Browsing Tag

nature

Elephants in the fever tree forest

The Land of Elephants and Baobabs

The Pafuri Triangle — a piece of wilderness in the very northern corner of South Africa’s Kruger National Park — is a land of giants. The trees are huge. The animals are huge. The beauty of the landscape is beyond comprehension.

Elephant eating in PafuriThis elephant looks small in the photo (which, incidentally, was shot from the doorway of my tent at Return Africa’s Pafuri Camp). Trust me though — he’s huge.

I spent three days at the Pafuri Camp, run by Return Africa, in the Makuleke Contractual Park. This section of the Kruger has a fascinating history, which I’ll describe in a future post.

Elephants and Baobabs: Kruger’s Photogenic Giants

I saw so many elephants during this trip and it’s been a struggle for me to narrow down the number of elephant photos I want to share. Same goes for the baobabs: I love these huge, ancient, topsy-turvy trees — which can only be found in the northern part of the Kruger — and I photographed them profusely. So before I go into the whole story of my trip, here are my favorite photos of the giants.

Baobab and truck shadowThis is my favorite baobab photo because you can also see the shadow of our safari vehicle. Note how this tree, which may be more than a thousand years old, dwarfs all of the other trees around it.

Elephant in fever tree forestMy favorite elephant photo, which again makes the elephant look smaller than he really is. This was a special elephant sighting because it happened in Pafuri’s magical fever tree forest. Fever trees, while they don’t compare to baobabs, are majestic in their own way with clouds of lacy green leaves and eerie, green-tinted bark.

Elephants in fever tree forestMore elephants and fever trees.

Baobab with weaver nestsA baobab in the late afternoon sun. The branches are dotted with weaver bird nests.

Baobabs at sunsetBaobab silhouettes at sunset.

Angry elephant in musth.A single male elephant, seen through the back of our truck. The elephant is in musth (pronounced “must”), as you can see from that dark, wet patch next to his eye. Male elephants in musth are particularly moody. He wasn’t too happy about our intrusion onto his road, but he held his temper.

Elephant on the road.We encountered the same elephant on the same stretch of road a couple of hours later. There was a car trailing behind him; the driver was afraid to pass the elephant and had been following along behind for 40 minutes.

The big baobab tree.Sunset at “the big tree”. Apparently this is the largest baobab in Pafuri. See the ant-like people on the bottom right?

Essay climbing the big baobab tree.Ezaya, our guide, demonstrates how to climb the big tree.

Bridge and Mini in the big baobab tree.My colleges Bridget (left) and Mini (right). They climbed the tree but I elected to stay on the ground.

I’ll have more to say about Pafuri soon. In the meantime, feel free to read the posts I wrote about a previous visit to Pafuri in 2011. See here and here and here.

Elephants and Baobabs-8674

My stay in Pafuri was courtesy of Return Africa. Opinions expressed are mine.

Wendy and David sitting on the Melville Koppies

Quick Photoshoot on the Melville Koppies

Last week Wendy Carstens, the chairperson of the Friends of the Melville Koppies, asked me to take a portrait of her and her husband, David, at the top of the Koppies. The portrait is a gift for their daughter’s birthday.

I have huge respect for Wendy and the work she does maintaining and promoting the Melville Koppies Nature Reserve, with a small amount of money and a massive amount of determination. So I was honored when she asked me to take the portrait, but also nervous. I don’t do many assignments like this and I was scared of messing it up — that Wendy and David wouldn’t like any of the pictures I took and I would feel like a miserable failure.

Luckily that didn’t happen.

Wendy and David sitting on the Melville KoppiesWendy and David at the top of Melville Koppies Central, with the northern suburbs and Sandton City behind them. This is the picture they chose.

Wendy and David-7539Another option, with Melville in the background. Wendy liked this one too.

Wendy and David-7480This one was my favorite but I don’t think they wanted such a close-up shot.

