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New Zealand, Part 2(b): South Island, continued

Here is the third and final part of our New Zealand adventure, covering the remainder of our time on the South Island. Check out parts one and two if you haven’t already.

The Catlins

The Catlins

From Te Anau, our next stop was an area called The Catlins, in the far south of the South Island. Al and I had both been looking forward to The Catlins, but it turned out to be one of my least favorite parts of the trip. It’s not that the scenery in The Catlins isn’t impressive — it is! very! — but the weather was so utterly hideous that it was hard for me to enjoy it. I grew up in Michigan and I thought I knew from variable weather, but The Catlins was a whole new ballgame. Within seconds, we’d watch the sky turn from sunny to ominous gray and then start to rain, which would then progress into hail, and then snow, and then back again, over and over. The entire day that we drove through The Catlins, we were barraged with a mix of rain, hail, and snow, punctuated by brief moments of sunshine. Even when the sun was out, though, it was still bitterly cold (hence the snow flurries), and I spent a lot of time sitting in the van with the heater on full blast while Al would hop out to take photos, and then rush back in.

My view from the van as Al took pictures

My view from the van as Al took pictures

It was also really windy, so driving along the treacherous, winding coastal roads often felt perilous, as our van rocked back and forth with each gust of wind.

Sure was windy!

Sure was windy!

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We stayed at a campsite that was sort of in the middle of nowhere (like most things in The Catlins, I guess) and no-frills. Let me assure you that getting up to use the (unheated) facilities in the middle of a rainstorm was not awesome. Neither was being passively aggressively told off by some lady in a giant RV in the morning for making too much noise while opening my van door to go to the bathroom at midnight. (EXCUSE ME FOR BEING PREGNANT, LADY. Sheesh.) Anyway, we did see some really cool stuff in The Catlins, like Slope Point (the southernmost point in NZ), and we had a really good meal on the road (at the Beachhouse Cafe in Riverton), but I was ready to be done with the whole area after a day or so of crazy weather.

It was necessary to bundle up.

It was necessary to bundle up.

We fled The Catlins for Dunedin, known by Kiwis as “the Edinburgh of the South.” Dunedin, at first glance, is sort of unremarkable, especially compared with the in-your-face scenery along the west coast of the South Island that we passed through to get there. But it’s sneakily charming in an understated, Scottish way. Al and I didn’t get up to much in Dunedin other than a bit of sightseeing and eating, but it was a pleasant, low-key stop for us. In town, we visited the Otago Settlers’ Museum, which turned out to be really interesting. Dunedin was settled by Scots, and the city still retains a strong sense of Scottish heritage (hence, Al noted that everyone in Dunedin looked like they could have been related to him). At the Settlers’ Museum, they had a room where you could put on Scottish settlers’ outfits and pose in front of a backdrop. Al’s picture was pretty authentic.

Hard to get more Scottish than this!

Hard to get more Scottish than this!

After Dunedin, we drove north toward Christchurch, but we made a few stops along the way, including in Oamaru, the steampunk capital of NZ. Steampunk is, according to Wikipedia, a “sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century.” Oamaru lends itself well to being a steampunk center since its main street is lined with limestone buildings from the 19th century, giving the whole place a Victorian feel. Oamaru seems to have embraced the Victorian/steampunk theme wholeheartedly; there’s even a steampunk-themed playground. We checked out Steampunk HQ, a weird and fairly creepy museum stuffed with odd bits of machinery and art, blending Victorian era technology and the macabre.

He has a license to operate this.

He has a license to operate this.

A rough-and-tumble steampunk penguin we found working in the yard.

A rough-and-tumble steampunk penguin we found working in the yard.

Steampunk HQ light show

Steampunk HQ light show

The day we visited Oamaru happened to be Al’s birthday, so we stopped in a Victorian-style hotel for a beer (for Al) and a flat white (for me), and browsed through some of the little artists’ shops along the main street. We also popped into the Whitestone Cheese Company to taste some of the local delights. We demolished a full cheese board as a snack (don’t judge us) and then got on the road to Christchurch.

