A Fortnight in South Africa

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Apr 24th, 2009, 03:17 PM
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A Fortnight in South Africa

I've just returned from a wonderful trip to South Africa with stays at Kensington Place in Cape Town, Grootbos Lodge just outside Gansbaai and Kwandwe Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape. Here's a brief report.

I read a travel article about Grootbos Lodge a few years ago and as it seemed to be just my kinda place, I added it to my wish list. Fast forward to 2008 when South Africa suddenly became much more affordable because of the decline of he Rand against the USD, and I decided this was the time to go. I had been on safari at a few CCAfrica (now andbeyond) lodges in East Africa, and when I emailed them for recommendations for a lodge in South Africa, The agent immediately suggested Kwandwe which was the perfect match, especially as there was no single supplement. To help manage the logistics of the trip I recruited the services of Go2Africa, and everything went seamlessly. All my transfers were booked through the local company Ilios and the service was excellent.

I flew from LAX to AMS on KLM, and the service was noticeably better than on my regular airline United. Originally I had no plans for activities during my overnight layover in Amsterdam, but after reading the inflight magazine I decided to pay a visit to Keukenhof to view the tulips in bloom. The tour desk at Schiphol was very convenient for bookings, so I also scheduled a canal ride for the evening. Transportation between the gardens and the airport, and entry was included in the 12 Euro fee. The gardens were very scenic, much larger than I expected, and very popular with the locals. The canal ride was very commercial but entertaining.

I had booked the Hilton at Schipol for a special rate online, and was quite pleased with it inspite of mediocre reviews on Tripadvisor. It was in a convenient location (I was in the room 1 hour after landing), and the meal at the restaurant was expensive as expected but surprisingly good.

The next morning I left on the flight to Capetown and landed at 2130. I was met and transferred to Kensington Place, a delightful boutique hotel located in Tamboerskloof on the slopes of Table mountain in a quiet residential neighborhood. For my first morning in Cape Town I had scheduled a group half day city tour (The castle/The South African museum/Bo Kaap/Signal hill). We tried to go up table mountain twice, but the cable car was closed because of the winds both times. After a quick lunch back at Kensington Place, I was collected for my private transfer to Grootbos Lodge about a 2 hour drive from Cape Town.

I had made the decision not to drive while on vacation, and didn't regret it. My jet lag was horrendous the first few days, and it would have been awful trying to cope with directions in a strange place while also driving on the other side of the road.
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Apr 25th, 2009, 01:18 AM
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Grootbos consists of two lodges, one for adults, and another for families, but while I was there the adult (Forest lodge) was closed. The focus at Grootbos is mostly on the unique Fynbos flora and fauna. They offer nature walks and 4x4 rides through the surrounding terrain as well as beach walks and horse rides. While there I also went on a scenic boat ride to see the seals on Dyer Island (only 4 penguins!) and tried to see if the Shark diving boats had lured any great whites into the vicinity (they hadn‘t). Reports from other guests (and atravelynn) convinced me to go on the shark diving tour out of Kleinsbaai which costs the same (R1250) whether you get in the shark cage or simply watch from the deck. The shark diving companies will pick you up from Cape Town if necessary. One very important decision was to go with the largest boat available (Great White Shark Dives) , somewhat counterintuitive, but with 15 foot swells, it was the most stable craft out there. We saw people being sick on the smaller boats, and it was easy to see how one of the boats had actually capsized last year. We saw about 5 sharks , apparently they are less active in colder water. The first shark we saw about two hours into the trip and it was huge at 5 meters in length. Two days prior, there was a heat wave and one of the guests at Grootbos told me he saw about 22 sharks on his trip. Most Shark diving boats have morning and afternoon trips, but Great White Shark Dives has one trip a day from about 10 to 3 which allows more time to hunt for sharks. Another tour included a visit to the local township (Masakhane) where most of the lodge staff lived.

After 5 night at Grootbos I was transferred to CPT for the 1 hour flight to Port Elizabeth in the province of Eastern Cape, and then another 2 hour transfer to Kwandwe Lodge for four nights. When I arrived the evening game drive was already in progress, but I was given the option to meet up with them, which I thought was very nice. The lodge was my favorite of the andbeyond locations I’ve stayed in, although this may be influenced by the fact that I was on a private tour rather than group tour. It is on a private concession of what was previously farmland, but has been restocked with game that would have been found there originally. Fish River lodge is reserved for adults with nine chalets perched above the river, Ecca lodge is for families. There were two game drives a day, and during one of them I went on a walking safari tracking a rhino. As it was shoulder season, twice I was the only guest on the drive. The food was very good, and the portions were just right. The quality of my pictures improved dramatically because of my guide Phil’s skill in placing the jeep in the best position for shots.

