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Trip Report Amazing 40th Anniversary Celebration in South Africa

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Yes, we knew our 40th Anniversary was this year. But in February I really didn't know we'd be celebrating in South Africa. I was researching honeymoon trips for my son and his fiancée, and while I figured a safari might be pushing the $5k budget, we'd been twice, and I knew it was as romantic a trip as one could plan. While searching various sites and options mentioned in posts here and on Safari Talk, I came upon an itinerary that combined "Bush, Beach and Battlefields" offered by http:// Wild-Wings-safaris.com that looked like something WE would clearly love and at an especially intriguing budget price. (Besides, the "kids" decided they wanted to go to Fiji.)

My brother-in-law's wife has wanted to go on safari ever since our first trip in 2004, so I forwarded the link and asked (as BIL recently retired) if they would be interested in joining us. She pounced on the opportunity, and accepted immediately - as long as I did the planning. Our dates, we knew, would be in May. Her birthday, my birthday, and Steve and my anniversary gave us impetus for that choice, as did a sudden offering of SA Airlines of $750 RT from Washington, DC to JNB. So, we plunked down the Amex card and picked our dates, and I checked out putting together the perfect itinerary (and also a couple of other TOs). Within about a week, I worked out the final adventure with Gavin Brown at Wild-Wings.

We would fly in to JNB on May 11, spend that night near the airport, ar OR Tembo Premiere Hotel (where I'd gotten a good deal on Expedia), pick up a rental car and drive to Kruger, staying 3 nights at Rhino Post Safari Lodge. On the 15th, we would drive into Swaziland and spend a night at a guesthouse in the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, then drive back into SA to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi in KwaZulu-Natal, where we had 3 nights at Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge. On the 19th, we would drive towards the coast, to a transfer place where we would leave the car safely parked, and get picked up and driven to remote Thonga Beach Lodge on the Indian Ocean for 2 nights. After a morning walk on the beach and a full breakfase on the 21st we were transferred back to pick up our car and drive to Isibindi Zulu Lodge for two nights. Our last night -- I'd kind of left that to serendipity. It would be my birthday, and I really didn't want to spend it in an airport hotel in Jo-berg, but figured we would be able to get some advice on a place between Zululand and the airport, that would give us a pretty setting and a good meal and about a 3-hour drive. That place turned out to be the recommendation of the mgr at the Zulu Lodge, and he set us up at a place called Montusi Mountain Lodge, which turned out to be absolutely perfect in just about every way, with a view of the Drakensberg Mountains, and an easy 3 hour drive to the airport the next day.

Tip: If you are flying an airline, even if you belong to other airlines affinity groups, it costs nothing to join theirs. I joined South African Airways. We may fly them again, but in the meantime, I got to specify that I needed a "Low Fat" offering for meals. (After a bout with acute pancreatitis last Nov, I do have to watch my diet and avoid a lot of things I used to eat without a thought.) I really didn't know how that would work out, and on the outgoing flight, it didn't result in anything different, but on our return flight my meals were much better than the rest of my family got! Although, I have to give SA props on their flight food: every meal was considerably better than tourist class meals we've been served on other international flights.

Another tip: Do not second guess your car rental plan. I had reserved a car through AutoEurope, a Toyota Fortuner, for early morning pickup at the airport. My husband began to have second thoughts, and the day before we left, we had AutoEurope scrambling to get us a car for the evening we arrived, so that we could get an even earlier start on our drive to KNP. We DID get a car to pick up, but they couldn't get us an SUV, and the best option would be a BMW 316. So we said, fine. We were "okay" as we really only had drives from place to place, BUT it wasn't easy for the guys to get in and out of, and it took a while to figure out the best way to pack that trunk.

Airport hotel: The OR Tambo Premier Hotel is a great place to spend your first night recovering from jet-lag. Comfy, good food (not included, but not expensive), and easy to get on-the-road from.

Next - the adventure BEGINS!