Birthday beer in Oamaru

Birthday beer in Oamaru

Christchurch was devastated by a series of huge earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and is still rebuilding. I think because of this, Al and I had a hard time getting a feel for the city, much of which is still under scaffolding. Part of the problem, too, was that it was raining for most of the time we were there, and a lot of the activities we had read about in our trusty Lonely Planet guide were outdoors. To wait out the rain, we went to the movies (Gone Girl) and by the time we emerged, the weather had cleared, so we strolled around Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens. It must be a sign of how old and boring we’ve become, but Al and I do love a nice botanic garden. This one reminded us a lot of Cambridge (UK), which is intentional, since Christchurch was settled by the English (The Canterbury Association, in fact) and was designed to mimic an English city. Like any good English city, Christchurch had some good Indian food, so Al and I celebrated his birthday eating delicious curry and naan at a restaurant called Himalayas.

At the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

At the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

Our last pit-stop on the South Island before catching the ferry back to Wellington was Kaikoura, a beautiful spot known for whale (and other wildlife) watching. We parked our van next to a roadside seafood barbecue place, ate some scallops and chowder, and then checked out the seals that were hanging around on the rocks. The seals seemed unfazed by the fact that there were people right there, snapping photos and gawping at them.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura

Al and a seal

Al and a seal

After taking our seal photos, we loaded into the van and headed back to Picton to catch the ferry to the North Island. I was sad to leave the South Island; we had seen so many incredible things there. One of the things that struck Al and me most about driving around New Zealand — especially the South Island — was the fact that you could pull off to the side of the road almost anywhere and see something breathtakingly beautiful. Most of the things we saw from our van window weren’t listed in our guide or on any map; there’s just too much to see in New Zealand to even begin to list all of it. The whole country is bursting with hidden treasures. For example, on our way out of Dunedin, we pulled off in a little town called Waitati to get a coffee and try whitebait, a local delicacy (it was okay).

Sampling whitebait in Waitati

Sampling whitebait in Waitati

We’d pulled over not because we’d read about Waitati anywhere, but because I had seen a sign on the side of the road for a Sunday market, and figured it’d be as good a place as any to stop and get a flat white. At the little market, as we were drinking our coffees and eating our whitebait sandwich on white bread, we were approached by a kind of wacky looking lady who smelled strongly of patchouli. She wanted to tell us about the Greenpeace campaign she was working on to stop offshore oil drilling in New Zealand. We listened politely as she told us about her campaign and then she began telling us about Waitati and its alternative culture (which includes a local “pirate queen“). She also mentioned that just down the road, there was a beach where blue penguins roosted. She assured us that no tourists knew about the beach and we should check it out. So, we drove down a couple of winding roads, following the signs to Doctor’s Point, and ended up at this beautiful, empty beach.

Doctor's Point, Waitati

Doctor’s Point, Waitati

We didn’t end up seeing any penguins (the tide was up and it was hard to get to their nesting area), but the place was beautiful, and there was hardly anyone else there. Al and I agreed that if this beach had been in any other country, it would have been written up as a must-see destination, but the fact is, NZ is lousy with tiny, untouched beaches. All you have to do is wander a little and you’ll find them.

Doctor's Point - Al is the little speck in the distance

Doctor’s Point – Al is the little speck in the distance

Overall, Al and I agreed that New Zealand was one of our best trips ever. It had its highs (scenery! penguins! seals!) and its lows (being pregnant in a van with no toilet! hail!), but what good trip doesn’t? We will always remember our pre-baby adventure in NZ fondly. I’m so glad we went and I recommend it strongly to anyone else who’s thinking of taking a great adventure.

 

Portugal, part one — the Dão wine region: heavy on biking, light on wine.

