Sunday, July 08, 2007

South Africa - the Good...............

Written by Lynn

I loved South Africa. I mean, I REALLY enjoyed it. There was so much to do and see, the people that we met were unfailingly friendly and helpful. But there is a bizarre duality of the society there that may take you awhile to see, and it is tragically easy as a tourist to close your eyes to the problems that are present in this beautiful, vibrant country. This being said, I decided that I should divide the entries on South Africa into two different parts - one good, one bad. I think you need to read both of them to get a feeling for what being in South Africa was like. To read only the good would send you rushing to pack your bags to head off in a flurry for Cape Town armed with only your guide book. To read the other would mean that nothing short of flat out torture would get you to enter the country, meaning you would miss one of the greatest places we visited this year. This being said, consider going to South Africa, just be aware that there is very real danger and a lot of less obvious problems to be had there.

Visually South Africa is just as stunning as New Zealand with its dramatic cliffs and ocean scenery, to its wineries and then on to its amazingly vast lowveld plains. It has the fantastic advantage over other places in that it is teeming with unbelievable wildlife viewing opportunities. From whales to lions, sharks to giraffes; this country has it all.

To start with we flew from Hong Kong to Johannesburg and then caught our connection to Cape Town. Surprisingly, not being very good planners, we did take the unexpected step of booking ourselves into a hostel prior to landing in the country, a little too freaked out by horror stories in South Africa to just catch a bus downtown and look around like we usually do. First surprise - it was COLD. Not "really-should-have-worn-a-long-sleeve-shirt-with-my-shorts" type cold; more of a "we'd-better-go-buy-some-fleeces-and-hats" type cold. It is, after all, winter in the southern hemisphere. But still, it's Africa for God's sake. Anyways, we took care of the mundane clothing issue easily enough with a little shopping at an African type Walmart.

Our second surprise - we really liked Cape Town. The day we arrived it was sunny and bright making the drive into town quite spectacular (except, of course, for the part where you drive by the collection of ramshackle huts that make up the local township). From the airport you loop around the edge of Table Mountain and can see Table Bay spread out beneath you. Our hostel was clean and safe, being run by a couple of Canadians actually. We were located just off Locke Street, a vibrant road filled with shops, restaurants and bars. Being far enough off the road to be quiet, we could also easily get there in the morning for a cafe au lait and fresh baked muffins at one of the cafes.

The next day, unfortunately, the wind picked up, meaning that Table Mountain was closed. It's apparently too dangerous to be up there when the winds are high, so the cable car closes down. So instead we took the ferry out to Robben Island.

Robben Island is infamous for the fact that Nelson Mandela spent the first 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment here. It is a small oval of land, only 1km wide, that sits about 12 km off shore. It was originally a leper colony from 1836 until 1931, and in 1954 became a maximum security prison. During the apartheid years almost 3000 men were being held here, many on charges of treason. The different classes of prisoners were treated to a varying degrees of comfort. Beatings during interrogations were not unheard of and the with holding of already limited food rations was a common punishment. The political prisoners were classified as "D" prisoners, and were considered of the lowest class. They had to do hard manual labour in the limestone quarry and were prevented from mingling with other prisoners. All the D prisoners lived in drafty, damp cells with only a small sleeping pad, one blanket and a pail in their posession. They were allowed to send and receive only 2 letters a year, but these letters were censored by the prison. Any mention of politics, the prison, religion or pretty much anything but family would mean that these sections would be cut out, or the letter thrown away. Often prisoners would receive letters that looked like paper snowflakes after having "sensitive" material removed. The prisoners were also only allowed 2 visits a year from family members who had to apply months ahead of time to be given permission to make the trip.

When you step off the ferry onto the dock of Robben Island you are met by a guide that hustles you onto a bus for a tour of the various facilities and buildings still standing, including the leper graveyard, the quarry and the church built for the wardens' families. There is also the local penguin colony to greet you. The real part of the tour begins when the bus drops you off at the gates of the prison and you are met by a former political prisoner, who takes you through the prison itself and explains what the daily life was like when he was living there. His dignity and obvious respect when he was showing us the cell Nelson Mandela lived in is reflective of the quiet suffering the man himself had that made him such a powerful figure during the fight against apartheid. Several times in the 1980's Mandela was offered release from prison on the condition that he speak out against violence on the government's behalf, and always he refused, once stating, "What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts." It was a moving moment.