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    Before the fun - another tip: Use lodging that "belongs" to the same group, for beneficial pricing. We stayed in four Isibindi properties. The more I learned about the group, the more I liked it: they are "eco" friendly, and each lodge is co-owned with the surrounding community. Sometimes that means you may run across a new hire, but every single person we met was friendly, helpful and genuine. It makes a difference when you feel like all the employees are happy to be there and open to answer any questions your might have. Our trip was kind to our budget in that they had a "Stay 4 pay for 3" plan in place, so we pretty much had 2 nights "free."

    Now. First stop: Rhino Post Safari Lodge. You enter through the Paul Kruger Gate, and follow the directions they have given you. The lodge is located deep in their concession within Kruger Park. Their concession is large, and as there are no gates between the park and neighboring concerns, one morning we drove one long dirt road that was Rhino Post(which is in Kruger Park) concession on one side and Mala Mala, then Londolozi on the other. Rhino Post Lodge itself is located on the banks of the Mutlumuvi riverbed (currently totally dry). There is a borehole/water hole in the riverbed, which provides for many surprising sightings throughout your time at the lodge.

    We arrived about half an hour before "high tea" which was held about half an hour before the afternoon/evening game drive. PERFECT! Rhino Post combined all my favorite aspects of a safari camp into one. Privacy between the units is ideal. They have canvas walls, with huge screen windows on the sides, but high thatched roofs with ceiling fans above, and the view from the bed is through huge glass sliders (with screens) over your own porch looking over the riverbed. There are double sinks in the bathroom, and a lovely free-standing tub, plus a separate potty-room and a sliding door to the outdoor shower, surrounded by thick reed poles. Evening meal is at a huge long table with all guests and some staff members included for great conversation at the end of the day. While all meals, teas and coffee and safari activities are included in your cost, all drinks are extra. However, we found them to be extremely reasonable, so this was never an issue.

    My buttons were bursting. My in-laws, clearly safari-newbies, were blown away. I had picked the perfect place for a first safari. Now, for some reason, however, they had decided to pack their own pillows...worried about the quality of bedding they might find. WE knew this wouldn't be an issue, but...hey we are all grown-ups so while we told them it was not a problem, it was their packing space to fill. Also, my SIL, while she is NOT a large person at all, apparently needs to snack. She also packed bags of chips, crackers, nuts, etc. I figured she'd only brought stuff for the plane trip, but apparently not.

    We had met our guide, Joey. We were all set to go after tea, cameras, binoculars, sweatshirts and scarves for later when we knew it would be cold...and suddenly SIL needed to go back to their room. ? We were all loaded in the vehicle and waiting for Deb. I was getting embarrassed/worried -- was she sick, what happened? Finally, about 10 minutes late, she shows up. They had made the mistake of leaving their sliding doors open. Monkeys are quite capable of opening sliding screen doors and, yes, they had gotten in and found her stash of snacks, and made quite a mess of their room. The camp staff has obviously seen this before, but Deb was beside herself with embarrassment. We all laughed with her and finally took off on our first drive.

    Now I know why people rave about Kruger as being such an incredible experience. I told Joey that while we'd been on safari in Botswana and Zimbabwe, there were two species still on my "must see" list: Rhino and Wild dogs, but as this was Don and Deb's first drive, we knew elephants, giraffe, various antelope and lions would be a great start.

    I am not going to go through each and every experience, but I have to say that first drive was an incredible success. Then, as an unexpected bonus, when we were picked up for dinner, we were told that a rhino was at the water hole! So I saw my first rhino! And later, we were all called and informed that if we wanted to, we could see wild dogs at the water hole! Our guide Joey picked us up at our tents and we all ended up again seeing one of my most desired sightings! As I was unsure my camera would pick up the dogs across the riverbed with the lights playing on them, Joey took my camera and took some good shots for me.

    Wow. We slept REALLY well that night. And I felt like Queen of the World.

    I like to make videos of my trip photography. It is easier to let someone see your pics in a 6 1/2 minute video than page through hundreds of photos. Here is the link for the Rhino Post video: https://youtu.be/40dmVXiT-os Try to watch it full screen or streamed to your TV if you can, for the best results.

