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Monday, June 21, 2010

The Scenic Route

When the subject of a trip to South Africa first arose, one of the first things I thought was about going back to visit places where we used to go on holidays when I was a kid. One of my favourite destinations was the Eastern Transvaal - now called Mpumalanga, so obviously when I decided to take the trip it was number one on my itinerary. When the time came I was a bit apprehensive that it wouldn't be as good as I remembered, but it actually lived up to all my expectations. The only thing that bothered me was that I didn't have enough time so I only got to see the highlights. There were a lot of places that I remember very favourably that I was forced to skip out because of lack of time.
Here are a couple of pictures that I took, you can click on any of them to see a larger version:
God's window:

God's window is quite high, and therefore very frequently overcast. We were very lucky that we were there on a cloudless day, with very good conditions for photography. Unfortunately my pictures don't really do it justice.

Blyde rivier canyon, the third deepest canyon in the world.

Blyde rivier canyon is such a beautiful place, I just don't have the skills to describe it adequately.

At the edge of Blyde rivier canyon, you can see the three rondavels:

A rondavel is a traditional African-style house. It is usually round, and has a pointed thatched roof. Like this:

The Treur river:

Treur in Afrikaans means sad. So the river is actually called the sad river. The story is that when the first settlers were travelling from the Cape into the interior of South Africa, they got as far as the river and then decided that before they go further the men should go ahead to scout the area, leaving their wives and children camped by the river. The women waited for a month, and when the men didn't return they began to make their way back, and named the river Treur to commemorate their loss.

And there was much rejoicing

However the men hadn't died, they had merely taken longer than they thought it would take. When they came back to the camp they followed the tracks of the wagons, and were reunited with their families on the banks of the Blyde river (Blyde in Afrikaans means happy).
At the point where the Treur river meets the Blyde river is a very unusual rock formation called Bourke's Luck Potholes. The potholes were created by the turbulence of the meeting of the two rivers:

Bourke was an Englishman who came to South Africa to make his fortune in the gold rush. He was employed by other men as a prospector, and was instrumental in creating quite a few fortunes. When he had saved enough money, he scouted around and found a plot of land on which there were many quartz deposits (a sign that there is gold), and bough a farm, thinking that his fortune was assured. However to his vast disappointment his ground only contained signs of gold, and he never hit it rich. So the area was named after him. Funny, I have the same luck but nobody ever named anything after me....
Wanna see more of the natural beauty of Mpumalanga? Click here

Of course, Mpumalanga isn't the only beautiful place in South Africa. Check out these pictures I took in the Pilansberg Park:

Beating around the Bush

Mrs. Richards: When I pay for a view, I expect to see something more interesting than that.
Basil Fawlty: That is Torquay, madam.
Mrs. Richards: Well, that's not good enough.
Basil Fawlty: Well, might I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House, perhaps? The hanging gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically...
From Fawlty Towers - Communication Problems

In some ways it is quite funny to go on these game drives. You can usually tell how many drives a person has done by their reaction to the animals. The first time you go out you take pictures of elephants from a kilometer away, and exclaim excitedly over each herd of zebras or impala. As you do more drives you become more blasè about the animals, and more selective about your photography. The really well seasoned tourists don't even bother to take pictures of the herds of buck, as they have seen more buck than you can shake a stick at.

Check out my pictures below. You can click on a picture to see a larger version.

A wildebeest (literally translates in English as a wild animal or into Yiddish as a wilde chaye):

Sexual harassment or love at first sight? You be the judge: we came across this wildebeest at a salt lick. The white bird standing next to it is a cattle egret, that eats insects off the buck. This egret obviously saw something tasty on the wildebeest so he crept up on the wildebeest, who got annoyed and moved a few meters aside. Then the hapless bird would come creeping up again, forcing the wildebeest to retreat further from the annoyance.

A male kudu:

A female kudu:

Look at those huge ears! Nobody can hear a predator creeping up on you like a kudu.

A springbok:

A nyala youngster, still suckling from its mother:

A steenbok:

A waterbok:

Did you know there were so many species of buck? :-)


Note the three black lines on the impala's rump. Most animals have a marking that is very distinctive and visible from behind. It's called a "follow me" marking. Animals are hard-coded (as it were) to follow this distinctive marking. It helps herds stick together by ensuring that they run in a particular direction when attacked by a predator. It also ensures that the youngsters will follow their mother.
In the case of the impala the marking forms a sort of "M" character. The joke is that since the impala are so tasty the M stands for MacDonalds (and if you turn the impala on it's back it becomes the "W" of Wimpy's), and the locals refer to the impala as "fast food". I didn't check this theory by tasting impala, but I can tell you that wildebeest boerewors tastes quite good :-)

Wait just a minute, I hear you cry. You can't fool us, those are springbok not impala.
Well, no, actually they're not. Take a look at this side view of an impala:

Note the colours on the belly of the impala, and compare it to the springbok. The white area on the sprinbok's belly starts much higher up than on the impala.

Interesting to note, you very often find different herds of animals together. That is because they complement each other when it comes to detecting predators. Kudu can hear well, impala have keen eyesight and wildebeest can smell (and boy oh boy do they smell!)


Note how the warthogs kneel down to eat the grass. They do this only during the dry months, when there is not so much vegetation, and they want to get closer to the grass. In the wet months, when the vegetation is higher they don't have to kneel down.

Vervet monkeys:


You can tell the man who boozes....