Turns out we were lucky to get to the island when we did, because the winds blew in a storm that lay trapped over Cape Town for the next 2 weeks, a not uncommon occurence. Cape Town is well known for its bad weather, that tends to linger around for days on end, making life generally miserable there. We were warned by the hostel that all the things we were interested in doing around town, short of visiting museums, would be a no go until the weather improved. Undaunted we rented a car, and found that the rumours we had heard were true. Less than two hours away, once beyond the influence of the cloud trapping Table Mountain, the weather was beautiful. With no real plan in mind we drove along the coastal highway admiring the view and feeling like we were back in New Zealand, which we had greatly admired. That is, of course, until a troop of baboons ran across the highway to remind us that, actually, we were in Africa.

We stopped for lunch in the town of Hermanus, reputed to be the world's best place for land based whale watching. Starting in late June, through to October, hundreds of Southern Right Whales, along with a few Humpbacks, fill the bay for months of cetacean speed dating sessions.
As well, many of the calves from last year's successful matings are born here in the warm waters before undertaking the arduous journey to the feed rich waters of the Antarctic for the summer months.

While here we took the advice of a friendly South African couple who saw us pouring over maps in a cafe trying to figure out where to go. They directed us to a small town called Franschoek, in the heart of the winelands. The mountain passes we travelled through on the way there did not disappoint, and that night we stayed at a wonderful hostel called The Otter's Bend. While sitting by the fire we helped ourselves to a bottle of the local vintage. The owner of the hostel was also very helpful with suggestions of things to see and do along the Garden Route (a commonly travelled highway for tourists), then even went so far as to reserve us a safari tent at the Addo Elephant National Park, which he himself considered one of the nicest parks in South Africa.

Well, he was right. We spent two nights there getting our first taste of the "African safari". It should be pointed out here that almost all of the wildlife in South Africa is now confined to game reserves and national parks. Any animal unlucky enough to stray from these ares will very likely end up as someone's supper, poaching being a common local pastime. On the up side, over 6 percent of the land in South Africa is dedicated to formal conservation and if you include private nature reserves the protected land is equal to about 1/3 of the country. The controversy now lies in the courts where various tribes are seeking compensation after being evicted from their traditional homelands to allow for the creation of these same areas. The focus now is to promote the economic benefits of having these preserves in order that they will continue to be an important resource for the new South Africa. Traditionally big game hunting has been viewed as the only way be bring in large amounts of money. In 2006 South Africa earned almost 105 million dollars from hunting revenues, almost 1/10th of a percentage of its GDP. Sounds impressive until you realize that in 1995 tourists brought in over 6 billion dollars in revenue, most of it for wildlife viewing opportunities, and the numbers continue to rise. It is estimated that over the course of its long life, a single elephant can be responsible for earning 1 million dollars in tourist bucks, a lot of it distributed to the local communties rather than just the big corporations that own the airlines and hotels.

Addo is a relatively small game reserve in comparison to bohemoths like Kruger, with a dense population of animals. So you are almost guarenteed to see elephants, kudus, zebras and ostriches. We even got stopped on the road by a large family group of elephants, that milled around the car for a half hour before moving on. With this unique opportunity we managed to see how all the elephants interacted with each other. The babies play, while the teenagers engage in mock charges and battles, and their mothers look on indulgently. The adults will occasionally move in to break up the fights that are getting a little out of hand, and the babies wander around the car to get a closer look at the can of camera toting humans. While it may be anthropomorphising them a bit, you can't help but see all the human characteristics in the way they act.
Which is why the situation for the elephants in both Kruger and especially Addo is so distressing.