This past week, Alastair and I took a vacation to Portugal. It had been on the top of my list of places to visit for years, and since we hadn’t gotten a chance to go while we were in London, as soon as Al got the opportunity for vacation, we took it. (Incidentally, for my insane husband, who has traveled more than anyone I know, Portugal was his 99th country visited. 99th!! We think he’s going to hit 100 this summer when we go to Belize. Like I said: insane (in the membrane)). Anyway, our trip can be neatly divided into three parts: 1) the Dão wine region; 2) Sintra; and 3) Lisbon. So, without further ado, I give you: Portugal, part one: the Dão.

Azulejo, Nelas train station

Azulejo, Nelas train station

In the Dão, we hoped to bike through lush vineyards while stopping frequently to taste wine. That was pretty much our entire plan. But, as we soon found out, things would not go exactly to plan.

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Making the best of things = kind of our strong suit.

Immediately upon arriving in Portugal, we took a couple of trains from Lisbon to Santa Comba Dão, the tiny town where we’d be staying at an agro-tourism cabin. We have no real interest in agro-tourism, unless you consider drinking large amounts of wine to be agro-tourism, but the place we were staying, Quinta da Abelenda, advertised that it was situated near a bunch of vineyards, and it rented out bikes, so it sounded perfect for our purposes. We pictured ourselves biking idly along country roads, stopping every couple of kilometers to booze it up in some beautiful vineyard. I had a really clear vision of us laughing over a baguette and clinking wine glasses in a sun-dappled meadow. What a fool I was!

Quinta da Fata

Quinta da Fata

We arrived in Santa Comba Dão quite late at night and went to bed as soon as we got in, after lighting the cozy wood stove in the cabin. The next morning, we were eager to get a move on our wine adventure, so we asked the proprietor of the establishment what route we should take. He seemed utterly baffled by the idea that visitors to the well-known wine region in which he owns tourist lodgings would be interested in tasting wine. He literally — literally — scratched his head with confusion and told us that it would perhaps be possible, in some theoretical sense of the word, to taste wine, in the same way that going to Jupiter is possible. But he didn’t have any clear ideas on how we would go about doing it.

Wood stove in our cabin

Wood stove in our cabin

We decided, since we had gotten a late start on the day, to just try for a full day of wine tasting the next day, and take the bikes out instead, assuming that we’d pass at least a few wineries along the way. Our cabin was situated along the Ecopista do Dão, a paved biking and walking path that stretches ~50 km (~30 miles) from Santa Comba Dão to the bustling city of Vizeu. So we set off on our bikes for a leisurely journey.

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Fifty kilometers and zero wineries later, we were crabby, sore, hot, starving, and thirsty. We walked our bikes around Vizeu, a pretty disappointing town, considering the vast effort expended to get there, until we found a restaurant, where we shoved food into our mouths like urchins. When it was time to go, I found that my butt was actually too tender from the last three hours of biking in jeans to remount a bike, so we found a bus to take us back to Santa Comba Dão. After quite a to-do involving taking the wheels and the handlebars off the bikes so that they’d fit in the hold of the bus, and then struggling to put everything back together again once we arrived at our destination, we sighed with relief to be back in Santa Comba Dão, butts intact. However, we found that the bus had dropped us off quite far from the cabin, and since I physically could ride no more, we had to walk our bikes several miles back to the cabin, as it was getting dark. Then we got lost. I think the low point was walking our bikes in the pitch dark along the side of a highway, semis and cars roaring by us, with no clear idea of where the hell we were. I should also add that we were hungry, I was cold, and, as I’ve already mentioned, my butt hurt. Not my finest moment.

Ecopista path

Ecopista path

The next day, we awoke with renewed vigor, determined to go wine tasting if it killed us. Long story short: the Dão did not feel like opening its welcoming arms to two eager wine tourists, and we were stymied at every turn. Long story long: We took a train to a town called Nelas, where we had heard that there might be wineries that actually allow people to taste their wines. After fruitlessly driving around in a taxi and passing several wineries, none of which were open, we finally made it to Quinta da Fata, a beautiful winery that, lo and behold, had wine available for tasting! [Cue heavenly choir!]

