Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Africa: Six Weeks of Safaris, Beaches and Wine

Some of the more than 200,000 zebra that surrounded our tented camp in the Serengeti.
Zebras are the lead animals in the big migration across the Serengeti every year.
Below, wildebeest and zebra a few days earlier in Ndutu, at the other end of the
migration route. The migration is more a leisurely walk, at a pace that newborn
zebras and wildebeests can handle, than a stampede.

Elephants, hippos, giraffes and lions were what Jane and I most wanted to see in the wild when we set out for Africa in the middle of January.  We saw all of them and many other animals during our six weeks on this beautiful continent.  The safaris and a five-day visit to Zanzibar were arranged by African Portfolio, a Connecticut-based travel agency (click HERE for its website). Jane did the work in planning the Western Cape and Cape Town part of our trip.
       For more on how safaris work and tips for planning a safari (the Swahili word for journey, evolved from  the Arabic word safar, which also means journey), click HERE.
       We flew out of Dulles International near Washington, leaving late on Jan. 14, changed planes in Istanbul, and arrived in Tanzania at 1:40 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 16, at Arusha, the gateway to both Mount Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti.  We stayed at the African Tulip Hotel (click HERE for its website), which was very comfortable and allowed us to walk out into this city of 500,000. We started our safaris the next day, a Sunday, with a guide/driver from Ranger Safaris (click HERE). We did a game drive through Lake Manyara National Park (hippos, baboons, monkeys, elephants) before going on to the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.  We spent two nights at the Ngorongoro Farmhouse lodge (click HERE), allowing us a full day to explore the Ngorongoro Crater, a 10-mile-diameter collapsed volcano with a flat floor and extremely steep cliff-like walls all around that protect and virtually trap loads of animals: lions, elephants, black rhinos, hippos, wildebeests, zebra, and more.
Even hippos, such as these at Lake Manyara National Park in
Tanzania, like to rest during the middle of the day, though usually
they do it submerged in water.
        On Jan. 19, we stopped at Oduvai Gorge to see the area where Mary and Louis Leakey documented one of the earliest chapters in human evolution with the discovery of 1.75-million-year-old bones. The site is still being worked by an international group of university paleontologists. While there we drove out across the desert to see the Shifting Sands (also called the Drifting Sands), a sand dune that fascinated the Leakeys and is sacred to the Maasai. Its grains of black sand (really ancient volcanic ash) contain magnetic iron so that the sand clings together even in the face of relentless winds. The dune moves about ten meters a year but never changes its height, length or shape.  
       After the gorge, we drove on to Lake Masek Tented Camp (click HERE), where we spent two nights in a large tent on a platform. As the area is full of wildlife, it isn’t considered safe to walk around. Even in daylight, we were escorted to and from our tent by Maasai men in traditional Maasai robes and usually carrying a machete or a spear.  The real danger there is from hippos, which reportedly kill more humans in Africa than any other animal. Hippos, when they’re on land grazing, are prone to charge at and trample anyone who gets between them and the water. We awoke one night to see a hippo munching away on plants about 20 feet from our tent.  From Lake Masek, which has a lot of giraffes, we went into the Ndutu Plains where we saw zebras, Thomson’s gazelles, Grant’s gazelles, impalas, lions and cheetahs.
A lioness makes a meal of a wildebeest
in the Serengeti.
       Next was a long drive to the middle of the Seregeti and the Seronera Airstrip. En route we saw tens of thousands of wildebeests and Thomson’s gazelles beginning their annual migration north to the Serengeti and the border with Kenya. At the airstrip, our original Ranger Safaris guide handed us off to guides from Namiri Plains (click HERE), another tented camp. Namiri Plains is in the eastern section of the Serengeti National Park, a section that was closed for 20 years in an effort to allow the wildlife populations, especially cheetahs, to grow and stabilize. As of now, it’s the only camp in that region, so we had this vast area pretty much to ourselves, sharing only with a dozen or so other guests at the camp.
      It was on early-morning and late-afternoon drives out of Namiri that we first saw lions, cheetahs and jackals eating animals they had killed: wildebeests, zebras, steenbok (a tiny antelope).  We spent three full days riding around this unimaginably beautiful landscape and watching as, literally, hundreds of thousands of zebras moved through, leading the famous wildebeest-zebra-Thomson’s gazelle migration. At one point, it was estimated that our small camp was surrounded by 200,000 zebra.  It was then that I realized how the zebra’s stripes camouflage it: when zebras are in a group, it’s almost impossible to distinguish individual animals among all the stripes. And at a distance, their striped coats appear blotchy gray, making a herd of zebra appear as field of large rocks.