In recent years there has been a surge in the population of elephants in several national parks. In Addo it is easy to see the effect on the vegetation, where large swaths of the lowveld bushes are crushed and completely denuded of any leaves. A decade or more ago a similar situation occured and nothing was done. A severe drought followed and resulted in the death of not only most of the elephants, but also several thousand other animals who died of malnutrition. So now they are stuck trying to come up with a solution. Decades ago the glut of elephants would result in a migration to a less populated area. Now, with the populations fenced off and seperated by miles of urban civilization, this is no longer possible. It seems that in Addo they have decided to cull some of the elephants. But the tragic thing is that this does not mean just going in and removing the older members of the herd.

Researchers who spend a lot of time with them tend to refer to an elephant herd as a single entity rather than a group of individuals. Watching a group of elephants you will see extaordinary teamwork as they co-operate in group defence, child rearing and decision making. Elephants communicate with over 70 distinctive vocal sounds and 160 identified visual and tactile signals, expressions and gestures. Using low frequency rumbles, they can communicate with other elephants over a mile away, who pick up these signals through special sensors in their padded feet. When one of the members of the herd dies, the elephants will go into a period of mourning, standing vigil over the body for up to a week and ritualistically covering it with branches and dirt. For years afterwards the elephants will return to the site and with their trunks, rub the lower jaw bone of the skeleton, much in the same way elephants will greet each other by touching trunk to cheek. Since an adult elephant has no natural enemies, most will die of starvation at 60 to 80 years of age, as the last of their teeth fall out. The young elephants are very dependant upon the guidance of their elders as they mature, a baby never straying more than 15 feet from its herd for the first 8 years of its life. Removal of older members of a herd causes a delay in the proper social behaviour development for the young. This was shown to be true during a previous cull of older bull elephants in Addo. The remaining young bulls started to exhibit extreme aggression towards each other, so much so that there was an increase in mortality with 90 percent of deaths as a result of inter-male fighting, rather than the usual 6 percent seen in a stable group. The re-introduction of a few older bulls quickly restored order and normalized the death rates.

Young elephants who have been exposed to the traumatic and violent deaths of cargivers in the herd have been shown to exhibit symptoms of what is likened to post traumatic stress disorder - hyperaggression, abnormal startle response, insensitive mothering and asocial behaviour. Cases like this have been documented in Kruger Park where, up until 1994 when public protests stopped the practice, yearly culls of older animals took place. What this all amounts to is that should a cull be deemed necessary, an entire herd - matriarch to newborn - will be taken out all at one time, a job I envy no one.

Slightly distraught over this prospect I questioned several field guides and game wardens that we met about alternatives. It seems that it is too late for birth control measures, even if there were some effective and economical means of contraception for elephants presently available. Fortunately in Kruger they are working on an innovative solution. Presently the governments of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are working to create the world's largest nature preserve that would incorporate three protected areas that share borders - Kruger National Park in South Africa, Coutadal 16 in Mozambique and Gonorzrou in Zimbabwe. This would mean that 60,000 square miles, approximately the size of Florida, would be opened up for migration purpose. Because of recent wars in both Zimbabwe and Mozambique, there are virtually no elephant herds left in these areas, all of them having been poached for bush meat and ivory. The plan is to translocate entire herds at the cost of $2500 an elephant into these recovering ares. A noble, if outrageously expensive, plan.

Anyways, three days of driving around Addo and sleeping in a very comfortable safari tent overlooking the park is highly recommended to anyone. We were even blessed one night by a visit from a small spotted Genet on our porch where we were BBQ'ing our dinner. Nicknamed "Bob", our friend spent the night crouched on the edge of the stairs; not quite trusting us, but lured by the promise of chicken.

We rushed back to Cape Town after this, only to find that in our absence the weather hadn't changed much. So we decided to base ourselves in Hermanus. There was a few reasons for this. As it was the beginning of whale watching season I spent many hours walking along the extensive Cliff Paths the town has. Here, come September/October, you can often see whales less than 100 metres from shore. In early June the best I got was being able to watch a few early arrivals for the season breaching through my binoculars, but still a breath taking sight. As well there were several penguin colonies in the area, these ones being much easier to see the birds from than the ones we had been at in New Zealand.

