch the part about our car being 2WD. That or she had never actually driven up the road herself, because if she had, there is no way she would ever recommend it. Nope. No way, no how.

After navigating the rocky terrain for several kilometers, we accepted defeat and turned around. The Polo was a trooper, but our anxiety levels were rising with every scrape, screech, and thump, along the bottom. With limited signs of life, receiving any kind of help, should we need it, seemed more like wishful thinking than reality. It’s a shame, because the area is simply stunning. The jagged peaks and vibrant shades of green are enough to make you stop and stare for hours… if only we had that kind of time.

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(Tugela Falls attempt)

(Typical roadside scene – poor audio)

Southern Drakensberg…

April 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Seeing as how I’m from the Pacific Northwest, it’s only natural that I love the outdoors. So, when I think of camping, my mind conjures up images of remote wilderness, starry nights by campfire, and space – lots of it. If you’re from South Africa, chances are your definition of camping is a little different. It probably involves luxuries like electricity and communal kitchen, as well as neighbors on all sides.

I’m not going to lie. There were many times that I was thankful to have such conveniences, especially with the hit-and-miss weather we experienced; but at the end of the day, I would far rather do without. There is something to be said for peace and quiet, just as there is for disconnecting and allowing yourself to get swept away with whatever surrounds you. That’s not to say it can’t happen with modern amenities, because it most certainly can; it just takes more to stimulate the senses, is all.

We said goodbye to Kosi Bay and headed south, stopping for a night in the St. Lucia Estuary. The landscape was lovely, but the campsite was nothing to write home about. Crowds and a going rate of sixty dollars per night kept us moving.

While on the road, we decided to have a look at Richard’s Bay. A friend had suggested it, but after having a little looksee, I can’t imagine why. The only way I would ever return is if they bulldozed every strip mall, KFC, and condo-community within a 30 mile radius. Even then, I’d still be hesitant. Just imagine Florida, without any and all redeeming qualities. Yuck.

Instead of stopping in Durban, we watched it fly by in the rear-view mirror. We sought refuge within the city of Pietermaritzburg (Pieterma-what?) for a few days. I was feeling a little under the weather, but doing my best to hold it together. Who needs Day-Quill when you can have a comfortable bed and satellite television?

Showing signs of improvement, we made our way to the Sani Pass within the Southern Drakensburg area, bordering Lesotho. As you can imagine, our Polo was no match for the pass – we attempted it, but quickly turned around and setup camp at the Sani Lodge, nestled along the foothills. The area is beautiful, but the peaks played hide-and-seek due to the weather and low cloud cover. Timing is everything and ours is perpetually off – what can you do?

When it rains, it pours…

A Cozy Time In Kosi Bay…

March 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

After a few wrong turns, we finally made our way out of Johannesburg, headed to The Cradle of Humankind. The area is home to a large number of fossils, as well as some of the oldest hominid fossils ever found, dating back 3.5 million years. The setting was lovely, but unfortunately, we couldn’t stay. We drove up and down, and all around, in search of a campsite. As the sun started to set, we called it quits and landed in Pretoria for the night.

The roads took a turn for the worse as we exited the Gauteng province and entered KwaZulu-Natal. It seems that most of the country is under construction, which means road closures and long waits. If it’s not a construction zone, it’s an obstacle course, as there are more potholes and craters than tarred road. Sprinkle in some livestock and the occasional roadside mob, and you have what I like to call a cluster-(bleep). In fact, that’s South Africa in a nutshell.

After a long day of driving and losing a hubcap, we arrived at Kosi Bay, in the northeast corner close to the Mozambique border.  The place was practically empty, so we setup camp for a few days. The beach was stunning and quite possibly one of the nicest I’ve ever seen. We spent an entire day lounging around, enjoying the lovely weather. While sitting in the sand, attempting to take it all in, I befriended an adorable little boy. He spoke very little English, so instead of talking, we laughed and played on the beach, making sand castles.

He eventually joined Rich in the water. I could have easily sat there for hours, watching them toss back and forth in the waves. They seemed so happy, so content – without a care in the world.

Sunblock was no match for the rays that day. We received horrible burns without feeling a thing – nothing a little wine couldn’t fix, though.

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