Anyway, this is a super-short post. But I thought I’d show off some pictures I’m proud of and remind you that the Melville Koppies is (are? Subject-verb agreement stumps me here) the best park in Joburg and everyone should visit. The Friends of the Melville Koppies host great guided walks every weekend. Read more about the history of the Koppies and Wendy’s work here.

the wilds Johannesburg

The Wilds: Joburg’s Controversial Garden of Eden

There is a big park in Johannesburg, very near to the city center, called the Wilds. For many years I didn’t go there because everyone said it was dangerous. Even the name — the Wilds, bwahahahaaaaa — has a menacing tone to it. I assumed the warnings were legit.

I’ve now been to the Wilds twice over the last several months, and damn, is it beautiful. The Wilds is so stunning and peaceful and well landscaped and immaculately maintained that it puts most other Jozi parks to shame. (I don’t say this lightly, as I’m a serious fan of Joburg parks.) The park was opened in 1938, after the Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company donated it to the city on the condition that the land remain in its natural state. The park is hilly and planted with thousands of indigenous trees and other native flora, crisscrossed by several kilometers of winding stone paths.

Walking through the WildsWalking on the wild side, through the Jozi Wilds.

Walking on the Wild Side

I don’t want to totally discount the perception that the Wilds is dangerous. I’ve visited lots of quote-unquote dangerous places in this city — Hillbrow, Alexandra, Yeoville, and many others — but none of them seem to elicit quite the same level of terror that the Wilds elicits in the minds of longtime Joburgers. From what I can gather there were quite a few very violent crimes — rapes, murders, and armed robberies — committed in the Wilds in the 1980s and 90s, and a group of university students were mugged there in 2012.

I can see why criminals would choose the Wilds as a place to commit crime. The park is vast and the vegetation dense, providing ample opportunity to hide and take people unaware. Hillbrow, Joburg’s most crime-ridden area in the late 20th century, is right next door, and the park straddles Houghton Drive — an easy escape route. And although the Wilds is now completely enclosed with fencing, it didn’t use to be. So yeah, I understand why people have historically been afraid to go visit the Wilds and remain afraid today.

But…I was in the Wilds last last Friday and saw no sign of anything nefarious. I saw families having braais (barbecues) and girls strolling with their boyfriends and groups of teenagers sitting on benches listening to music. I walked up and down the pathways with a group of friends, one of whom lives right next to the Wilds and goes there every day with his dog. I admired the skyline views, the aloe trees, the perfectly manicured lawns, and the ancient cycads inside the park’s greenhouse.

Last Friday, the Wilds was glorious in every way.

An expansive green lawn in the WildsThe vast expanse of lawn near the Wilds’ Houghton Drive entrance.

A stone pathway in the WildsMichelle and Conrad stroll down one of the wide paths. Footing can be uneven so wear comfortable shoes.

Joburg skyline from the top of the Wilds The highest point in the park near the famous stone sundial (which I forgot to photograph).

Joburg skyline from the top of the WildsOne of the best skyline views in the city.

Green grass and fever trees in the WildsAn explosion of green grass and fever trees.

Ancient cycads in the Wilds greenhouse.Priceless cycad plants, which are kept in greenhouse at the Wilds. Unfortunately the greenhouse has been closed both times that I visited (hence the chainlink-fence framing in this photo), but I hope to get inside eventually.

Pedestrian bridge in the WildsSpiral staircase to the pedestrian bridge that connects the two sides of the Wilds across Houghton Drive.

Pedestrian bridge in the WildsThe pedestrian bridge over Houghton Drive. 

Sitting on a bench overlooking the north side of the WildsFiver and Michelle check out the north-facing view from the eastern half of the Wilds.

Joburg skyline from the WildsConrad, Michelle, Stuart, and Fiver regard another skyline view.
 Wild dagga and the Hillbrow Tower, as seen from the WildsA glimpse of the Hillbrow Tower through sprouts of Leonotis leonurus (aka wild dagga).

The Secret is Out on the Wilds

My friends who live near the Wilds joked that they don’t want me to write about it, because then the secret will be out about how great it is. But the more people who visit the Wilds, the safer it will become. After years and years of terrible stories, I understand why so many Joburg residents are hesitant to go. Really though, this park is too beautiful to be virtually empty. The Wilds’ staff obviously work hard to maintain this park and they’re doing an amazing job. Their hard work deserves to be recognized and enjoyed.