Lemon tree at Quinta da Fata

Lemon tree at Quinta da Fata

Although Quinta da Fata does not do traditional “tastings,” the bottles are very cheap (and very good!), so they encourage people to just buy a bottle and sit outside to drink it. So we did that, and it was lovely. The woman who owns the place was very kind and gave us an extensive tour of the winemaking facilities, the house, and the bed and breakfast, all of which were empty when we were there. After sitting in the sun, admiring the view, and sipping some wine, we left feeling optimistic about our prospects for finding other nice wineries in the area. That optimism ended up being misplaced, because the next place we went, while open, told us they couldn’t do a tasting because the wines “weren’t the right temperature” (huh?), so we just bought a couple of bottles and took the train back to Santa Comba Dão, accepting defeat.

Tiled bench at Quinta da Fata

Tiled bench at Quinta da Fata

That evening, we sat out on our porch at the cabin, admired the horses, dogs, chickens, and cats that came to say olá, drank some of the wine we had bought, ate prosciutto and sheep’s cheese, and read. Here’s a fairly uneventful (but short) video of what our evening looked like.

Once we accepted that we were not going to have the wine tasting experience we had anticipated, a burden was lifted, in a way, and we felt free to enjoy just sitting around and watching the world go by. I think there’s some sort of life lesson in there, about keeping expectations low, not trying to plan everything, going with the flow, and so on. Lesson learned, I guess. I think we had such high expectations for wine tasting in Portugal because we had done a similar thing in the Wachau Valley of Austria in 2010 and it was magical. As I recall, everything was easy and charming and boozy and fun. But actually, re-reading my blog post from that trip, I see now that a similar thing happened then, in which our expectations, at least at first, did not meet reality, and we had to adjust. Lots of the wineries were closed, we were turned away by an angry ogre at one of them, and it poured rain on us as we were biking. I had sort of forgotten about all of that. I guess it’s easy to forget mishaps in the past because they all get lost in the fond haze of vacation nostalgia.

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Overall, though, the Dão was beautiful and relaxing. We did eventually taste some nice wines, and I’ll never forget our cozy cabin with the wood stove and friendly horses. I’m calling it a success!

Next post: Portugal, part 2: Sintra.

Cape Town and Durban

I’m back from a lovely, week-long vacation with my cousin Amanda (and, for the last two days, Al). I met Amanda at the Joburg airport on Monday — she had flown in from San Francisco, via London — and we went straight to Cape Town for four days. While there, we got up to the usual Cape Town things: Table Mountain, Cape Point, the Cape of Good Hope, wineries, penguins, seafood, shopping. It was glorious, as expected.

Here are a few photos of our visit:

View from Table Mountain

View from road to Table Mountain

Camps Bay

Camps Bay

Beachside playground

Beachside playground

Amanda and me at Jordan Winery, Stellenbosch

Amanda and me (and a dog) at Jordan Winery, Stellenbosch

Water lilies at Stark Conde winery, Stellenbosch

Water lilies at Stark Conde winery, Stellenbosch

Stark Conde

Stark Conde

Great views along the Cape

Great views along the Cape

Baby ostrich being petted

Baby ostrich being petted

Beach ostrich

Wild ostrich

Penguins

Penguins

The ostrich farm we visited was a total kick. Ostriches are weird looking to begin with, but baby ostriches are both extremely weird AND cute. They look like baby dinosaurs. I took a short video of some of the babies:

Hilarious!

Amanda and I had a great time in Cape Town, but on Friday morning, we left and flew two hours northeast to Durban, the third largest city in South Africa, known for its beaches, sub-tropical climate, Indian food, and adventure sports. We stayed at the truly lovely Rosetta House, where Al met us later that evening.

View from our veranda, Rosetta House

View from our veranda, Rosetta House

Durban was awesome. It’s a very relaxed, pretty city, with beautiful homes, lots of lush green plant life, warm beaches, and cute outdoor cafes and bars. One of the things that struck me most about Durban is how ethnically integrated it is, as compared to Cape Town or Joburg or, really, any other South African city or town I’ve ever visited. I was pleasantly surprised to see people of different races eating at the same restaurants, drinking at the same bars, hanging out on the same beaches. I know that sounds sort of sad, that this is something I’d be surprised by, but South Africa, despite its claims of being a rainbow nation, can often feel very segregated. Durban was a refreshing change. Al and I kept remarking on it (“Oh, wow, there are actually white people AND black people AND Indian people at this [bar/restaurant/beach/garden]!”) which tells you a little something about what we’re used to in Joburg.

