Three weeks in South Africa - a trip report

Oct 1st, 2006, 02:00 PM
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Three weeks in South Africa - a trip report

We're just back from three weeks in South Africa and if I don't start posting something now, the task will grow in my mind until I become Proust and start writing the history of everything. So I'll open a thread and grow it as I can. Pity I can't edit it easily, so apologies for retroactive corrections if they're needed.


Last year we visited South Africa as part of a round-the-world trip that included various stops in Europe, the Middle East, North America and Australia. On the same trip we spent a few days at Chobe National Park in Botswana and a day and a half at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. However our time in SA proper left us desperate for more, so we immediately started planning a return. You can see the trip reports I prepared for the last trip using the grid here:

Fortunately, one of the (many) benefits of the RTW trip was to pad our frequent-flyer accounts (insert plug here for the marvelous American Airlines AAdvantage program) so that we could return to SA this year using miles for a business class award - starting and ending in Prague, where we wanted to visit for other reasons.

So in late August we flew from Seattle to New York, then London. We spent a couple of days in the South of England in order to get our internal clocks set closer to Europe/Africa time zones, then flew on to Prague for just one night. (Our FF award required that we begin and end the trip in the same place since our SA itinerary was an open-jaw - arrive at Johannesburg, leave from Cape Town.)

From Prague we flew to Brussels, then on to Madrid, for an overnight flight in Iberia's new (and quite nice) business class to Joburg, arriving in the late morning to cool sunshine. Story begins.

The basics:

Day 1: Arrive JNB on overnight flight from Prague via Brussels and Madrid, obtain car and drive to Lombardy hotel, Pretoria.
Day 2: Drive to Buffalo Ridge lodge, Madikwe reserve.
Days 3 and 4: Buffalo Ridge.
Day 5: Return to Lombardy/Pretoria.
Day 6: Drive to Nkorho lodge, Sabi Sand reserve.
Days 7 and 8: Nkorho.
Day 9: Drive to Pondoro lodge, Balule reserve.
Days 10 and 11: Pondoro.
Day 12: Drive to Graskop via Panoramic Route; Graskop Hotel.
Day 13: Drive to Cathedral Peak via Ladysmith; Cathedral Peak Hotel.
Day 14: Drive to Colesburg via Bloemfontein; Kuilfontein Stable Cottages.
Day 15: Drive to Addo via Grahamstown; Protea Addo (Zuurberg Mountain Inn.)
Day 16: Addo
Day 17: Drive to Plettenberg Bay via Port Elizabeth and Jeffreys Bay; La Vista Lodge.
Day 18: Plettenberg Bay
Day 19: Drive to Stellenbosch via N2; Roosenwijn Guest House.
Day 20: Visit Kirstenbosch Gardens in morning; afternoon to Cape Town airport; fly to JNB, connect to Zurich and then to Prague.

(Day 14 was originally to have entailed driving from Cathedral Peak to Port St. Johns on the Wild Coast; however we determined that the drive time and road conditions would mean arriving well after dark and having to leave very early the next morning in order to make Addo, so we revised the itinerary. Oh well, next time.)

To cut to the chase - holy moley, far out, shazam, yowzzah. I'll save the opinions and observations for later in this opus, but for now let me say we are still delirious from the beauty and the wildness and the variety and the people and the flowers and the beasts and the roads and the food and… and…. default to sputtering and silence.

Photos may tell thousands of words but that won't stop me from adding more thousands, but I've posted some pix at my new-ish travel website, - I will embellish and replace/add more as I process or evaluate them. Only been home four days; cut me some slack.


We learned of Lombardy last year when we were staying at a game lodge in the Balule reserve (owned by friends of friends.) The general manager of the Lombardy property (which is a large real estate development that includes the hotel) was staying at the same lodge, having been invited by the owners who also happen to be acquaintances of his. They had asked him to look over their operation and make suggestions on what it would take to elevate it from four stars to five. (Note, the standards for star rating are extremely rigid and specific - thread count, types of toiletries provided, blah blah.) He said if we were coming back that he'd make us a deal.

