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Just back from South Africa -- wow, wow, wow!!

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Just back from South Africa ? wow, wow, wow!! Our departure was delayed by 3 days due to work, and getting there was a nightmare. But the trip was incredible.

Flew DCA-DTW-AMS-LHR-JNB-HDS. Yes, you read that right. Fortunately, all of the long flights were in business class which made it tolerable. We did have quite the series of mishaps. After already having been delayed by 3 days, imagine our chagrin when our NW flight from DTW to AMS had a mechanical problem and sat on the runway for almost 4 hours before departing, causing us to miss our connecting flight from AMS to JNB. Having already missed the first three days of our trip, we were determined not to miss another. So upon our late arrival in AMS, we eventually managed something which I now look back on as almost miraculous: We somehow persuaded the ?It Is Not Possible? KLM agents at the transfer desk to fly us to Heathrow and put us on a BA flight to JNB later that same day. Don?t ask me how. Thank goodness we hadn?t checked any baggage. We arrived in JNB in the early morning (impressive airport BTW), went straight to the ABSA ATM machine to withdraw some Rand, inserted my card (which had worked in Europe, Asia, Australia...), punched in my 4-digit pin, and read the message on the screen: ?Your card has been retained.? No explanation, no nothing...no cash. At this point it was starting to seem like someone was deliberately conspiring to make our trip as challenging as possible. Went and bought a phone card so I could call my credit union and cancel my ATM card. Fortunately my sweetie still had his ATM card, so we were OK. Finally, we caught our South African Airways flight to Hoedspruit.

Landing at HDS airport, we emerged bleary-eyed from our 5 flights and over 30 hours with almost no sleep, and were met by warthogs running along next to our plane! We picked up our Toyota Condor from Europcar, and turning out of the airport we saw our first giraffes. It finally felt like we had arrived! It was a short drive to Orpen Gate at Kruger, and upon entering the park in the heat and bright sun of early afternoon, we began spotting wildlife almost immediately. Impala, zebra, giraffe, baboons, waterbuck, warthogs, elephant, hippos, crocodile, wildebeest, two baby hyenas, and more bird life than we could believe. Dozens of masked weavers building nests. Vultures, hawks, storks, eagles, herons, francolins. Three enormous kori busters (which we were later told are Africa?s largest flying birds). We were stopping so much to look at wildlife that we soon began to worry that we weren?t going to make it to Olifants before the camp gates closed at 6:30pm.

Shortly after 6pm we pulled past the enormous elephant tusks at Olifants gate and proceeded to reception. Unfortunately, the reservation we had made 11 months earlier for a river view bungalow was for 3 days previous. Had we arrived as originally scheduled, we would have been given bungalow number 9. Instead, we got bungalow 96. Still on the perimeter, but no river view. Oh well. Our bungalow was more rustic than we had expected, but the beds were comfortable, and we were so exhausted from our journey that we slept like rocks. In fact, we slept right through the river walk we had booked for 9AM the next morning. Whoops. We never even heard our alarms. Apparently someone had pounded on our door trying to wake us, but we never heard them. We were like zombies. When we finally awoke around 10AM, we went to reception and apologized, but from that morning on it was clear that we were persona non grata as far as Olifants front desk was concerned. Since we were there, we decided to ask whether any river view bungalows had opened up, and were told that they had not, but they could move us to another perimeter view bungalow. Immediately after they told us this, another woman walked up to the desk, asked for a river view bungalow, and was given one with a smile.

We moved to bungalow 106, which was significantly nicer than our previous one, and did have a distant view of the river through the trees and brush. I use the term ?river? here loosely, as the area was experiencing a fairly serious drought, and the Olifants river was so dry that it was nothing more than a series of puddles. Hippos could be seen huddling together in the small pools, and huge herds of elephants wandered the water holes, drinking and dousing themselves. Our bungalow had a nice verandah with a table and 2 chairs, and the camp had an enormous viewing deck overlooking the river, where we sat on benches each morning and ate breakfast sandwiches while watching the wildlife. It was a lovely setting. The camp also has a restaurant where we ate a buffet-style dinner each night. The food was pretty decent ? roast meats, soups, salad, cooked vegetables, rice, potatoes, etc. ? nothing fancy, but just fine. Desserts were really bad though. They all seemed vaguely Jell-O based. The camp has a small store where we purchased fruit, cheese, cashews, juice, bottled water, etc. for picnic lunches which we brought on our drives each day. They also sell beer and wine which we enjoyed back at our bungalow in the evenings. Overall we found the wines to be incredibly reasonable in price, and very good.

What we enjoyed most about Kruger was having the freedom to drive ourselves around the park and explore as we wished. The park was amazingly uncrowded compared with U.S. National Parks. We drove long periods without seeing any other cars. In general the roads were excellent. Surprises were always just around the next bend in the road. Sometimes we would drive for almost an hour without seeing much of anything...and then suddenly there was a huge herd of elephants, or a lioness walking toward us down a gravel road, or a herd of buffalo.

During our second evening at Kruger, it began to rain, and when we awoke the next morning, the land had been transformed. Where before there had been puddles, there was now a raging river! The change was remarkable.

My favorite experience at Kruger was the morning game walk I took at Olifants. There were seven of us plus a ranger and a tracker (both armed). At one point we were completely surrounded by a herd of over 30 elephants of all sizes. We got to watch an old bull enjoying a mudbath, saw a female nursing a calf, and we were charged by one of the young bulls and had to beat a hasty retreat behind a large rock. I will never forget what it felt like to have a giraffe look me in the eye as I stood about 15 feet away from him, or hear the sound of lions roaring (unseen). The tracker fished a baboon spider out of a hole and picked it up for us to see ? it was furry and so large that it barely fit in the palm of his hand. While I was on the game walk, my fiancé went mountain biking ? just himself and two armed rangers. He enjoyed the ride a lot despite being hampered by a bike whose gears weren?t working properly. They got quite close to some hippos. We also went on a game drive one evening, during which we got very close to a herd of elephants, including some bulls who were in must ? the ranger pointed out the telltale fluid running down the sides of their temples and the distinctive spicy/musky scent.

Overall we had great game viewing in Kruger. The only one of the Big Five we did not see in our three days there was leopard, nor did we see cheetah or male lions. We did see 3 white rhinos. Herds of elephants were massive and numerous. At one point a large herd of elephants crossed the road in front of our vehicle, and there were so many we could not count them all.

Still to come: Chitwa Chitwa Safari Lodge in Sabi Sands, and Cape Town....to be continued next week.

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