We went to the beach on Saturday, which was beautiful and relaxing. The waters of the Indian Ocean in Durban aren’t as warm as they were in Mozambique, but they weren’t freezing, either (unlike the water in Cape Town). I went for a dip and came out feeling refreshed (and salty).

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On Saturday night, we ate at 9th Avenue Bistro, which offers a six-course wine pairing tasting menu, and it was fantastic. The food and service were outstanding; however, the ambience was a bit dampened by the fact that the restaurant looks out over a parking lot. Oh, well. Still highly recommended!

On Sunday, our last day in Durban, we spent a few hours wandering around the gorgeous Durban Botanical Gardens, which were heavenly. The Gardens are Africa’s oldest surviving botanical gardens and they are very well maintained. I took a ton of pictures because everything was so beautiful.

Giant tree (and Al)

Giant tree (and Al)

Bamboo copse

Bamboo copse

Gingko seed?

Gingko seed?

Bees on dahlia

Bees on dahlia

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One of my favorite parts of the Gardens was a little pond that was filled with all sorts of interesting birds, including an African Spoonbill, a giant pelican (which I think might be a pink backed pelican?), a big red-beaked goose, and several kinds of ducks and ducklings.

Pelican

Pelican (Pink Backed, I think)

Paddle beaked bird

African Spoonbill

So, this was a trip of many odd bird sightings: pelicans, spoonbills, ostriches, penguins, and, while we were in Cape Town, a flock of wild flamingos flying overhead. Pretty cool.

Now I am back in Joburg and beginning to acclimate to the chilly weather and the fact that I have to, you know, start working again. Amanda is on safari now and will be back in Joburg on Thursday, so I have a little more cousin time to look forward to. In the meantime, it’s back to the grind: blogging and writing. Luckily, I happen to really enjoy the grind. Vacation is great, but the grind is good, too.

Rustenburg

Al and I have embarked on a month-long detox from booze and in his case, candy, and in my case, cheese and dessert (which are often one and the same with me). This is necessary. Very necessary. I’ve spent the last month and a half flitting from place to place, eating rich food and drinking fine (and not so fine) wine, and it has been GLORIOUS, but I feel that my liver is about to give out and the buttons on my pants are about to pop, so it’s time to take a break. In this new spirit of healthy living, then, we decided to have an outdoorsy kind of weekend, so we drove two hours to Rustenburg, the “bustling” provincial capital of Northwest Province, to do some hiking and biking.

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

Rustenburg itself is pretty low-key – the owner of the lovely B&B we stayed in listed the many dining options at the local mall’s food court when we asked her if there were any nice restaurants nearby – but it’s home to a provincial park called Kgswane Mountain Reserve that has hiking trails and bike paths. On Saturday morning, we went to the mountain reserve with big plans to go biking. We had loaded up our road bikes – which have sat gathering cobwebs, literally, on our porch since we moved to South Africa – and a newly purchased bike pump and we were ready to go. Only problem was, the bike pump didn’t work. After a frustrating half hour of attempting to force the bike pump to work, we gave up and decided to go for a hike. We set off on a hiking trail called the “Vlei Ramble,” but we turned around after a few minutes when it became clear that a machete was necessary to effectively break through the underbrush. And the brambles. Oh, the brambles! Al joked, of course, that the trail should have been called the Vlei Bramble. We hiked a trail called the Peglerei Interpretative Trail (huh?) instead, and it was much better. Great views, plus the whole trail was littered with rose quartz. The weirdly rock-obsessed eight-year-old inside me was geeking out the whole time.