Lombardy is rated 5 stars, and we thought it was lovely and had no complaints save one. We were put in the Executive Suite, which was quite deluxe, except for the sunken (and surrounded by elegant but rather slippery sharp-edged marble flooring) whirlpool hot tub in the overly-sybaritic bath complex, the jets of which had been misaligned so that they created a never-ending vortex in the middle of the circular tub - the whirlpool reaching all the way down to the bottom, then collapsing with a loud sucking noise that echoed throughout the suite. There was no off switch for this, so all night (with us not entirely recovered from jetlag despite a few days in Europe before the overnight flight to Africa) the sucking sound kept repeating, sadly with irregular cadence, you know, like a dog that barks when you're trying to sleep - woof, woof, woof…woofwoof…

When we returned for a night between Madikwe and Sabi Sand, we got the same room. This time, though, my wits were about me and I remembered enough physics to toss an empty plastic pill bottle into the vortex, which created a sufficient irregularity in the shape the funnel so that it never reached the bottom of the tub; problem (mostly) solved.

All three game lodges are rated four stars by the SA tourism authorities. In practice, not all 4-stars are created equal.

Buffalo Ridge is the newest of the three, developed and owned by the local community with assistance from various outside interests, including the Ford Foundation. The plan over time is to transfer day-to-day management responsibilities to local community members; by the end of the 15th year of operations (now in the third) all responsibility is to be borne by the locals. As such the lodge is part tourist resource, part local economic development project, and, evidently, part guinea pig for numerous other communities, in SA and beyond, who are interested in the localization process and the training/capacity building aspects of the operation.

All that said, bloody marvelous pretty well covers it. Fabulously comfortable accommodations without excessive pretense or over-decoration - instead of animal bits or corny paintings or sculpture on the walls, one gets black-and-white photos of community life in the local (owners') villages. Madikwe is not a malaria area; so the rooms have massive sliding doors (with screens) overlooking the plain and the lights of Gaborone in the distance, letting in fresh air and the sounds of the bush at night.

The lodge comprises a main building straddling a gully and ridge, then 8 or so thatched villas lined up on the ridge running up and away from the central complex. Meals are served on an open-air terrace that can be closed off by heavy canvas curtains. It was cold at night when we stayed there; propane space heaters provided more than adequate heat for the delicious and meals that were served after the evening game drives. The food was excellent, interesting, well prepared and beautifully presented; we had absolutely no complaints.

Madikwe is big enough that each game drive (morning and evening) could easily cover different ground; the principal viewing areas during our stay were on the broad grassland/savannah country on the valley floor. Madikwe is a "big five" area, although we saw leopard tracks but no leopards. On the other hand, we had numerous rhino sightings including many very close encounters, lots of lions, hyena, elephants, giraffe, zebra and all the usual suspects. We saw wild dogs at a great distance, but heard them (closer) on several occasions. Moremi, our ranger, is a local as are all the principal staff, and elaborated wonderfully on local beliefs, medicinal uses of various plants, and on village life and the economics of the lodge and game reserve business. Moremi happens also to be the chairman of the community council, thus one of the managing directors of the lodge.

While in retrospect the game viewing was not of the class we saw later at Sabi Sand (not poor by any means, and more an open feeling than the more enclosed sense of Sabi Sand) we would return to Buffalo Ridge in a heartbeat; drawn by the warmth of the people, the excellent accommodations, the ease of getting there (less than half the time required to get to the Kruger-border lodges) and especially the integration of the community into the lodge enterprise. Moremi mentioned that other communities are watching Buffalo Ridge closely, hoping that it succeeds and can become a prototype for other community economic development activities in tourism and game areas. We hope so too.