The real reason we were here, though, is because Gilles had became taken with the idea of diving with Great White Sharks, an activity available no where else in the world. Just a few kilometres off shore is Shark Alley, one of the most densely populated shark highways on the globe. Their reason for being here - easy, take out lunches. Cape Fur seals breed by the thousands on Dyer Island and Seal Island (about 50,000 at last count!) meaning the sharks stop in here on their annual migration to eat (though little to nothing is actually known about where they migrate to and from). The large amount of natural chum created by the carcasses of the seals, sea birds and fish in the area, as well as all the feces and urine put up a horrible stink that the sharks apparently cannot resist (yum, I know).

So to address the various concerns about shark diving. First off, Mom, we're in a metal cage, so as long as you are smart enough to keep your toes and fingers inside, you should be pretty safe. Secondly - the impact on the sharks. Well, we did have some legitimate concerns regarding this, so asked several questions. There are a limited number of companies that are engaged in shuttling tourists out for this activity. All of them are restricetd to carrying 25kg of chum a day. This translates into about 4 to 5 tuna heads. Once this is eaten, the tour is finished. So it is in the company's best interest to not allow the sharks to feed. Instead the chum is used to attract sharks to the area, and then pulled away. Almost all of the sharks who show up are juvenilles, the adults being too smart to bother with dead fish when there is fresh seal meat so close. And because this is a migratory pathway, none of the sharks are here for more than a day, meaning the effect on their natural hunting behaviour is limited. Maybe not an "ecofriendly" adventure, exactly, but it certainly increases your respect for these amazing animals, a fact that the companies tout as a big reason for allowing shark diving. Knowing and respecting these guys a little more means people are less likelly to be unreasonalbly fearful of them.

This being said it was an AWESOME experience. We had to wait a few days for the weather to clear and the seas to become calm enough to go. We saw several sharks, the longest of which was a mere 12 feet long (adults can reach up to 21 feet). It should be pointed out that the most impressive thing about seeing these guys, what really blows you away, is not just the length, but the massive girth of them. You visually have trouble taking it in. The immense strength in them is obvious too as they casually glide by, then with a small flick of their tail propel themselves through the water. Gilles was "lucky" enough to have a close encounter when the crew did not pull the tuna heads in fast enough and shark crashed into the cage.

Replete with our animal viewing we left Cape Town to fly to Johannesburg and go on our actual safari in Kruger National Park. I will confess that we were a little concerned that we wouldn't be impressed by Kruger, after everything we had seen. And going on an organized safari is very expensive, in spite of us booking the cheapest one we could find. As well, to be perfectly honest, we were a little afraid of Jo'burg (reasons for this to be discussed in the next post). So we booked a room at a hostel just a few miles away from the airport and flew in the day before our safari. This meant by 5AM the next morning we were gone from the city, with never even having seen it.

The good news was the safari was anything but a disappointement. We had a great group of 5 "kids" with us (all less than 25 years old), from Brazil, Ireland and Scotland, and spent 2 nights at a wonderful camp on the edge of the park. The first day we drove out there the 6 hours from Jo'burg, then we had a night drive where we saw, well, nothing, unless you count a glowing bird's eye as exciting. But after a very cold night (it is winter after all) spent in our tents we loaded up in our open safari truck and entered the real Kruger park.

Wow. Enough said. This place is amazing. Within the first hour we had seen rhinos, impalas, giraffes and zebras. Over the next several hours we managed to catch sight of a leopard slinking away from its kill (an unfortunate impala wedged in the crook of a tree); a large bull elephant playing in a mud hole; buffaloes and countless birds. And the great thing about Kruger is this is all in the animals' natural surroundings, completely unspoiled. Its kinda like someone coming into your living room and watching you eat a pizza while watching a hockey game. The animals themselves are so accustomed to people that they basically ignore you, fully expecting you to stop as they amble across the road. You can't be guaranteed to see anything of course (except impalas, the little antelopes that the guides call "lunch on the run" because they are so numerous), but we were exceptionally lucky even the first day.