    We DID get to see leopards - but it was towards the end of a night drive, and here is another important tip: BRING YOUR OWN BINOCULARS! Because filming at night was hit-or-miss for me, I just watched the leopards through the binos while Joey held the lights for us to watch. First, a small cub had scampered across the road in front of us. Obviously we stopped, and listened to its mother calling to it. They reunited and found their way across a drainage ditch where we watched them -- while a male also joined them. A jittery moment until it became clear he was the father, and the family of three proceeded to play together! Wow. What a sighting.

    My recommendations for Rhino Post (and all the Isibindi properties we stayed at) could not be higher. They all had terrific chefs and we ate amazingly well. (And I live in a "foodie" town!) The staff at Rhino Post was probably the best and most experienced. If I were to suggest someone the best possible 5 night safari experience, it would be to do 3 nights at RP, and 2 nights at their next-door sister property, Rhino Plains. They have an option to sleep out on platforms in the wild. Yeah. That could be incredible.

    So, I'll end this report here, for the time being. I'll write about the second and third stops - our Swaziland experience and Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge, in a day or so.

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    Simply amazing. With Rhino Post being a concession inside a national park, were you on the roads longer than visitors who came in for the day or those staying on the park grounds (in other words, less vehicle traffic early and late)?

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    Yes! It was really quite wonderful. May is an excellent time to go, as the weather is very likely to be perfect. We had one morning that was a bit foggy, but when the sun burned that off, there were terrific wildlife sightings.

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    We took off from Rhino Post after a final morning drive and delicious brunch, to drive through KNP and out at the Malelane Gate not far from the Swaziland border. The driving directions provided by the lodges where we stayed and our SA based TO, Gavin at Wild-Wings, had been great so far, but once over the border, there was a tremendous back up for construction and amongst the confusion (and long waits for one-way-traffic passage) we somehow missed the T-Junction turnoff that may have taken us "safely" to our next night's destination. But, once through the construction, we were thrilled to see what a lovely country Swaziland appeared to be! And, the GPS told us we would be at our final destination in about 2 hours.

    Swaziland is a kingdom. I don't know what politics are there, but people appeared to be employed primarily in agricultural endeavors, sugar cane, lumber, pineapple, etc. and we saw kids going to school, bus stops taking folks from rural areas to small towns, etc. The only problem was the Navigator had the stressful job of watching for potholes, and warning the driver about upcoming "traffic calming" bumps. We were happily tooling along the road, when we DID hit a pothole. After a short distance, the driver knew we had a problem. Now, the BMW did NOT have a spare tire (tyre in that part of the world) nor a jack, as they put their trust in run-flat technology.

    Tip: Always take note of any signs with an "emergency" number to call. It never occurred to me to do so, and there may or may not have been such signs, although we did see them the next day. Meanwhile, I could not dial any of the Hertz numbers or my Amex international number, or the SA number for our TO, Gavin, with any success. We drove carefully (you are supposed to get 90 Km on those "run-flat" tyres) to the nearest town and pulled into a small grocery store lot at the intersection of the major highway we would have been taking to the capitol of Swaziland, Mbabane (not that far away, but no way were we going to drive on a highway with that tyre!) BIL Don went in and asked the clerk where the nearest Service Station was, and she directed us across the street to a cement block building with NduomoMotors.com painted on the side.

    Don went off with Mr. Nduomo Motors in his truck in search of an acceptable replacement tyre. They had successfully jerry-rigged a system so they could jack up the car and remove the wheel with the badly torn-up tyre, but they did not actually have any tyres. In fact, they didn't have any electricity.

    Meanwhile, as I DID have a cell signal (although apparently AT&T international coverage doesn't include Swaziland while it does SA) I was able to text Gavin our TO in George SA, and my daughter in North Carolina, whom I hoped would be able to research a way for me to dial a number on my phone regardless of roaming charges! My daughter called back first, and she was teaching her 2nd graders but said she'd see what she could find out. (I think that was reassuring although clearly a long shot). Next Gavin called back told me he would contact our lodging place to let them know our situation. He also told me I could call Hertz by dialing 00 first. (?) He told me to keep in touch as he would help in anyway he could and gave me his mobile number.