On Jan. 25, we returned to the Seronera Airstrip and flew via Arusha to Zanzibar, the former Indian Ocean island nation that merged with Tanganyika in 1964 to create the new nation of Tanzania, whose population of more than 50 million people is among the world’s poorest.  While Tanzania is a very diverse nation of Muslims, Christians, Hindu and many indigenous ethnic groups or tribes, Zanzibar is overwhelmingly Muslim (95 percent) thanks to its history as an outpost of the sheikdom of Oman.
Stone Town, Zanzibar.
      We stayed one night in its ancient southwest coast capital, Stone Town, at the Mashiriki Palace, an opulent private villa that’s now a boutique hotel (click HERE).  In retrospect, Stone Town deserves more than one night – it would be easy to spend a full day exploring its narrow pedestrian streets, lively waterfront and nearby islands, one of which is a sea turtle refuge. 
      As it was, we left Jan. 26 to go to the northeast (on the open Indian Ocean) coast and the Matemwe Lodge Beach Resort (click HERE). We spent four nights and three very pleasant full days here. We walked along the long white beach where fishermen’s dhows are high and dry at low tide and where the water temperature must have been near 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Swimming was good despite a lot of seaweed and the presence of sea urchins. Women wade out in the shallow collecting mussels. Men wade out or use boats to spear octopus and squid.  About 150 meters offshore is a living coral reef that is exposed at low tide (the coral is a dull gray, not the bright colors found elsewhere). We waded out to it with a guide.  While wading out, I tripped on the rocky bottom, drowned my cellphone, and fell onto some sea urchins. The guide later used a large wooden toothpick to pry the spines out of my foot and hand. 
       Our other big adventure here was snorkeling off one of Matemwe’s boats. I’m not much of a snorkeler, but Jane stayed in the water as long as the guide allowed. She saw a lot of fish despite the fact that these waters are terribly overfished, even to the point of taking fish too small to qualify as bait in the Chesapeake.  We were pretty appalled at the string of tiny colorful fish that a fisherman displayed for us on the coral reef.  They looked like the sort of tropical fish one might find in a home aquarium.
An oryx, also known as a gemsbok. We saw
these magnificent antelope in the Serengeti
and in the Kalahari. Hyenas, which are notorious
for eating everything, including bones, from
carcasses that they scavenge, do not eat the
horns of the oryx, which are bones covered by
something akin to the keratin of our fingernails.
When we did a bush walk near our camp in the
Kalahari, individual oryx horns could be found
easily in the grass.
      On Jan. 30 we flew from Zanzibar to Dar Es Salaam to Johannesburg, where we spent the night at an airport hotel before flying the next morning to Maun, Botswana, where a charter plane waited to take us to Kalahari Plains Camp in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (click HERE).  Here we again did early-morning and late-afternoon safaris in an area with no other camps, so again it was just us and 10 or so other guests exploring the Kalahari, including isolated Deception Valley.  Although the Kalahari looks devoid of life from the air and on the ground, we saw cheetahs, lions, elephants, one very shy leopard, a black python, loads of various antelope and lots of birds. Plus one lonely giraffe.
      After three nights in the Kalahari, we flew back through Maun to the Okavango Delta, the world’s largest inland delta. It’s where the Okavango River brings in fresh water from rains that fall in Angola and where the river spreads out into a large triangle of many branches before disappearing into the sands of the Kalahari Desert.  We stayed at Machaba Camp (click HERE) beside the Khwai River, which has loads of hippos, which we could see sometimes from our tent.  We were there during the rainy season, so with plenty of wet spots and puddles, the animals weren’t coming to the river for water where viewing would have been easy. Our guide, however, was able to take us to the animals:  leopards (a mother and male cub); a breeding herd of elephants along with other herds of male elephants; baboons; giraffes; zebra; kudu; impalas; wild dogs and more.  Not counting the Ngorongoro Crater, which is almost like visiting the Animal Kingdom at Disney World, this was the best place for viewing wildlife during our trip and the camp we enjoyed the most.
Juvenile elephants sparring on the bank of the Chobe River in
Botswana's Chobe National Park, as seen from a river boat. 