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That night, we decided to go to a “nice” dinner at a place we had read about in one of our guidebooks, the Kedar Country House, which is attached to a hotel and a museum devoted to Paul Kruger. There were several clues along the way that this restaurant was not going to be good: when the parking lot in front of the restaurant was dark and virtually empty, when the man in the hotel lobby seemed baffled that we wanted to eat at the restaurant, when we walked into the restaurant and it was empty except for a harried looking family with several screaming children. It wasn’t until we saw that the restaurant was buffet-style, with steam trays full of unidentifiable meat mash and a table of wilting salads preserved under saran wrap, that we decided to try to find somewhere else. We hastily made our exit. All of the employees seemed to understand.

We made the bold decision to drive another 20 kilometers to Sun City, the self-billed “kingdom of pleasure” of Africa. I guess the other kingdoms in Africa aren’t putting up much competition in the pleasure category (looking at you, Swaziland), so fair enough. Sun City is, in a word, ridiculous. It truly is a little city, containing a golf course, hotels, restaurants, casinos, a wave pool (the grandly named “Valley of Waves”), and even residential facilities. That’s right, people live at Sun City. We had heard that there were some good restaurants there, including something called the Famous Butcher’s Grill. After driving around and seeing no such grill, we asked a valet at the casino, who told us the restaurant was in the Cabanas Hotel. We parked and went into the hotel and asked the concierge about the restaurant. She told us the Famous Butcher’s Grill has been closed for “ten years. Maybe four years.” At this point, we had been driving for an hour, we were hungry, and we were nearing defeat, so we decided to give up and eat at the hotel’s new restaurant, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t have a name, other than “Hotel Restaurant.” It was truly the most generic of hotel restaurants: open plan seating in the middle of the hotel, kids running around and playing on a plastic play structure, and – you guessed it – a BUFFET. Resigned to our fate, we sat down and ate our buffet dinner, which was fine. Not great. But fine.

After dinner, being the old farts we are, we were too tired (from the hiking and the driving and the disappointment) to gamble, so we headed back to the B&B. Plus, we all know that gambling’s not fun unless you have a little liquor in your system to make your choices just bad enough to be interesting.

The next morning, we bought a new bike pump and headed back to the mountain reserve. We successfully pumped the bikes’ tires (huzzah!) and had a really nice bike ride. We did something called the Sable Loop (twice), all the time keeping our eyes peeled for sable antelope, which are very rare but apparently live in the park. We didn’t see any (although we did see zebra, kudu, and impala), but it was still a good ride, and we left Rustenburg feeling satisfied, like we had accomplished something. All in all, a good weekend. Who says you need booze and cheese to have fun?

Elephant Plains

I’m now officially back from my month-long vacation(s); I got back to Joburg from safari yesterday. What a week! My friends and I spent four nights at Elephant Plains Game Lodge, in the Sabi Sand private game reserve just north of Kruger National Park.

Sunrise at Elephant Plains

Sunrise at Elephant Plains

I had been on safari before, of course, so I thought I knew what to expect from this trip, but staying in a private game reserve is a very different experience from staying in Kruger itself. For one thing, in a private reserve, you can go off-roading. Which means you can follow animals and drive right up to them. I mean RIGHT up to them.

Oh, hello.

Oh, hello.

Also, all of the rangers have radios so they can communicate with each other about where the good animals are. Thus, we saw, in short order, lions (including cubs), a leopard, elephants (with babies), a rhino, giraffes, hippos, zebras, buffalo, wildebeest, jackals, waterbucks, kudus, nyalas, impalas, a crocodile, and more. Now, I saw most of these animals in Kruger, as well, and it was a wonderful experience. But at Elephant Plains, we got right up in the animals’ grill(s).

Up close and personal

Up close and personal

To see the above rhino in action, here’s a video I took of him drinking, which gives you a better sense of how CLOSE we were.

A couple of times, things got a little scary. For example, a herd of elephants (with several babies) were not happy to see our van and the matriarch, who was quite large and intimidating already, started flapping her ears at us to appear even larger, which is what elephants do when they’re gearing up to fight. Turns out the elephants were mostly bluster; they flapped their ears and gave us threatening looks and then hurried past us, although one stopped to turn and stare us down before moseying down the road.