It took us quite a bit longer to get to Nkorho than I had figured; the N4 to Nelspruit was fast enough, but the R40 north to the turnoff to Sabi Sand was quite a lot longer and slower than I calculated, albeit scenic, passing through orange, banana, and eucalyptus groves, over ridges and through bustling market towns and villages. Navigation was no problem, but we pulled up to the Gowrie Gate to Sabi right about sundown, and finally arrived at the lodge at pretty much last light, obviously missing the evening game drive.

So, Nkorho. Named after the Shangaan word for the (sound made by the) Hornbill, which is also the lodge's logo.

I want to be diplomatic and accurate but not sugar coat the scene. Maybe it was best described in the words of another guest, a South African expat who's lived in San Francisco for many years, who was visiting with wife and college-age kids and two grandparents (both still resident in Joburg). He said Nkorho was like stepping back in time 25 years, and he meant it with both good and bad feelings.

Good in that it wasn't fancy, but comfortable and not pretentious in the least. And that's for sure - the hosts and staff were nice folks; the accommodations were old-fashioned but clean and in working order, if not having the thread counts or herbal essences of Buffalo Ridge. It felt like a high-end camp; more akin to the sorts of older lodges one might encounter in the Canadian Rockies or maybe the Adirondacks, compared to the infinity-pool-at-your-doorstep luxury of some of the other Sabi complex lodges.

Bad in that it didn't feel terribly connected to the current South Africa. Meals were announced by the beating of a big ole drum with "African rhythms." One night around the boma (all evening meals served in a semicircle around the fire) the kitchen staff were compelled to do a "traditional dance" gig before the squirming guests. I did not get the feeling that any of them felt especially like dancing, frankly. Elephant leg planters in the lounge, the real thing. I'm not a PC freak, but this was a little disconcerting after the experience at Buffalo Ridge. The rangers were very nice young white guys fresh from ranger school. They were knowledgeable but frankly not in the same league as evidenced by Moremi's connectedness at Buffalo Ridge,

The food was - honestly - pretty poor compared to that which preceded (Buffalo Ridge) and followed (Pondoro.) I think maybe there had been a recent change in cooking duties with the current chef having to fill in; there was a lot of tinned fruit salad and chicken that kept reappearing - baked on night one, curried on night two, etc. Nkorho is rated four stars (same as Buffalo Ridge and Pondoro) but I bet a reviewer would have a hard time renewing that score.

HOWEVER, the game viewing… now that was altogether another matter. One game drive, 2 hours, second morning: big six (five plus cheetah.) Leopards and hyenas and lions and rhinos - all at close range, as in 5 meters or less from the vehicles. Absolutely stunning.

Sabi is a different feeling than Madikwe - no wide grasslands; mainly savannah with a few ravines and lots more trees suitable for leopard lounging. Although the Sabi Sand reserve is enormous (and connected to the vast Kruger Park complex) the general feeling was more intimate than Madikwe. Spring also seemed to be a little further along - more grass and green trees.

Highlights… Well, how about mating leopards? Last year, we watched lions mating at Balule, this year leopards… maybe we should go for photos of all of the big five doing the wild thing? (Also we could work on the "little five" in the same vein. At Addo we saw Leopard Tortoises doing it; how hard could it be to spot Lion Ants, Buffalo Weavers, Rhinoceros Beetles or Elephant Shrews in the act?)

Sabi Sand did not fail to deliver on the promise of abundant wildlife and easy viewing. Simply marvelous and worthy of many return trips, budget willing.

The drive from Sabi Sand to Balule is quite short (under two hours), so were able to arrive at Pondoro in ample time for the evening game drive the first night.

Pondoro is a neighboring lodge to the one we stayed at last year (Ezulwini.) We would have returned to Ezulwini this time, save for the fact that it was fully booked by a large party led by a South African couple who are friends of ours in Seattle (they being the connection to Ezulwini that we used last year.) Our friends, who left SA many years ago, are returning for a year's volunteer work (he's a doc) and have convinced three other couples who are friends of theirs in Seattle, all Africa virgins, to accompany them on a six-week camping tour of SA, Botswana and Namibia - Joburg to Balule to Okavango to Chobe, down the Caprivi Strip and over to Etosha, some Skeleton Coast time, then down the Atlantic side to Cape Town. We had breakfast with the group one morning and there was a bit of deer-in-the-headlights look about them; it was their third morning in Africa and they were about to depart in two rented Land Rovers-with-snorkels on their bush journey. Good luck with that.