       Next we flew from an airstrip near Machaba Camp to Kasane, Botswana, on the Chobe River, a tributary of the Zambezi  River upstream from Victoria Falls. There we crossed the river to Namibia to board a boat for water-based game viewing (click HERE). We spent two nights on the small boat (only three passenger cabins, and on the second night we were the only passengers) and we saw lots of crocodiles, big and small; hippos; lions; and elephants, elephants, elephants. Once I estimated that there were at least 120 elephants, including many just a few weeks old, on the river bank and playing in the river. Almost all the wildlife we saw was on the Botswana side of the river in Chobe National Park. We were told that the animals seem to prefer Botswana (which bans hunting and shoots poachers on sight, leaving their bodies where they fall) over Namibia, which allows hunting. Indeed, the Namibia side, which seemed to be at least partly farm land, seemed devoid of animals other than a few crocodiles and a few head of cattle. Almost all the guides we spoke to praised Botswana’s approach to wildlife preservation and said they wished Tanzania, Namibia, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa would follow suit. One guide, however, said that eventually Botswana will have to cull its herds of elephants because of the damage they do to the environment – mainly in destroying trees by stripping their bark for food.
Baboons jumping a small stream in the Okanvango Delta, one
of the world's best places for viewing a broad variety of wildlife.
After the riverboat, we had one more safari experience, this one in South Africa. To get to it, we had a travel day that saw us in four different countries. First, we transferred from our boat to a small motorboat to go to passport control on the Namibia side of the river and get our Namibia exit stamps. Then we crossed back to Botswana to get new Botswana entry stamps. Then a car took us to the Zambezi River crossing where we got Botswana exit stamps and crossed to Zambia, getting Zambia entry stamps and paying  $50 visa fees. Then we were driven to the airport at Livingstone (near Victoria Falls but we didn’t have time to see the falls except later from the air) and got our Zambia exit stamps as we boarded a fight to Nelspruit, South Africa, near Kruger National Park and the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, home to Simbambili Game Lodge (click HERE).
        Highlights of our three-night stay at Simbambili included getting close to white rhinos (the difference between white and black rhinos is visible in their mouths – one only grazes and the other grazes and eats from bushes – not in their color, which is virtually identical); seeing and following several leopards; seeing lions mate; and, as at Machaba Camp, seeing rare wild dogs. We were told that some safari aficionados come back repeatedly hoping but failing to see these dogs. We saw them during one game drive at Machaba and two game drives at Simbambili.
      After Simbambili, we flew from the small airport at Hoedspruit to Cape Town, where we stayed at Black Heath Lodge (click HERE), a boutique hotel an easy walk from the Atlantic Ocean at Three Anchors Bay. We didn’t rent a car but getting around Cape Town was easy thanks to a cellphone provided by the hotel and programmed with the number of a reliable taxi company. Why don’t more hotels do this for their foreign guests? Black Heath also had about as high a level of customer service as I can imagine at a small hotel. 
       Cape Town must be one of the world’s most beautifully sited cities, wedged between Table Mountain and the ocean and with weather that’s never too hot and never too cold, though it can quickly go from chilly to really warm and back to chilly as the sun goes behind clouds or the winds off the very cold ocean pick up. Although we were warned not to walk around at night, we felt perfectly safe on downtown streets like Long, Wales and Kloof, and the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is crowded, well patrolled and quite safe for tourists late into the evening. It is disconcerting, though, to see almost all private homes protected by window grates, concertina wire and even electrified fencing. And beyond the neat streets of Cape Town, huge townships went on for miles, shanty after shanty made of corrugated metal or plastic sheeting.
       Highlights of our time in Cape Town included two visits to the Crypt (click HERE), a jazz venue in the basement of St. George’s Cathedral, once the home church of Desmond Tutu; a tour of Robben Island, once the prison home of Nelson Mandela and scores of other political prisoners; and visiting the broad flat top of Table Mountain, accessed by cable car. The Crypt seems to specialize in the American Songbook era – think Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and young Frank Sinatra – amid marble marble plaques memorializing the long dead, including those who fell in wars I had never heard of (the Kafir War, for example).
    We rented a car to leave Cape Town for a several-day tour of the Western Cape. Our first stop was for a quick walk around Muizenberg, a surfing town on False Bay. It has board noting recent great white shark sightings; the most recent was two days before our visit. Then we drove south on the Cape of Good Hope to Simon’s Town, where we stayed two nights at Magellan’s Crossing (click HERE). Simon’s Town is known for its colony of African penquins at Boulders Beach, a public beach just below rows of houses that climb the hills of the cape. It was also our base for exploring south to Cape Point at the tip of the Cape of Good Hope. We had hoped to have a few hours at a beach, but our one full day there was chilly and extremely windy. It was hard to stand at the lighthouse at Cape Point. And it was hard to find a seat in Simon's Town busy restaurants. We even needed a reservation to get a table at the dockside fish and chips place.