If you love Joburg and you love the outdoors, then you are guaranteed to love the Wilds. Get some friends together, leave your valuables at home if you must, and go check it out on the next sunny day.

Walking in the WildsJames, Fiver, and Stuart on a path through the Wilds.

The Wilds (see location here) has secure parking just off Houghton Drive and full-time security at the entrance.

That Day When I Flew Over an Erupting Volcano

I’ve just returned from a weeklong trip to Reunion Island with six other blogger/writer/photographers, as part of a camapign called #GoToReunion. We experienced so many amazing things during those seven days; by the end of the week I was already struggling to remember what we’d done at the beginning.

Yesterday I began the long, slow process of sifting through my pictures from Reunion, trying to wrangle them into some kind of order so I can edit them and put them into my blog. I started with our first major activity — a 40-minute helicopter tour of the island with Helilagon. As I scrolled through the pictures, the memory of that experience returned, and my jaw slowly dropped. If not for these photos I might have convinced myself that the Reunion helicopter ride was a dream. It was that surreal.

I haven’t yet sifted beyond my photos of the helicopter ride. I need to blog about it before the memory fades.

07-VolcanoDid I actually fly over a lava-spewing volcano on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean? Well yes, it appears I did.

I’ve been lucky enough to ride in a few helicopters in recent years (see here and here), even as recently as last month during the national Instameet. I confess that I’d become a bit blasé about it. Another exotic trip, another helicopter ride. Ho hum.

However, nothing could have prepared me for the Reunion Island helicopter ride. My previous helicopter trips were like tricycle rides in comparison.

Boarding-copterMy friends Carlinn and Mike (right), getting ready to board the chopper. Like me, they had no idea what they were in for.

The ride started out as I expected — we took off and skirted the ocean, with pretty views of the island’s western beaches and coastal towns. This was nice. But then we turned eastward, toward the island’s interior. The helicopter began to climb.

Did I mention that Reunion formed over a volcanic hotspot? The island is basically a big pile of volcanic rock bubbling above the surface of the ocean. The tallest peak on the island, Piton des Nieges, is a dormant volcano more than 3000 meters (9842 feet) tall. Piton des Neiges is surrounded by three massive calderas, or cirques — giant, lush-green craters surrounded by soaring waterfalls and dotted with quaint villages accessible only by foot.

On the other side of the island is Piton de la Fournaise, an active volcano that has erupted more than 100 times in the last 400 years. Piton de la Fournaise has been erupting on and off this whole year. It was in rare form during our visit last week.

I’m doing my best to describe Reunion’s geography, but I’m no geographer and it’s a useless endeavor anyway. People had told me all of this before, too, but I didn’t get it until that helicopter crested the edge of the cirque. Below there was nothing but green. Above was nothing but blue. Ahead was a rocky precipice, and beyond that, white clouds.  The pilot was speaking into my head phones but I couldn’t understand a word — his French accent was strong and the background noise was loud. The copter’s engine revved. Then we made a little hop, my stomach lurched, and we dropped over the precipice into the Cirque de Mafat. Everyone in the helicopter screamed, literally, with delight.

My photos serve no justice at all. Half the time I was too excited to take pictures and I struggled with reflections on the windows. But I’ll show you what I’ve got.

11-Inside-copterThis wasn’t the actual moment when we went over the precipice into the first cirque. But I think the photo communicates what that moment felt like.

02-WaterfallsEmerald green mountainsides, cliffs, magical waterfalls…the usual.

01-WaterfallsA cliffside covered in waterfalls.

03-WaterfallsI mean really, what the actual f*ck? I think I was screaming again at this point, in disbelief.

04-WaterfallsThis canyon, pictured here and in the photo above, is called the Trou de Fer, or Iron Hole. There are six waterfalls dumping water about 200 meters (600 feet) down. We took several flips through this canyon so everyone got a good view. 

08-ValleyI’m not sure where we were when I took this.

Then we flew across the island to the active volcano.

05-VolcanoNo, this is not the moon. It’s Reunion.