Mom was intimidating. Babies, not so much.

Mom was intimidating. Babies, not so much.

Then, a few minutes later, another group of elephants appeared, and one of them – I kid you not – sort of charged the van, trumpeting. I had been drifting to sleep because we had gotten up at 5 am for our morning game drive but the sound of an angry elephant three feet from my face woke me up real quick. Again, the elephant was bluffing, and it trudged off into the bush after scaring the living crap out of all of us, but still. Here’s a short video of the first group of elephants, before the matriarch started getting ticked off at us.

The scariest thing that happened – although, at the time, it didn’t seem that scary – was when Elise, Allison, and I went for a bush walk with our trusty ranger, Louis. The point of a bush walk is to see the plants, insects, and small animals that live in the bush, not to see big game, since it’s not safe to be on foot around predators (or other aggressive animals like buffalo or hippos), since they can, you know, kill you. So we were walking along and Louis was showing us a tree with interesting leaves when we spot, maybe 100 meters away, three lionesses. Unlike all of the other times we had seen lions in the reserve, these ones were not lying around listlessly, full from a big meal of impala or zebra. No, these lionesses were coming toward us. Ruh-roh. Louis calmly loaded his rifle (yeah…) and told us to form a single-file line and back slowly toward the nearest tree. Once we were behind the tree, he told us to keep walking and get behind the next tree, and so on, until we were close to the gates of the lodge. At the time, we thought it was cool and exciting, and maybe a little scary, because we didn’t realize that normally, when lions see people on foot, they stand still and then move off into the bush. These ones, though, were hungry, and one of them even crouched down, which is the position lions take when they’re hunting. Um. Close call?

A female leopard

A female leopard

All in all, it was a fantastic trip, truly an experience of a lifetime, and I feel so lucky to have gotten to see these incredible animals up close (and to have emerged unscathed). This will probably be my last safari for the foreseeable future, and it was a great one. Here are a few more photos, although I took so many it’s hard to choose which ones to share. Hope you enjoy.

Waterbok

Waterbok

Me and a giraffe

Me and a giraffe

Female kudu with bird friends

Female kudu with bird friends

Zebras

Zebras

Two young males playing

Two young males playing

 

Kruger

Last night, I got back from a wonderful weekend trip to Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa. It covers over 7,500 square miles. Parts of the park have been protected by the South African government since 1898 and it became a national park in 1926. Because of its long history of conservation, the park is home to an incredible variety of flora and fauna, including, according to the official website, 336 species of trees, 49 of fish, 34 of amphibians, 114 of reptiles, 507 of birds, and 147 of mammals. Wow.

I went with Al’s mom and step-dad on Thursday afternoon and Al met us late on Friday night. Over the course of four days, we saw a dazzling number of animals, some of which are quite rare in the park (including a leopard – there are only 1000 of them in the whole place). I’m not sure if we just had amazing luck or whether the park is always like this – filthy with animals, I tell you! – but it was awesome. I kept a list of the animals we saw and here it is: hyena, rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, wildebeest, kudu, impala, giraffe, baboon, hippo, many birds (incl. vulture, African fish eagle, various starling, European roller and Guinea fowl), rabbit, leopard tortoise, zebra, Vervet monkey, bush pig, warthog, white mongoose, ground squirrel (we think), and water buffalo. And probably others, but those were the big ones.

Here are just a few of the photos I took this weekend:

Warthog

Warthog

Sunset on safari

Sunset on safari

Wildebeest

Wildebeest

Starling

Starling

Baby zebra and mother

Baby zebra and mother

Giraffe

Giraffe

Elephants in a row

Elephants in a row

Male impalas play fighting

Male impalas play fighting

Mini croc

Mini croc

Baboon mother and baby

Baboon mother and baby

Elephant eating

Elephant eating

Lioness RIGHT next to our truck

Lioness RIGHT next to our truck

Shy leopard

Shy leopard