    It was getting dark. It gets dark in that part of the world at about 5pm in May. There was no way we would be driving to our reserved guesthouse, located in the middle of a Nature Reserve, in the dark! But we had Mr. Nduomo's teen age son to talk with, who was a charming and caring young man. We teased him that we might be spending the night at his house. Finally, Don and Mr. Nduomo returned. They had been to 3 different places to finally get a tire and have the rim damage repaired. Using flash lights and a hydraulic lift, Mr. Nduomo, his son and his father-in-law mounted the tyre. The brand new Michelin and work had set us back about $120. We gave Mr. Nduomo about $50 for his help. And he gave us directions to get to a complex of convention-type hotels on the otherside of the city (Mbabane) where he said we could find reasonable and safe accomodations for the night. He was right. We ended up in a comfortable hotel with a casino, with good food and good beds and nice bathrooms with good hot water pressure.

    The next morning we traveled easily to the border, got more passport stamps, and on (using directions provided by the folks at our next stop.)

    The drive through Hluhluwe iMfolozi park to Rhino Ridge Safari Lodge is easy until you reach their "driveway." That was very twisty, bumpy, and up and down, but we made it. The place is drop-dead gorgeous.

    The landscape is magnificent. The wildlife viewing was excellent -- not as many different species as were easily visible in Kruger, but WOW, there is no way anyone could be disappointed. We stayed in the "standard" accomodation choice. Ok. If you say so..."standard" should only be this incredible anywhere else. Again, the food was extraordinary. While dining here was not "communal," the tables were comfortable. The views were outstanding, especially sun rises drinking coffee before the morning drive. The common areas were fantastic. We had a lovely female guide, Libby. I rather enjoyed the fact that most of the other guests (except for the group of French videographers filming for a French TO) were from South Africa. Rhino RIdge is only a year old, but has become a favorite place for people to celebrate wedding anniversaries. We DID have our 40th that first night. We met another couple at drinks who were there for their 50th, and another who were celebrating their 25th.

    Link to the 2nd video (it is a bit longer, but oh...that landscape!) https://youtu.be/_1ow-fPQKU0

    This was probably some of the best elephant and rhino viewing you will have anywhere on earth. Anti-poaching efforts have been seriously stepped up in South Africa. There is a shoot-to-kill order for rangers who are on anti-poaching duty in any of the National Parks in South Africa. They have increased reward amounts for locals who provide information on poachers. But still - it was chilling to have our guide tell us that while we were able to see so many rhino in the wild on our trip, there may not be any left in 3-4 years if the current rate of poaching continues.

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    Oh - I should also mention - when I spoke with Hertz emergency number while we were being repaired in Swaziland, they told us we were pursuing the most appropriate solution to our predicament, and to drive the car to Durban or Nelspruit to replace it with another vehicle for the rest of the trip. (They don't have an office in Swaziland.) By the time we reached our hotel for the night, we decided that it would be closer to simply drive to our next destination than either of those places, and call the nearest Hertz office.

    That is what we did. I called Durban, and was told there was an office in Richards Bay that I should call. I did that and the next day they sent out someone in a replacement car while we were on the morning drive. He got there after we'd eaten "brunch" and we exchanged vehicles. At the moment, my Amex Premium International Rental Car insurance is working out reimbursing Hertz for whatever they are charging (looks like it ended up about $250) and my BIL Don for the new tyre. I think we are stuck with eating the one night's prepaid lodging and paying for our casino hotel, because we really weren't "delayed" on the trip. To be honest, aside from this incident, our trip was so fantastic a value, it isn't that big a deal.

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    True! Actually, through out all our experiences on this trip, people we met were kind and helpful.