I've listed some of the animals I saw on the drives. Highlights include lions greeting each other after a prolonged absence, and a lioness killing a warthog. We went looking for leopard but were unsuccessful.
Aardwolf
Antelope: Kudu, Hartebeest, Gemsbok (oryx), Steinbok (Steenbok?),impala, springbok)
Baboons (Chacma)
Bush pigs
Caracal
Cheetah
Elephants (herd and lone bulls)
Giraffe
Jackals (Black backed)
Lion (3 separate prides, cubs of varying ages)
Monkeys (Vervet)
Otters (Clawless Cape)
Porcupines
Rhino (Black and White)
Springhare
Tortoise (leopard)
Warthogs
Wildebeest (black)
Zebra (Plains)

As for birds there were Bulbuls, Fish eagles, Brown hooded Kingfishers, Blue Cranes and the bright blue starlings whose names I forget.

It has become increasingly rare for me to buy any souvenirs on my trips, but I did find a lot of things to my taste in the main gift shop at the lodge (Heatherton towers).

I was driven back to Port Elizabeth and flew to Cape Town for my final night, staying once again at Kensington Place. As my flight did not depart until 2300, I had a private car and driver to catch up on any sights in and around CPT. We started off with a visit to Stellenbosch where I found even more souvenirs (necklaces made from turquoise, jasper, and coral). We gave the wineries a miss and stopped at Spier for the Cheetah Encounter. This was meant to be one of the highlights of my trip but was unfortunately a major dissappointment. The entire visit had a very commercial feel to it. You could visit either the adult or cubs, I chose both. I had run out of Rand, they didn’t accept credit cards, but did accept US dollars (and Euro and Sterling), so I paid $32. The adult cheetah was asleep with his head in the lap of a keeper. You’re given a list of rules prior to the encounter, and you’re encouraged to stroke them (on the back) and ask questions. The guides are volunteers and look to be teenagers or in their early 20s at most. The cubs were about 10 months old, and so were really sub-adult and also asleep. Here I was allowed pictures without the keepers in the shot. None of the cheetah opened their eyes while I was there, which was disappointing, but I do understand they don’t perform on cue. One can only stroke for so long, and the cheetah really didn’t interact, so my visit was over in less than 20 minutes.

Then it was off to Boulder Beach to visit the penguins nesting, and then to Baboon Matters about 10 minutes drive from Boulder Beach for my walk with the Chacma Baboons. The baboons have been habituated to the presence of humans, but are not fed and so do not see humans as a food source. I was lucky that the troop we visited was right at the bottom of the hill about 10 minutes walk from the drop off point. The time I spent with the troop was one of the highlights of my trip, and the two hour visit flew by. Chris, the son of the founder of Baboon matters, was very knowledgeable about baboons in general and the members of the troop in particular. It was a wonderful experience to be among them as they were foraging, grooming, fighting, playing and even (rather indiscreetly) copulating. Chris was able to explain the relationships between the members of the troop and it was rather like a soap opera.

After the baboons we took a drive down to cape point and also paid a visit to the lighthouse. At the end of a very long day, it was back to Kensington Place (a late checkout had been pre-arranged) for a quick shower and to pack before my transfer to the airport for my flight home.
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Apr 25th, 2009, 07:55 AM
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Your alphabetical list is very impressive, starting with the aarwolf, then caracal, clawless otter, porcupine. Some cool stuff.

15 foot swells while on the ocean? I'm getting nauseated just thinking about it. I'd need my Bonine for that. That's good to know the sharks are still around even in this time of year.

Glad you enjoyed the baboon walk. A highlight of my trip too.
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Apr 25th, 2009, 08:40 AM
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The aardwolf and porcupine were very cool, but elusive. The lions stole the show every time. Although I wanted to spend more time tracking other animals, it was hard not to stop and look when the lions started their act.

I found the relationships amongst the baboons to be remarkably similar to the lions.

The waves were quite dramatic. They were handing out Bonine before we left, those who did not take it were very sorry.
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Apr 25th, 2009, 09:56 AM
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The aardwolf and caracal sightings particularly impress me! Maybe some day . . . .
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Apr 25th, 2009, 12:37 PM
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hi femi,

your report brings back memories of the trip we made in 2007, though we only stayed at Grootbos ofr 2 nights. it's a lovely place, but I'm not sure what we'd hve found to do if we'd stayed much longer. PLUS we'd have put on loads of weight due to the food there which was great, but lavish.

what else did you do there?

regards, ann
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Apr 25th, 2009, 01:04 PM
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Hi Ann. Upon my arrival at Grootbos I was very clear with the guide that I wanted the activities to be the focus of my stay at Grootbos, and so he did his best to ensure that I was kept busy. It went something like this:

When I arrived it was too late for any organized activity, so I got a personalized tour of Green Futures, the foundation supported by Grootbos that trains locals to be guides, and for other positions.