Well, I want to put in a huge plug for Pondoro. It seems Balule doesn't get a lot of N. American traffic - they seem to market more to the German/Scandinavian markets, but it's a great operation and worthy of consideration. The lodge comprises a central meeting/dining complex with terraces overlooking the Olifants River; rooms are lovely, spacious thatched bungalows spaced a few meters apart running parallel to the river. Again, big sliding (screened) doors onto wide decks (but elevated so no major beasties have access, monkeys excepted; great showers-with-view, fabulous beds, linens, etc.

Lize, the chef and assistant manager (Robbie, the owner and chief ranger is a constant presence too) produces some of the finest food we've had anywhere. Seriously, she could move right into a lead chef position at any major-city restaurant we know, and hold her own and then some. Dishes were delicious, gave respect for local or traditional ingredients, were creative, and served up with whimsy and glorious presentations. Our meals at Pondoro were - by far - the best we've had in several holidays and vacations, including New York and other foodie destinations.

Balule is not in Sabi Sand's (or even Madikwe's) league for wildlife viewing, but Robbie's passion and knowledge of the local environment more than compensates. No, there weren't leopards at the roadside, but there were groups of accessible lions, plenty of giraffe, zebra, elephants, and all sorts of other four-legged folk. Where Balule shown, though, was birds. Owls, hornbills, rollers… For example, we're driving down some cut road and Robbie slams the brakes. Points into a tree and says, "Owl in the nest." Sure enough, given time, we see that a clump of twigs in a middle-low branch has a peephole through which one can see the yellow eye of a sleeping owl, looking cozy and safe in his/her wee nest. A little thing, maybe, but the sort of spotting that really brings the bush alive. Robbie is so passionate that we were joking that he probably goes on game drives even if there are no guests, just him and his gonzo SLR and lenses. Former account turned game lodge owner. How bad is that?

To be continued below…
Gardyloo is offline  
Oct 1st, 2006, 02:40 PM
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Wow! Wonderful report and looking forward to more!
moremiles is offline  
Oct 1st, 2006, 06:04 PM
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Great report on places that are not often the subject of reports. You had some super game viewing too.
atravelynn is offline  
Oct 1st, 2006, 07:02 PM
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Hi! Sounds like you had a good trip. Which part of the Sabi Sands is Nkohoro located? Do they have their own traversing area or are the drives shared with neighboring properties? Your game viewing sounded fantastic!!!


P.S: Lots of lodges in the Sabi Sands have similar boma dinners and dancing and singing....
Oct 1st, 2006, 08:25 PM
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I don't know anything from Nkorho from experience, but they have the best LIVE webcam ever .
Just look for yourselves :
and see :Nkorho stream
HildeV is offline  
Oct 2nd, 2006, 06:02 AM
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Gardyloo, welcome back. I have not had a chance to give this a close read--looking forward to it and more istallments.
bat is offline  
Oct 2nd, 2006, 06:21 AM
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(Hari, Nkorho is adjacent to the Djuma properties and has traversing rights in that part of the Sabi Sands, not the Mala Mala portion which is separated by a big firebreak.)

To continue…

Other hotels and accommodations: The Graskop Hotel is a very comfortable small hotel in the Panoramic Route village of Graskop. After a morning and afternoon gawking at the Three Rondavels and God's Window (loving the "Keep God's Window Clean" signs) our one night there was completely satisfying. One thing to note is the marvelous collection of art on display throughout the hotel - a quite eclectic array of sculpture, paintings, fiber pieces - found objects - well worth a browse next time you're in Graskop. Dinner was consumed at Harrie's Pancakes, a couple of doors away. Oh My God.