    The only other beaches we've visited in Africa, were Boulder Beach (for the penguins) and around Hermanus, near Cape Town, oh and along the Garden Route at Wilderness. Our itinerary this trip had us on the warmer side of the continent, where the water temp of the Indian Ocean was a comfy 75 degrees F. It was only about a 3 hour (taking our time) drive from Rhino Ridge Lodge to the Coastal Cashew Factory - a spot just off the road sort of between the Isimangaliso Wetland Park and the "Elephant Coast" where safe parking is provided for guests headed to Thonga Beach Lodge. We pulled in about 1:30PM, obviously early for the 3PM rendevous time with our transport, but the shuttle vehicle was still there from dropping off departing guests so we had an easy transfer of our luggage and were off on about a 45 minute drive through sandy roads, coastal forestland and dunes. Clearly, an impossible drive for any tourist :-) especially as you neared the beach.

    There had been a thunderstorm the night before and that morning, but it was clearing as we arrived. Thonga Beach turned out to be another beautiful place to stay. Private, romantic, and the perfect place to "come down" from the high of safari life.

    Because of strict laws governing building and development along that part of the coast, the spacious thatched-roof rondavels are tucked along wooden walkways amongst the natural greenscape of wild dunes. The sounds of the surf are mesmerizing. I'm not sure anyone has a "sea view" but with the "soundscape" and privacy...it wasn't a disappointment. You can hear monkeys and birds and frogs, etc. Like Isibindi's other properties, the food here was fresh and fabulous. We had a late lunch/tea and spent our afternoon settling in, relaxing, and walking the beautiful beach.

    While we'd hoped to take advantage of snorkeling opportunities at the reef offshore the next morning, the from-the-beach option did not look promising, due to the previous storm, and the launch boat to the reef was already filled up. So we had to content ourselves with having a magnificent beach pretty much to ourselves. Honest, we were not disappointed in the least.

    There was another European film crew here, documenting how the community was involved with the operations. The evening activity for everyone was a ride to nearby Lake Sibaya for sundowners and to see the local magic-man. It was a lot of fun, and the sunset was a pretty one. When we got back for dinner, we were treated to a beach-braai, and of course, the food was again delicious. This also happened to be a full-moon night. So walking out to the beach we were treated to that beautiful silver moon hovering over the rolling black and silver surf.

    You don't need to wait for "film at 11" here's the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjpgPQTLP8A

    Wifi internet access at all of the lodges was limited to the common areas. But honestly, while we wanted to share some things ASAP with our family back home, it isn't all that difficult to live with having time to just enjoy your gorgeous surroundings.

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    Sounds lovely, and you're right, especially after a few days on safari. Appreciate the details you're sharing. Helps me to envision what a return visit to South Africa for me would look like.

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    Fascinating report, Busted! Thank you !! I'll bookmark for possible future trip.
    Happy Anniversary!!!

    You wrote that you don't know about the politics of Swaziland. If you want to find out, especially having been there, I highly recommend you see "Without the King"--a real eye opener!! I saw it a few yrs ago via Netflix.

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    Last days of a wonderful vacation: Zululand and the neverending sunset

    One of the truly unique parts of the itinerary that caught my eye to begin with, was a stay in the middle of Zululand (yeah, that's what they really call that region), and the opportunity to tour the battlefields with an expert historian/guide.

    Our drive from the coastal area was easier than some of the other drives, we went through some beautiful countryside, some thriving towns. This area doesn't seem to be hit as badly by drought. We arrived right on time, about 3PM before it got dark, at Isibindi Zulu Lodge. Here, the rondavels are based on traditional Zulu design. It was the first of the Isibindi properties to be developed, and not quite as luxurious as the others we'd stayed in, but still, quite lovely and perfectly comfortable.

    While none of the other properties were large, we were the only 4 guests, and the manager was so nice it was like we were visiting a friend's home. The cooking/serving staff were quite experienced, and very sweet. Actually, the resident managing couple had been called away due to a death in the family, but the substitute Mgr, Bruce, has been on the Isibindi staff for a dozen years, and knows the property and everyone in the community very well, as he comes in to give Managers at this property, Thonga Beach, and the other wetland property Kosi Bay, on a scheduled basis. Interesting job for a gentleman/bachelor. We told him we were expecting to spend the next day with a guide for the Battlefields, and he set it up without any problem at all.

