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Templeton: Around the World in 14 days - Part 2.

Around the World in 14 days -- Part 2.

By Brad Templeton

Part 2 of my trip around the World -- Africa

On Safari

As I noted, in spite of how interesting I found the political situation in South Africa, China and Hong Kong, the highlight of the trip was the non-human part of South Africa, my game viewing trip. I would suggest that all tourists put a game viewing trip on their itinerary.

In the north-east corner of S.A. is the Kruger national park. (Paul Kruger found the first Republic of S.A.) Kruger park is huge, and considered by some to be the best park in Africa. It's famous as a place to see the "big 5" -- the big, dangerous game, namely Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo. You can visit Kruger park fairly inexpensively (aside from the cost of getting there) but in Kruger you have to stay on the roads and you may or may not have a guide.

For the wealthier (which means in many cases foreign tourists taking advantage of the devalued [30-cents US] Rand) there are the private game parks which surround Kruger. These parks now often don't have a fence with Kruger, so they share the same game. In the private parks there are tent camps and luxury cabins, and trained rangers with trackers lead you on game drives off-road in 4WD Land Rovers. Aside from being able to go off-road, most parks usually have several Land Rovers out, and they work together to track game. When one spots something people want to see, it radios and and the others can come in and gang-photograph it.

The bush is pretty wild, though not pristine. It is covered with land rover trails, and in a few places there are dams that create artificial watering holes to attract game, particularly in the dry winter. These are usually the sites of the camps, or they have "hides" (small cabins) overlooking the water where long-term visitors can spend a relaxing day reading and watching the game come to drink.

The animals are wild, but have become used to humans and Land Rovers, particularly the lions, who act like you aren't there.

Most game parks have 2 big game drives each day, one at dawn and the other at dusk. These are the times the game come out. Mid-day is the relaxed time in the bush. The evening drive leaves about 4pm in the winter, so I missed it when I arrived the first night, which was a shame. They usually rush late arrivals out to the drives but I wasn't in time for that, even though I had the fastest air-connection of my life, as they almost pulled me out of the short-haul air flight to the mining town of Palabora to put me on the game park's air taxi. On the flight in it puzzled me that the ground seemed thick with what looked like small cinder cones. It turns out these were termite mounds, fascinating constructs in their own right.


I spent the first two nights at M'Bali, which is what they call a "Classic Safari Camp." M'Bali is a tented camp, and just as the safari explorers of old did, they pitch the tents on wooden platforms built over bathrooms with hot and cold running water. OK, I'm being a bit cynical, but the tents overlook a beautiful ridge and lake, and in your tent you can have some sort of rustic illusion. And it's no illusion, in the winter, that your tent isn't heated.

They wake you up at 6 am with African drums (and by turning on the electricity) for scones and tea, and then it's off on a game drive. The drive the first night that I had missed had seen a pride of lions, as well as the local hippo (out of the water, as they will do late at night) so I was jealous. That morning drive attempted to track the lions by looking for their spoor on the roads. The animals use the jeep trails for short periods, leaving tracks, so it does make them possible to track while still driving. The tracker sits in a small seat right at the front of the hood to spot animals as well as pawprints crossing or following the trail.

Perhaps it's that primeval hunting instinct kicking in but it is fun to go through this tracking process, with teams moving left and right to narrow down where the lions are moving. You spot other game all the time as well. I saw 4,434,121 impala, a ubiquitous antelope -- ok, that's a slight exaggeration -- plus a number other more interesting antelope.

Leaving aside the "big 5" the most impressive site in the bush is the Giraffe, and in fact that was the first thing I spotted on my first drive. "Well spotted, particularly for a northerner!" I was told by the three South African ladies staying at the camp, since part of the game is to be the first to spot something.

[Mother feeds baby giraffe] The amazing height and grace of these animals in the bush makes you think you're in Giraffic Park, reminding you of the scene where Sam Neil first stares at the brachiasaur. Along with these a typical drive will see Kudu, Wildebeast (Gnu), Steinbok, Daika, Warthog, Zebra, and in some areas Hyena, Jackal, Civet, Bush Baby, Waterbuck, Mongeese, Crocodile and other small animals. You'll also see a wide variety of unusual African birds, including the amazing "suicide" bird that attracts its mate by flying high, then curling up into a ball to free-fall, breaking out of it at the last minute. (I noted that some humans do that to attract their mates as well.)

My first "big 5" sighting, after a fair bit of chasing lions and coming up dry was a Buffalo. In fact, that's the only one we saw by sunset. For a moment I was scared I would tell people I went to Africa and saw only Buffalo, which are not exactly unknown in North America, after all. At the very end of the day, however, we saw a lone elephant fresh from a waterhole. The elephant was in an aroused state, and believe me, that's no small footnote when you're talking elephant.