Cathedral Peak Hotel couldn't have been more different. This really was a step back in time - think Lake Louise or even Grossinger's - lots of programs, a separate kids' dining room, golf, fishing… comfortable rooms with great views of the stunning mountain scenery, a dining room where your table is assigned and woe betide you sit somewhere else next time for your roast meat-and-many-sides buffet style meal. One night there couldn't possibly do it justice, nor the area, but one night was all we had.

The drive to Cathedral Peak from the KZN lowlands was an amazing experience. The evening we approached from the west, the mountains were concealed in the haze until the last 20km or so. But what a 20km - past amazing Zulu villages with sheer peaks in the background, clear streams, healthy-looking cattle in the narrow mountain road… by the time we actually could see Cathedral Peak we were utterly gobsmacked by the scenery and the scene. This area, I gather, is not heavily visited by North Americans, and indeed almost all the voices we heard in the enormous dining room were South African. The word really should go forth that this is a spectacular part of the country.

At dinner at Cathedral Peak we started chatting with the people at the adjoining table, a pleasant couple from Pietermaritzburg. The asked us our itinerary, and I said we were planning to drive the next day to Port St John's at the south end of the Wild Coast, and to Addo Elephant Park the following day. They looked at me and said, nicely, are you nuts? I had estimated around 7 hours driving time to PSJ, and the same again to Addo. No, try 10 or 11 both times, on awful roads with livestock and other things jumping out of the dark at you. Change your plans. Nicely.

So we did, and instead of staying on the beach the next night, found ourselves in the Great Karoo, staying at an historic farm-cum-horse ranch operation called the Kuilfontein Stable Cottages.

Just that - the former stables have been converted into picturesque (rather low-ceilinged) guest rooms, bar and dining room, hosted by the very friendly Penny and Leigh, along with several dogs, cats, and numerous horses and other domesticated creatures whinnying and making their presence known all night.

A quite wonderful find, excellent conversation over dinner and then the following morning with the hosts and other guests - highly recommended after a long day's drive through the Great Karoo, the countryside of which is, by the way, a dead ringer for most of Montana or North Dakota. Except for the ostriches.

Our next stop was to be Addo Elephant park, on the coast near Port Elizabeth. On leaving Colesburg we discovered big signs announcing that the direct road (the N10) was to be closed for much of the day (every day) for construction near the turnoff to Addo, so we detoured to the east, via the interesting and historic university-dominated Grahamstown. This meant we arrived at our next lodgings, the Zuurberg Mountain Inn (now affiliated with the Protea chain) an hour or two later than we had planned, but still in plenty of time to enjoy a lovely sunset and (now daily ritual) Savannah Cider at the hotel.

The Zuurberg Mountain Inn is in the mountains above the Addo Elephant Park, accessed by a twisty and in places quite sheer dirt road that passes through amazing foliage and offers broad vistas over the plains below. The hotel is quite old - probably closing in on 100 years - and comprises an old-fashioned central lodge with wood plank floors, big fireplace (with fire - needed in the evenings during our stay) dining and recreation rooms, and a few attached rooms. Our room, like 20 or so others, was a thatched rondavel set on a hillside a few yards from the main buildings. We had a good view of the nearby hills and the very nearby Vervet monkeys in the trees outside the door. The room was comfortable enough; however the lack of air conditioning would make it pretty intolerable in the summer, I'll wager. As for us, we needed the heat on rather then the cooling.

Food at the hotel was workmanlike and no more - roast meat and overcooked sides, that sort of thing, but the place was friendly and we enjoyed chatting with the manager over his tales of working around N. America in the hotel/resort trade.

We spent two nights at the Zuurberg, in order to take a day for laundry and also to spend half a day self-driving through the Elephant Park, half an hour down the mountain from the hotel. After the previous lodges, the green and wildflower-strewn scene at Addo came as a shock. Seeing elephants in fields of daisies is quite a ways from seeing them dining on dry twigs and tree roots. We seriously enjoyed Addo and would strongly suggest it as a low-energy and quite easy introduction into game viewing and reserves.