06-VolcanoI’m just going to leave this here.

I could barely breathe after the volcano. But there was more magnificence to come.

09-ValleyI think this is the same river valley that we walked through a few days later.

10-Tiny-townsTiny villages in the Cirque de Salazie. Look closely at the insanely curvy roads. Those roads made me car sick later in the week.

12-MountainsBlue and green for days.

12-CoastFinally, back to the western coast. Check out that turquoise coral reef.

And then we landed.

The Reunion Island helicopter ride ranks firmly in the top five most incredible experiences of my life, hands down. But this is only the beginning of my #GoToReunion story. Wait for it.

My trip to Reunion Island was courtesy of Reunion Island Tourism and Destinate. Opinions expressed are my own.

South Africa’s Wild, Wild Coast: Part 2

Read Part 1.

After 12 hours of driving, a flat tire, and a minor head injury, Ray and I pass through the gate of the Dwesa Nature Reserve. We would weep for joy if we weren’t so traumatized.

The gate is abandoned. But at least it’s open and we can drive in. The road changes immediately — from hard, uneven, and rocky to soft, flat, and sandy. The landscape changes too; we’re plunged into a dark, quiet forest.

Ray keeps driving and I fumble for the park map that I printed out yesterday. The map indicates six different gates, but I can’t tell which gate we entered through.

Eventually we come to a fork in the road, with a sign. Left to Gate 6, the sign says, and right to Gate 1. I look at the map and deduce that we entered via Gate 5, on the northeastern side of the park. Gate 1 — the main gate, where we should have entered the park if we’d taken the easier route that we don’t yet know about — is mysteriously not marked on the map. Via process of elimination I deduce that Gate 1 is where the chalets are. We follow the sign to Gate 1, on the park’s southwestern edge.

We drive on and on through the forest. Fortunately each fork is sign-posted and we continue toward Gate 1. Ray is exhausted and still shirtless, having sacrificed his shirt for my bleeding head. (Fortunately it’s warm year-round on the Wild Coast and my head is actually fine.) Eventually I take over the wheel.

We start to fear that we’ll never reach Gate 1.

We round a bend and suddenly, galloping in front of us, is a trio of zebras. I rub my eyes. I must be dreaming. But the zebras are real, their rear ends staying just within our line of sight as we round each curve. I feel certain these beautiful zebras are guiding us to our destination. Then they melt into the brush.

[Sorry I have no photos of the zebra butts or anything else from this part of the story.]

We’re about ready to just stop the car and sleep until morning. But based on map landmarks, we know we’re close to Gate 1.

Abruptly, the road ends. Or rather, the road is blocked by a thick metal boom. We can see another car parked just beyond it.

Ray throws on a jacket and runs up to the boom. He tries to lift it but it’s locked. He ducks under, has a quick look, then returns to our car, panting. “There’s a house up there — I see people in it!” I abandon the car and follow him.

We see lights at the top of a hill — obviously one of the park chalets. There is nothing else in sight, only pitch darkness and the sound of the ocean. We have no choice but to approach the chalet and hope the people inside are nice.

We scramble up a long set of stone stairs, lighting the way with our phones. A man comes to the door as we reach the top. It feels amazingly wonderful to see another human being.

Olivier and his wife Claire invite us in (despite our haggard crazy-eyes), listen patiently to our mad jumble of words, and drive us up the road to the actual Gate 1 entrance, which is miraculously staffed by a person even at 8:30 p.m. We never would have found the entrance on our own.

We get the keys to our chalet and Olivier drives us back to our car. (If anyone reading this knows a French expat couple named Olivier and Claire, please tell them thank you for saving our asses.)

We find our chalet and climb 44 stone stairs, in the dark, to reach it. (Did I mention there is no electricity at Dwesa?) Then we climb the stairs several more times with our heavy luggage and food. Then we light the oil lamps and eat leftover curry that Ray brought from Durban. Then we take showers (Dwesa has hot water, thank God), then we go to bed (Dwesa has comfortable beds, thank God). Then we sleep like dead people.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

The next morning, once we dragged ourselves out of bed, we had a look at where we were. We liked what we saw.