Monkeys and baboons are something of a pest in South Africa. In some places you cannot leave a window even slightly open, and they recommend that you don't leave any food or fruit or anything in plain sight. This is because the monkeys can get into just about anywhere, and they can be quite destructive. The tourists find it amusing and romantic, and don't understand why the locals hate the monkeys and continually chase them away. But if you come back to your room to find your clothes destroyed stuff missing and monkey poo all over the bed it isn't so amusing.

It's no joke, I'm totally serious. One year my aunt and uncle were visiting Sun City with my parents, and my uncle went to have an afternoon sleep and didn't close the window. A troop of monkeys came into the room, started checking out all their clothing and toiletries, and one monkey even lay down on the bed next to my sleeping uncle. According to my aunt, when she came in the monkey was spooning my uncle, while the others were trying on her makeup and perfume. So she clapped her hands to frighten the monkeys, and my uncle woke up rolled over and opened his eyes. My aunt says that when he and the monkey looked at each other they both yelled "Aaaaaaaaah!" Then the monkey jumped off the bed and through the open window.
(Actually it didn't happen like that, but it was fairly close. And my version is much funnier).

Next: The Scenic Route

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Down by the River

Oh Love, keep me warm, keep me satisfied.
Please keep me calm, keep me pacified.
Now I'm content and my life is complete.
I can close my eyes.

Sitting by the riverside with you.

I love sitting down by the riverside,
Watching the water go flowing by.
Oh, golly gee, it is heaven to be
Like a willow tree.

Spend my time just drinking wine while looking at the view.

From Sitting by the River by "The Kinks"

Hippos aren't particularly strong swimmers, but they spend most of the time in the water. So when you do get to see them you usually see something like this:
Or this:
Occasionally, if you're lucky, you get to see something like this:
We were lucky enough to see hippos when they left the river:
It's kind of funny to see hippos defecating. They wag their tails furiously and disperse all the dung. Presumably this is to mark their territory, but I prefer the African explanation: hippos were land animals that left the land and went back to live in the river. So all the other river animals complained that it is hard enough to find fish as it is, without the extra competition. So to calm them doewn the hippos promised to be totally vegetarian, and when the poo they spread the dung around so that all the animals will see there are no fish bones in their dung, thereby proving that the hippos are keeping their side of the bargain.

See more hippo pictures here

A young croc: An old crock:

See more crocodiles

A monitor aka "Nest Destroyer" because it has a habit of finding and eating eggs from nests:
African Fish Eagle:
African Darter aka Snakebird (in Afrikaans: Slanghalsvol - meaning Snake Necked bird) because when it swims it's neck sticks out of the water and it looks like a snake:
Egyptian geese: Its sort of funny that they are called Egyptian geese, because just about the only place in Africa that you don't find them is ....in Egypt. I think that the name has more to do with the colouring around the eyes, which is reminiscent of ancient Egyptian pictures.
The Jacana (aka the Jesus bird):
The Jacana has long toes on its feet, that help spread it's weight when it walks and stands on lily pads. From far it looks like it is actually standing on the water, hence it's name the Jesus bird.

Next: Beating About the Bush

Friday, April 16, 2010

Look! Up there! It's a bird! No, it's a plane! No, it's-

Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
We could float among the stars together, you and I
For we can fly we can fly
Up, up and away
My beautiful, my beautiful balloon
From My beautiful Balloon by "The Fifth Dimension"

I don't know why I got so excited about this. Maybe because it is not your usual run-of-the-mill tourist activity, maybe because of the whole buildup that the thing got.
A hot air balloon is like the oldest form of air travel that exists. And let's be frank there is something kind of romantic about it.
I had booked a balloon ride above Pilansberg National Park. The day before I was scheduled to go I spoke to another guy, who told me that his "flight" had been canceled at the last minute due to weather problems. But they told me that the weather was looking good for my trip. They said that if there was a last minute change they would let me know but if I didn't hear from them I should be ready at 4:00am to be picked up. Obviously I went to bed early that night, but for some reason I couldn't get to sleep. And when I did sleep I had these weird dreams about waking up late and missing the flight, or being mugged on my way to the pickup point at 4:00. So when my alarm went off I had barely slept.
So they drove us to a point in the middle of Pilansberg park. It was still totally dark, and there was a herd of wildebeest sleeping nearby. We all stood around and watched as they got the balloon ready and inflated:
By this time it was just getting light
I don't know if the timing was accidental or on purpose, we were up just in time to get some very good shots of the sun just peeping over the horizon
The trip itself was interesting for the trip, not so much for the game spotting. I had had this preconceived notion about getting a unique perspective on the game. But mostly what we did see was from quite far, or the shot came out blurry because the balloon was constantly moving. Also not very much new game, just things I had already seen. Zebra: Wildebeest:Giraffe:
But it was a unique experience, not like being in an airplane at all. You're standing in a wicker basket, nothing but hot air keeping you up, no windows between you and everything else. You're quite low compared to an aircraft, yet you can take your time looking at stuff, it's not zooming by you at hundreds of kilometres per hour.
Paradoxically, the most interesting part of the trip was the landing. Unlike an airplane you can't really steer a balloon. You can go up a bit higher or down a bit lower and hope that you find an aircurrent there that will take you in the direction that you want. But basically you're more or less at the mercy of the wind. So when the time comes to land you don't have an airport or a landing strip. You just kind of aim for a fairly open patch that won't snag the balloon up or anything. But what happens if you don't find one? That is what happened to us. Luckily the "ground crew" were there with a jeep. Our pilot attached a cable to the balloon and they pulled us along:
until we were close enough to a path that they could attach the cable to a jeep. Then they just drove us along nice and slow until we found an empty patch and set down:

Wanna see more of my aerial adventure? Click here

Next: Down by the River