[Elephant after bath]

The 2nd day more people arrived at our camp, all South African residents or guests of South Africans. I was the only true tourist. You'll probably be shocked to learn (knowing me) that I led the push for a 5:30 wake-up call on the 2nd morning. Going west helped, but I was already adapted to S.A. time by that point.

After my last drive at M'Bali, with lions not to be found, I was a bit disappointed in missing that first drive. But at lunch, the call came that somebody had discovered the pride, and we went off to see them in their dormant, noontime state. Pretty impressive, but nothing compared to what was to come.


After that noon, I hopped a quick air taxi to my second camp, where I would stay one day. That camp is called Ngala, which means "lion" and it turned out to be well named. Ngala is a much higher priced camp, though my package got me a good deal on it. Part of what you pay for is the 5-star appointments -- instead of a tent, I had a luxury heated and air conditioned private thatch-roofed cabin with a huge bathroom, and the general facilities of the place were very nice -- albeit without M'Bali's gorgeous view. The staff were plentiful and attentive. Oddly enough, it didn't feel as pleasant as M'Bali. There were more guests, so I didn't even meet them all, and at lunch it seems all the guests had gone to their rooms. Except for the special group I would ride with, this group was pretty much all foreigners, and not poor ones. The official rate at Ngala in the off season was 2000 Rand/night per couple, and the average white S. African doesn't earn that in a week. Many black S. Africans don't earn that in a year.

Even though more sterile than M'Bali, Ngala does excel when it comes to game, and game is what you're there for. Since it was the off season, the staff could bring their family in, and instead of riding with other guests, I rode with only the Ranger's mother and brother. I don't know if he was just trying to impress the family, but our evening drive was spectacular, and the brother, who had done work as a charter bush pilot, said he had been on over 100 game drives and that this one was one of the best of his life.

Ngala's bush is less dense, and there are open areas, which make spotting game a lot easier, and so as we went out we saw lots of the now usual, but still impressive game. After driving through those, we were on our way to see some Rhinos another van had spotted, but as we drove through a clearing, Mike (the pilot) spotted a leopard in a tree. It was nearing dusk, so we were all impressed at this. The leopard is the hardest to find of the big 5 game animals, as they are solitary and quiet. Our ranger said leopard was a once a week thing, and when we announced it, all forgot about the Rhinos.

[Leopard in tree at dusk]

We got close and watched her in the tree for some time, until she spotted an African Wild Cat and began to get interested. As the others arrived, she pounced, and chased the cat over the dry Timbuvarti river bed.

(Timbuvarti, by the way, means "river that never stops flowing," and its dry bed tells you something about what S.A. agricultural development has done to the bushland.)

Having watched this for a while, we decided to let another group try to find her again, and we drove off to find the Rhino. But instead, we encountered, just a few feet from the road, our leopard again, and we watched her stalk and pounce again.

Then as we drove off, we rounded a corner, and piled, not 12 feet from the roadway, was a pride of 23 lions devouring a Wildebeast (Gnu) that they had killed not 10 minutes ago. In particular, 16 lion cubs were being given first dibs by their attentive mothers. The sight was both gruesome and fascinating. You could barely see the prey, it was so covered in lion cubs. They growled and munched and pushed and prodded and pulled. I normally disdain the tourist camcorder, since it gives people camcorder disease and makes them film hotel lobbies, but this was one instance where my still camera won't have done the event justice. As the finders, we got to control the site, and let the others in and out.

(Sadly, it's at this point that I later discovered, after developing the film, that my camera decided to fail, so I have only blurred or badly exposed shots of this.)
[Lions having late snack]

Either a leopard or a fresh lion-kill would be considered primo events on these game drives, and we had found both within an hour. Getting cocky, we felt we could find anything, and bragged that on the drive back to camp we would not doubt run over a herd of Elephant.

On the drive back to camp, we suddenly drove into a cloud of dust. Something big had moved over the road very recently. We drove into the bush, and lo, there was the herd of Elephant we had teased about.

To cap the evening our land rover then died on the way back to camp, with an electrical system failure that left us without ignition or a radio. Fortunately we were not the last rover going back to camp or we might have had some real fun.

The next morning's drive, while it had some memorable moments, was mostly consumed by a hunt for the Rhino family, as this was the last of the big 5 on my checklist. Alas, they were too fast, and we spent too much time to do anything else. But we did manage to see a lioness stalk impala (who discovered her) and re-visit the site of the lion kill. You could barely tell there had been a kill there the night before. The ground was picked clean, all the bones removed by hyenas, and all that was left was some "processed" Wildebeast.