The final portion of our grand tour of South Africa was to be the Garden Route, ending in Cape Town for a quick visit to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens (which we had missed last year due to weather.)

The drive from Addo through Port Elizabeth was less scenic that I had expected, partly due to virtually our only gray and overcast day. But our mood changed abruptly when we drove into Jeffreys Bay. Cowabonga.

See, forty years ago, I was in the audience at the Hermosa Beach Auditorium when this guy named Bruce Brown premiered a little documentary film he had put together called The Endless Summer. The movie followed four (extremely clean-cut) surfers around the world as they searched for the Perfect Wave. (I had grown up in the neighboring town to Hermosa, went to high school the same time as the Beach Boys - who by the way were technically hodads since they came mostly from Torrance - and had been surfing, badly, for several years. Up to then "surf" movies had been Frankie and Annette jobs that were a little to the left of realistic, shall we say. So this movie - a documentary, although that term wasn't much used then, was A BIG DEAL.)

Anyway, the surfers in the movie have lots of fun adventures in Hawaii, Australia, and various other places, before they discover The Perfect Wave at an unknown beach at a tiny village in South Africa called Jeffreys Bay, the Perfect Wave being defined as a hollow tube where you can ride completely surrounded by an arc of water, one wave after another.

"J Bay" wasn't much of a place in 1966, but it sure is now, with surf shops and food stores and hotels and B&Bs and hostels from one beach to the next. Oddly, I asked (even some older types) if they had heard of the film, which in the US had totally energized the whole surfing scene, and they answered no. I need to see the movie again to see if maybe there was something deemed political in it lo those years ago.

But… the waves at the "Super Tubes" beach on the east end of town? Just like in the movies. Perfect curls, one after another. The dozen or so wet-suit-clad surfers we watched were patient to pick big, rather than just perfect, waves, which rolled to the beach in perfect sets. Watching from a platform at the top of the bluff, I found myself regressing and mouthing "outside!" when my perspective allowed me to see a big unit approaching. But the surfers were pretty good and usually saw the big ones too. We spent quite a while watching the surfers and walking on the beach. Can't say I was ready to go find some wax and baggies, but it was great to see the real thing after all these years.

We continued along the coast to Plettenberg Bay for our two-night overnight in the Garden Route, booking into a bed-and-breakfast that appeared in the same guidebook we'd used to find the stables. La Vista is a lovely modern house perched above the Plettenberg lagoon and estuary, offering marvelous views of the sea (complete with numerous whales during our stay) and the mountains on the far side of the bay. Comfortable verging on luxurious accommodations, manager Michele one of the best, great breakfasts, friendly dogs… what's not to like?

I wasn't sure exactly what to expect of the Garden Route, except for grand scenery (which it certainly offers in places.) First, it's much more extensive than I thought, and second, I guess I thought it would merge somewhat seamlessly into the wine route at the western edge. Maybe it does technically, but the drive from Plettenberg Bay to Stellenbosch on our next-to-last day took a lot longer than I thought, through a lot of very open country - not Karoo (or even Little Karoo) open, but big inland vistas, endless rolling hills with mountains behind, not the maritime-dominated scene I had expected. Not unhappy, mind you; it was just different from my expectations. One thing that SA constantly hits you with is a larger-than-life scale of things.

Our final night was at the Roosenwijn bed and breakfast in Stellenbosch, which we picked for convenience to the airport the next day, plus we had enjoyed our short stay in that picturesque old university town last year. Roosenwijn is a comfortable place, albeit with rather smallish rooms. Friendly and with an excellent breakfast, it's worth its 3 stars. We really didn't spend enough time around the premises to form any strong opinions.

And then it was back to Prague and the remainder of the trip.