Day 2- Scenic Boat Cruise (to Dyer Island) in the AM, Masakhane township tour in the PM where we got to see where our guide lived in the township, and persuaded him to let us stay to watch a soccer game in progress.

Day 3- 4x4 tour of the grounds with a special focus on the Fynbos, vegetation specific to the Western Cape. In the PM we went for a 'Beach Walk' which turned out to be much more physically demanding than we anticipated. There are caves on the beach ( access to which involves some climbing over boulders)in which are the remains of bushmen settlements. I forget how old.

Day 4- Another 4x4 tour this time with resident biologist (?) Brummer per my special request. In the PM I went for a guided forest walk.

Day 5- Shark Viewing trip.

I generally like to be kept busy on vacation, and the guide assured me that if I were to visit again they could arrange more activities that I hadn't already done. For instance there are walks on other beaches. They did a good job of keeping occupied, my primary guide Phindela had even left instructions with the others for what to do with me on his day off!

I'm not a rider so I passed on that activity, but enjoyed visiting the stables and chatting with the staff once or twice a day.
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Apr 25th, 2009, 01:15 PM
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hi femi,

perhaps we were unlucky. we found it quite difficult to find things to do - perhaps because the whale watching trip we'd booked on was cancelled [only after we'd got to the harbour] as the weather was too bad. they didn't seem too good at organising things at last minute.

Eventually, they came up with what they called a 4x4 "flower safari" which was actually excellent, and in the pm we went for a walk around the surrounding woods and saw the education establishment. very interesting, though I'm not sure that our guide believed us when we said that we had cabbages and chickens at home. believe it or not our guide had been sent to Cornwall, [where we live] for a scolarship at the Eden project, so we were able to talk to him about that.

altogether a lovely place, but I'm not sure that it was worth what we paid for it.

regards, ann
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Apr 25th, 2009, 01:20 PM
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Link to photos http://tiny.cc/SouthAfricaPhotos
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Apr 25th, 2009, 01:25 PM
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They were understandably very proud of Green Futures. A couple of the guides told me that before they were accepted they had no prospects of a job otherwise. I found a special rate online, but agree that the rack rates are rather steep.

Also forgot to mention that I was surprised at checkout that lunches were not included. My fault, as it was not stated anywhere that they were incuded, rather an assumption on my part.
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Apr 25th, 2009, 01:57 PM
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hi Femi,

they were definitely included when we were there in 2007. strange they didn't mention that they'd changed that on their website, as there aren't a lot of other places to go!
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Apr 25th, 2009, 07:33 PM
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Femi,
Thanks for the review. The Grootbos website now indicates that a light lunch is included. How rough was the water on trip to Dyer Island? We are planning a short stay at Grootbos in August with a whale watch boat trip that also goes to Dyer Island.
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Apr 26th, 2009, 02:45 AM
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hi spoobs,

when we were there, the whale watching trip was cancelled because it was too rough and therefore dangerous. so like any sea trips, they can be rough. in the end we found one at Plett, which went out in a boat that was more like RIB, so skimmed the waves when it was on the move, though it did of course move with the swell when we stopped to watch the whales.

regards, ann
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Apr 26th, 2009, 09:40 AM
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The water conditions vary from day to day, one day it was flat as glass, and the next quite choppy. No telling till you get there.

The day I went out wasn't too bad, nothing compared to the shark day!
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Apr 27th, 2009, 04:27 PM
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Adorable little baboon. Nice shark shot too. Loved the 3 lions. Looks like the weather was wonderful!

Thanks for the info on Kwandwe.
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Apr 27th, 2009, 05:19 PM
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I was very lucky with the weather. Had one not so fun (drizzling + windy) morning on safari, but the rest was better than I had hoped.
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May 28th, 2009, 08:17 AM
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Loved your report and pix... Can't wait for our time in SA. I refered Bob to your report, so hopefully he will get back to you with questions. Sounds like you had a fab time...Karen
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May 28th, 2009, 04:38 PM
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Thanks Karen SA really was one of my best vacations. They make it very easy for you to have a great time. Can't wait to see how your plans are going.
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Jun 2nd, 2009, 05:25 AM
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Our own trip several years ago was memorable...a safari of course, guided and on our own, at Kruger Nat'l Pk. We also enjoyed several things up in that area...Blyde R. Canyon, Shangaan tribal feast, Pilgrim's Rest, and Maropeng which is a cradle of civilization museum. The Cape is a beautiful area and we stayed for a week further east in a castle over in Plettenberg Bay...including a whale watch. So much to see in this country. Ozarksbill
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Jun 3rd, 2009, 05:00 PM
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I will be stopping at a number of the places you mention when I return to South Africa for a ride on the Shongololo Express. I'm excited about it, but there's very little information available from people who have been on this train in the past.
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