We were then temporarily sidelined when our truck got a flat tire. Well, maybe it was a little more serious than temporary, since our truck was without a tire spanner, so our guide couldn't change the flat. Since you are DEFINITELY not allowed to exit your vehicle in Kruger (I can give you several unsubstantiated stories the guides shared with us of dumb tourists who did just that and didn't live to tell the tale; these are, after all, WILD animals) we were stuck there. It turned into a five hour delay in our schedule, while the safari company tried to track us down. Turns out for us this was a good thing, as it meant a highly illegal night drive through Kruger Park (the gates close at dusk and you need to be OUT or face a large fine and a lifetime ban). We saw a lion pride, another leaopard and elephants galavanting in the setting sun. It wasn't so great for our guide, who was sweating bullets because being caught meant the loss of his job. But we made it out ok, if a little cold, and bought our guide a beer to calm his nerves.

The next day we left the park to do a scenic drive along several look out points, then headed to a four star hotel built right beside the brand new Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Rescue Centre.

Chimps are not native to South Africa, but as the political climate and access to veterinary care is more ameniable here, the rehabilitation centre was set up and opened less than six months ago. There are presently 17 adult and juvenille chimps housed here, as well as a few babies. They are all resuced from various parts of Africa, the deal being that once rehabilitated, they will be returned for release to their native country. This may eventually create problems as the centre demands that they be released in protected areas that are monitored for poachers, but it will be years before any of this becomes an issue. The rehabilitation is done in a series of steps that take the chimps from an isolation pen to an outdoor cage where they are fed, to one where they have to hunt for the food provided, then finally to an enormous fenced in area where they are monitored with no human contact and they have to fend for themselves. Time to full rehabilitation is dependant upon how the individual chimp functions, but it is expected to take years. The stories of how they ended up here are varied, but almost all are very sad. Chimps, being incredibly social animals, tend to not do well on their own. Most of these guys had grown up without the benefit of interaction with other chimps. They were pets, novelties, tourist draws; that is until they came of adult age and turned destructive and angry. An adult male chimp has the strength of 7 men, and these guys are so much bigger and stronger than I expected them to be. Often, once they display any aggression, they are just shot, and a new cute baby chimp is obtained.

Nikki had been chained up in a bar, where he was taught to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. Amadeus grew up in a private home, where his owner shaved off his body hair, dressed him in human clothes, taught him to eat with a fork and even had him sleep in his bed. Xena's story was not so tragic, but touching in its own way. She was owned by a Saudi family that loved her dearly. When they took her to a vet for a health check up they were informed that not only was it illegal to have a chimp as a pet, but that without interaction of other chimps she could never develop normally. So the Saudi family paid out of their own pocket to have her brought out to the rescue centre, a whopping $10,000, in the hopes that she would one day be released back into the wild to live a normal life.

So that was the end of our organized safari. Not being satisfied with our limited Kruger experience, we got dropped off in the town of Nelspruit, just a half hour from the gates and rented another car so we could go back into the park on our own. In total, between the safari and our own driving time, we spent 6 days, dawn 'til dusk, driving through Kruger. One of the advantages of Kruger is that it is never the same from one day to the next. It has an amazing variety of landscape. Everything from watering holes, river valleys, lowveld plain and thickets, it's all here, and all the variety of animals that inhabit them. After the first few days of staring around looking for the "big" five - buffalo, elephant, lion, leopard and rhino - you start to notice the smaller and less common stuff. We were lucky to see 2 cheetahs (there are only 200 in the park), secretary birds, monitor lizards, black backed jackals, hyenas, leopard tortoises and mongooses (is that "mongeese"?) to name a few things. And big or small, we loved it all!

Of course we didn't spend 6 days in a row in Kruger, I don't think anyone can concentrate for that long (there are many hours you spend just staring at blowing grass). In between visits we went to Swaziland and Mozambique, but we can discuss those later. We also varied it by at first staying in the park, then at a great hostel, called Kruger View, in the town of Komatipoort. It was less than 10 minutes to the gate and owned by a great guy called Dave, and guarded by his two vicious pups, Choc and Sandy. We'd highly recommend it to anyone thinking of going to Kruger.

Well just rereading this post I am exhausted and exhilirated. We spent 5 weeks in South Africa and they were probably the most action packed of our trip. I would emphasize again that this was a great country, BUT (ain't there always a but) you might want to read the next post..........