Random Notes

The people in Hong Kong dress really well, particularly the women. I guess it has something to do with the fact that most of our clothes are made in that area these days, and they get them at HK prices. Or they have better taste there.

[Termite mound and your host]
This termite mound is only slightly above average in size

The termite mounds, mundane to the natives, were quite extraordinary to me. Built over periods of time reaching a century, some of these mounds of hardered dirt were larger than many Sowetan homes. Most were cones a bit taller than a human, but they were everywhere, usually spaced 50 to 100 feet apart, sometimes closer. The mounds contain the queen at their center, and her temperature must be maintained within a few degrees, so the termites open and close vent holes constantly to attain this. Some of the mounds were so large they had become homes for other animals that had burrowed in, and some were so old that they had become overgrown with grasses and brush, and could easily have been mistaken for hills if they weren't on flat terrain.

It pains me to reveal that among the subjects of dinner conversation at M'Bali, 10,000 miles from Los Angeles, was the question, "Do you think O.J. did it?" That trial is everywhere, and the blacks in South Africa are following it hungrily too.

Even after going back to the city I saw some game -- Ostrich, at the cape nature reserve on the Cape of Good Hope. The Cape, by the way, is its own floral kingdom, one of just a few in the world and the smallest in a geographic sense.

[Wind-swept at the tip of the cape] Wind-swept at the tip of the cape

In spite of what you might think from past history and stereotypes, South Africans are very friendly and very eager to talk with foreigners about themselves and their political situation. Almost everybody I met offered to host me if I visited their home neighbourhood. They really are very excited and pleased with the changes in their country, though in part that may be because they don't know all that's coming.

Never far from South Africa, it seems, as I took the shuttle home from SFO airport, I shared it with a black man from Colorado who had also been to South Africa. As expected, his perceptions were quite different, and things would be visible to him that were not to me. He was still firmly convinced that the wrongs of the whites were so great that black hatred would eventually boil over and an ethnic cleansing would take place. I got the impression he didn't think that would be that bad an idea.

There is factionalism among both the whites and blacks. The Inkatha Freedom Party, which draws its support mostly from Zulus, seems to be born mostly in chronic factional hatreds among the old African populations. Still, I suspect the black people are more united than they have ever been, and the same is true of the Whites. The Nationalist party has moderated its stance so much that the old moderate anti-apartheid white parties have faded away.

Alas, I can't say that what I tasted of South African food has much to recommend it. Unlike Hong Kong, nobody goes for the food.

South Africans are doing the debate over affirmative action and political correctness right now. Boy oh boy are they in for some "interesting times." In the USA, people can get away with all-white ads since 80% of the people are white. There was one black player on the world championship rugby team, but half the posters were of him. (The fact that the team was so white seems mostly be the because the black population never took up rugby as a sport in the past, though that will surely change now.)

A lot of South Africans do seem to know, at least in their minds, the hard truths -- that the true miracle of South Africa will take generations, and will only come after immense spending on education for the black population and immense forgiveness from all sides. Do they know this in their hearts? Some do, but some don't. Some will push for everything today, wanting it for themselves and not their children. They may delay it for their children.

Over the Atlantic

It actually cost more to return this way, but it's faster than going west, and certainly the romance of circumnavigation is worth something. The flight from Cape Town to Miami skirts Brazil but is effectively all over water. Jo'burg to New York has to actually stop for fuel. In the days of sanctions (which did work, by the way, according to all the S. Africans I spoke to) nobody flew to the USA from S.A. and today only S.A. Airlines does it. Thus this was pretty uneventful -- everybody slept, even me with the aid of a pill. SAA seems an OK airline even though they use those crazy 200ml half-height pop cans that are ubiquitous in South Africa.

I left Cape Town at 9:30 pm and landed in San Francisco at 9:20 am the next morning -- 12 hours later on the clock but 21 on my body. It was somewhat odd to think that I had been with friends in Cape Town "last evening."

No trip around the world would be complete without lost luggage. Somehow when I got to Miami and re-checked my luggage to go to SFO, they managed to send it to Teluride, Colorado -- the ski resort. I got it back 3 days later, unharmed.

Executive Summary

  • Go to Hong Kong, but not in July.
  • China is not going to take over Hong Kong in 1997, Hong Kong is going to take over China.
  • South Africa remains a fascinating country, with a great deal done but still a great deal to do. There is tremendous optimism but also tremendous trouble in store.
  • Do put an African game safari on your "must do in my lifetime" list. Before all the other tourists discover it.