To be concluded with stories, views and opinions…
Gardyloo is offline  
Oct 2nd, 2006, 07:20 AM
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Thanks Gardlyloo, sounds good-nkohoro

Oct 2nd, 2006, 07:39 AM
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This "older type" (Durban born and "bred" although a yachtie rather than a surfer in those days) certainly remembers The Endless Summer. Perhaps your "older types" weren't old enough. Or had a deprived childhood.

I'm trying to remember where I saw it. It was certainly in Durbs, and if it was 1966 then I would have been at varsity there then. So far I can't remember exactly where I saw it (don't say it!). I'm pretty certain it wasn't in a regular cinema, but in a church hall or similar. But if I'm right about that, it wouldn't have been anything political. More likely simply that we weren't as spoiled for choice in those days as we are now, and it just didn't make the regular circuit.

BTW, one of my other activities in those days and for many years later, was hiking in those Drakensberg mountains. And I probably spent more time in the Cathedral area than any other. It gets more interesting when you hike right into it, or (better still) get to the top. (The Cathedral range is a kind of "offshoot" from the main 'berg, but you can get to the top from that area in more than one way. And then hike North towards the "Amphitheatre" wall, which is where the change in altitude to the foothills is the most steep. Or towards the South, where the scenery is somewhat different. Less of a gradient, and longer valleys.
ArthurSA is offline  
Oct 2nd, 2006, 07:47 AM
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I presume you had a look in the Cathedral Peak Hotel chapel? (Assuming it's still there, it's been a long while since I was last in the hotel grounds, although I've been in the area.) Built after I first started going to the area, and designed to frame (on a clear day) Cathedral Peak and the Bell peak in the altar window.
ArthurSA is offline  
Oct 2nd, 2006, 08:02 AM
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Loving your report and all the detail! THANK YOU and keep it coming!
Kavey is offline  
Oct 2nd, 2006, 09:17 AM
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Gardyloo: I am so glad that you had such a fabulous experience at Buffalo Ridge! Yours is the first report I have seen on it since my stay in March and your description is spot on and reflects the way I felt when I stayed there. Glad to hear Moremi is still spreading the knowledge as well!

I feel a slight need to preach. Certainly vacation is not a time of obligation but I would urge anyone to consider staying at Buffalo Ridge, especially if you are interested in Madikwe -- a fascinating recreation of an entire Africa system from scratch. Keep in mind this is an easy compliment to a Botswana safari and will produce rhinos that will not be seen there unless staying at Mombo/Chiefs/or if you are exceptionally lucky Chitabe and greatly increases your chances to see wild dogs. Not only is it a tremendous experience but it is critical that this model of community ownership thrives. If this model works entire communities can increase their economic standing and it will lead to restorations of wildlands (Madikwe was created from beaten down grazing lands) in the name of economic development instead of habitat destruction for short term subsistence. Putting all the economic benefits into the community is so much bigger than simply creating some tourism jobs and this can be a key in expanding the African wildlife that is dwindling and at the same time uplift people in so much need for economic growth. Your stay here can help make a big difference and you will be amply rewarded with a genuinely beautiful experience.

Sorry for hijacking and I look forward to the rest of your excellent report!
PredatorBiologist is offline  
Oct 2nd, 2006, 08:40 PM
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Pompous conclusion…

I don't want to belabor the obvious. Our visit through South Africa only served to fan the flames. Mountains like the Rockies, plains and prairies, green hillsides plunging into blue seas populated by jumping whales; historic towns and gorgeous vineyards; the challenge of brave people working for enormous social transformation; leopards in trees and elephants in daisies… oh come on, how can one NOT want as much of this as one can absorb?

We put almost 5000 km on the odometer in our rented car. That sounds like a lot, and it was, but we covered just a tiny fragment of this big and amazingly diverse country. We still haven't seen the Wild Coast, or the Little Karoo, or virtually anything of the Limpopo, KZN, or Northern Cape provinces; Greater Johannesburg is still mainly an unknown, as is Durban, Hluhluwe/Umfolozi/St Lucia… the list is oh so long.