Beach cabanas at Muizenberg, South Africa, just south of Cape Town.
This is a surfing community that occasionally  has to order everyone out
of the water due to sightings of great white sharks.
African penguins at Boulders Beach at Simon's Town, just a bit
south of Muizenberg on the Cape of Good Hope. 
       After the winds of the cape, we headed inland to the wine town of Stellenbosch, where we stayed two nights at Coopmanhuijs (click HERE), a small hotel in a very old building. Here we bought tickets for the Wine Hopper, a van service that shuttles among tasting rooms. As it turned out, we shared our van with four young Danish guys (co-workers at Maersk, the giant shipping company) who congenially wanted to visit the wineries we wanted to visit. So the driver would simply wait for us to taste or have lunch and we never had to wait for another van to show up. Although it was a pleasant experience, most of the few wines we tasted around Stellenbosch – other than those at Spier – were unremarkable. We also stopped at Van Ryn’s Distillery, where I thought the spirits were top notch. I left with bottle of 20-year-old brandy. Stellenbosch, home to a large university, is a compact but congested little town with a number of intriguing places to eat, drink and shop.
    We next stayed at a vineyard inn, the Angala (click HERE), roughly midway between the wine towns of Paarl and Franschhoek, the later being one of South Africa’s most notable wine destinations. Paarl is a Afrikaner town almost untouched by tourism. We made a quick visit to use an ATM and happened upon the KWV Sensorium at the headquarters of KWV wines. It has an art gallery, mostly South African landscapes, complete with suggestions for which of its wines to enjoy while looking at each piece of art. More conventional, more impressive and closer to our inn was Babylonstoren, a sprawling winery with flower and vegetable gardens that you could get lost in. We enjoyed both tasting its wines and having lunch in one of its two restaurants. On the next day, on the other side of Franschhoek, we enjoyed Baboon Rock, an unoaked chardonnay at La Petite Ferme, a mountainside winery that is known for its restaurant and its views as much as for its wines. We had lunch there; some our fellow diners arrived by helicopter, presumably from Cape Town. Franschhoek itself is more of a strip of stores and restaurants than a real town with a grid of streets, but I found it more pleasant than crowded Stellenbosch. We were there for the Saturday market where crafts, prepared foods and farm produce are sold.     
       On Sunday, Feb. 21, we headed through the Franschhoek Pass, a series of extremely steep hairpin curves that had me driving a lot in first and second gears, and south to Gansbaai. We stayed two nights at Cliff Lodge (click HERE) in the De Kelders community. De Kelders is known for two things, whale watching from the mainland and sea caves where evidence of very early human activity has been discovered. Although the innkeeper reported seeing a whale while we were there, we didn’t, but we knew we weren’t there during the peak season when Southern Right Whales convene just offshore. During our one full day here, we drove south to the little Afrikaner farm town of Bredasdorp to visit its Skeepswrakmuseum (Shipwreck Museum; click HERE), which was a bit disappointing. I had expected a lot of narrative about some of the almost 200 notable shipwrecks around the southern tip of Africa, but instead there were decent exhibits on only two, one of which was the 1852 wreck of the Birkenhead, which established the idea of “women and children first” in evacuating a sinking ship. Otherwise, it was a lot of artifacts salvaged from ships or found washed ashore. Bredasdorp is also home to Kapula (click HERE), a nonprofit that assists women by reviving, teaching and marketing handicrafts, especially painted candles.
      From Bredasdorp, we kept going south to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point on the continent. It is the dividing point between the Indian Ocean, warmed by currents from the tropics, and the Atlantic Ocean, kept very cold by currents from Antarctica. Not as dramatic as the Cape of Good Hope, but close to South Africa’s longest white-sand beach at Struisbaai.

The view from the top of Table Mountain. That's Cape Town and the waters of
False Bay down below. A cable car makes the assent easy, and paved walkways
 and well-marked trails let you explore the mountain's flat top 
       The next day, we drove back to Cape Town, returned the car, and checked in at Four Rosmead (click HERE) in the Gardens district for our last two nights of vacation. Four Rosmead, though it is on the low slopes of Table Mountain, is centrally located and we could easily walk to the center of the city. One place we walked to was Monkeybiz (click HERE), another nonprofit that assists women by marketing handicrafts, this time mostly colorful beaded animals like fanciful zebras, lions and antelope.
     On our last full day, Wednesday, Feb. 24, we finally made it to the top of Table Mountain, which had been hidden in the clouds during our first stay. A nice way to end our African adventure. By the evening of Feb. 26, we were back home in Maryland.