    When we got up the next morning, Steve stepped out on our deck with its beautiful view, and discovered a baby nyala (type of antelope) had been left by its mom next to our place. So sweet!

    After breakfast, our guide arrived, and so we met Anthony Coleman. He was tremendous. We were staying not far from Rorke's Drift, which was where the Michael Caine movie from the 60's was set (and about that battle). We learned about John Rorke, and how as a settler, he had standing agreements with the Zulu and had traded with them for years. Actually, we learned a lot about the Zulu civilization and how truly developed it was by that time. The week prior to the Battle at Rorke's Drift ("Drift" means river crossing in Africanse), the British forces broke the treaty by crossing the river and they then made all kinds of strategic misinterpretations and underestimations of the strength and intelligence of the Zulu forces. The mistakes piled up in the eventual Battle of Isandlwanda and thousands of British and Zulu lives were lost. The Brits were beaten badly. A small detatchment had been left at Rorke's Drift, where there was a hospital. We toured both the Isandlwanda battlegrounds and the "station" at Rorke's Drift as he spun the tale (and also explained how some books and historians have made errors, how he's gone to London and examined the actual documents and reports from that time in the British Military archives to figure out what really happened.) Anyway, the guy was a fantastic storyteller, and fleshed out some of the characters of the movie based on real people, showing where things were done in the film that left the wrong impression of some of the Brits in the hospital there. Steve and Don are both history nuts, so Deb and I both knew they would love this. But Anthony was such a good guy and engaging guide, we all thoroughly enjoyed our day.

    After we got back and cleaned up, we were treated to a local group of Zulu singers and dancers. Aged 10-19, and my, they were terrific. (After the 3-sheets-to-the-wind shaman at Lake Sibaya, these kids were a breath of fresh air and so serious and intent upon their performance.)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6lnz0lm4jQ

    During dinner, we'd asked Bruce for a suggestion of a place to stay our last night before flying out of JNB. With an afternoon flight, we wanted someplace where we could enjoy a nice setting and a good dinner and good sleep, with only about a 3 hour drive to the airport. He suggested - then called to make sure they were open - a place near the Drakensberg Mountains called Montusi Mountain Resort. The Trip Advisor stuff looked good, and while it was going to cost us more than we really wanted to spend, it did include our dinner and breakfast the next day, so we went for it. It turned out to be another easy 3 hour drive, and the spot was exceptionally gorgeous.

    We each got a cute little thatched roof house with magnificent views. In fact, Debbie and I agreed that if the kitchen (it was a self catering place but only had a tiny fridge and sink instead of a kitchen) was upgraded to include a stove and bigger fridge and dishwasher, it would make a perfect tiny house to build in our eldest children's back yards for us to live in one day!

    We had lunch in the dining room, then went on a trail hike into the hills. It was perfect, with beautiful views, delightful weather, and just the right amount of exercize for us.

    The very best part, however, was the sunset. We figured on our hike, that it would be a beautiful sunset, considering the mountain views we had from our back patios. We all went out back to take photos as the sun went down behind the mountains...only to be kind of disappointed. Where was all the color? Went back inside to get ready for dinner, but checked out the bedroom window before getting ready to shower and WHOA! Back into the back yard (and went to knock on Deb & Don's sliding door) and discovered that all the colors had taken over the whole sky. Not just behind the mountains, but all around and overhead the clouds were pink and orange and yellow. I've got a video of the sunset, but haven't loaded it up on YouTube yet. As it was only a one-night stand, it will be a pretty short.

    Dinner that night was OK. Probably the least impressive of any meal we'd had on the trip, but it was in a nice setting and the owner/manager came over to our table after dinner to kibbitz.

    The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, we took off. While we'd been warned about bad traffic, it really wasn't terrible. We got to the airport about 2PM, turned in the rental car and we were off to home.

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    Thanks again for sharing. You've given some great ideas for a return visit to South Africa. We looked at Montusi on this last visit, but decided that we didn't have time for the Drakensburgs as we wanted more safari nights.

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