And we haven't begun peeling the vast onion that is the complex society of today's South Africa. One troubling thing we noticed is that it's very easy for white foreign visitors to spend weeks in South Africa where contact with non-white South Africans is actually very limited, and severely limited when it comes to professional black people. Maybe it's embarrassing that we didn't go out of our way to find such connections, but aside from game drive spotters and rangers, clerical or service people in shops, hotels, restaurants, etc., the occasions to make those connections are quite rare. One of our aims is to break the back of that barrier in our next trip. We both have some professional affiliations that have SA counterparts, and we intend to develop those links so that the next time we'll have a better chance of crossing that line.

And an onion it is. Last year in our first visit we were so knocked out by the physical beauty and the wildlife, that while we noted the cultural diversity and complexity of the place, it really didn't sink in. This time, we started getting a glimpse of the many-layered mixture of race, class, language, age, regionalism…how Afrikaaner society mixes with English-speakers, how empowerment has impacted on a black culture which is far from homogenous or integrated or equal… it's a hugely complicated scene, and fascinating beyond words.

Just the TV shows are eye-openers; sitcoms with Afrikaans-speaking black folk; dramas that portray a professional-class black population interacting with whites that is either largely wishful thinking, or evidence of such a revolution in a dozen years that the mind boggles - or simply TV being employed as propaganda…

Twice we were told versions of the same story, about a black American who had come to (Soweto, Cape Town) to get in touch with his African heritage (knowing it was assuredly West African, not South African) only to be rebuffed by locals who said words to the effect, "You are the sons of slaves and we are the sons of kings."

More than anything we need to set aside our (American, but it could also be western European) sensibilities when confronting South Africa. We are accustomed to "minority rights" meaning rights for people of color. Obviously that's an upside-down concept in South Africa. Apartheid was a terrible evil, but it was different, and the relationships far different, from slavery and the post-slaver societies of the Americas and Europe. Economic oppression is certainly a big part of South Africa's heritage, but of a different kind than in other parts of the world. It's always hard for visitors to see a place with local eyes, but in South Africa one must really try to open one's mind and subdue ingrained assumptions and behaviors based on a very different political, racial and economic heritage.

Heavy thoughts, but like I said last year, with such a huge palate, and such intense colors, and such incredible potential, South Africa is worthy of the mental workout needed to get a handle on the things that are unfolding there. Last year I said that the overall spirit we felt was one of optimism, and I'm still holding to that view. Of course one can't summarize anything when 44 million people are concerned, but we still got the sense that people are looking forward to things getting better - more equitable, more prosperous, more open. With those aims achieved, in a country so overflowing with beauty and resources and potential… well, wouldn't that be something?

Planning for the next trip has begun.

I'll be glad to entertain questions or comments, critical or otherwise.
Gardyloo is offline  
Oct 3rd, 2006, 07:17 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 987
Gardyloo, what a great trip report!

Your comments about the country and people of SA are great -- now you know why Jim and I keep going back, year after year. After our nearly twenty visits, we love the feeling that while we feel so at home, we also feel that there's so much more to discover.
Celia is offline  
Oct 3rd, 2006, 01:12 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 6,003
Wonderfully informative and entertaining narrative, 'loo; you well deserve a madeleine or two.
DonTopaz is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 07:29 PM
Join Date: Oct 2006
Posts: 371
Your trip sounds quite wonderful--especially some of the seemingly unsual places you visited; had I known about Buffalo Ridge before we planned--and confirmed--the majority of our trip, it sounds like a very special place to visit. Maybe next time. We arrive in Capetown on November 22, and have our itinerary (Cape Town--4 days, Botswana, six, Namibia--3, Winelands--3/2--confirmed until December 7th--and then have until the night of the 10th open. We may wind up staying in Cape Town and taking day trips--or driving along the Atlantic Coast--but if you have any suggestions from your trip--or places you would have liked to get to closer to the Western Cape that are doable in the short time we have, I'd love to hear them. We love to hike, and won't have had the chance to do any before this open time.

520 is offline  
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