Outside cabin

The outside of our chalet. The inside was just as lovely as the outside, but by morning it already had clothes, food, flashlights, and various clutter strewn everywhere. So I couldn’t take a decent photo.

Dwesa cabins

View of two other chalets, seen from our stoop.

Dweasa steps

The dreaded 44 steps. Our chalet is at the top.

This post is long already and I haven’t even gotten to the story of our actual holiday.

My friends who recommended Dwesa were totally right: It’s one of the most beautiful, peaceful, remote places I’ve ever been. I loved it.

Dwesa beach morning

The beach, a three-minute walk from our chalet.

Ray in ocean

Ray soaks up the healing power of the sea.

Cows at Dwesa

Cows just outside the entrance to the park. We saw them when took a walk to a nearby hamlet to buy soft drinks and soap. 

Dwesa beach evening

Back on the beach for sunset.

Beach shadows

Obligatory tandem beach shadow shot.

Heather jumping

Celebrating the fact that I’m alive. (Photo: Ray)

Ray shell phone

Ray takes an important call on a shell.

Dwesa sunset

Beautiful.

Dwesa was great. I’m really glad we went, despite our ordeal. But unfortunately we were only there for two nights (another big mistake), and we spent the majority of our single full day recovering from the day before. So we really didn’t get to explore the park at all, which made me sad. No hiking, no forest walks, no wildlife spotting. Except for the zebra butts, which made me happy.

Ray and I planned this trip to celebrate both Ray’s birthday and the one-year anniversary of when we met. It was our first time taking a real trip alone together — a trip that wasn’t a blogger freebie, planned solely by us.

We both sacrificed a lot to go to the Wild Coast together: Ray is in the middle of a taxing Ph.D. program and worked his ass off so he could get enough time off. I turned down an amazing international travel opportunity — an opportunity that I might not be offered again — in favor of this trip.

So, yeah, the Wild Coast was rather emotional. I wish things had gone a bit differently. But I’m grateful for the time alone that Ray and I spent in this beautiful place. And I hope we make it back to Dwesa someday, under less trying circumstances.

We left at sunrise the next morning to ensure we had time to drive to Mthatha to exchange our rental car, then make it to our next Wild Coast destination before dark. And in true Wild Coast fashion, we wound up needing every possible second of daylight. (Story in Part 3.)

Dwesa sunrise

Sunrise on the way out of Dwesa.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

A few tips for anyone going to Dwesa:

1) Do not attempt to drive from Durban to Dwesa in one day, especially in winter. Rather, drive to Mthatha and spend a night there, then drive from Mthatha to Dwesa.

2) Better still: Fly to East London, rent a car, and drive to Dwesa from there. My friend Kim made this recommendation and we foolishly didn’t take it, thinking it would be cheaper to rent a car in Joburg and drive the whole way, via Durban. Mistake.

3) Whether you’re coming from Mthatha or East London, follow this route to Dwesa: N2 Highway to iDutya, iDutya to Willowvale, Willowvale to the Dwesa main entrance. Do not waver from this route, no matter what Google Maps says.

4) However long Google Maps tells you it will take to get to Dwesa, no matter from where, double it.

5) Don’t drive to Dwesa in anything smaller than an SUV. Even if you follow all the tips above, there’s still a chance that you’ll wind up on a crap road that’s passable only in a high-clearance vehicle. And make sure you know how to change a tire.

6) Stay at Dwesa for at least three nights; bring charcoal, headlamps, and plenty to eat and drink; and have fun.

Obviously Ray and I were particularly unlucky and I’m sure many others have traveled to Dwesa with fewer difficulties. But I would still follow these tips just in case.

More Wild Coast adventures to come.

South Africa’s Wild, Wild Coast: Part 1

We round a bend and there it is: a metal gate with a sign for Dwesa/Cwebe Nature Reserve. Finally! I was starting to feel like we’d never make it. Now we’ll have just enough time to get to the beach before sunset.

The smartly dressed park ranger, a stout woman with curly hair and a wide smile, walks out to greet us. We exchange the usual pleasantries.

“We’ve booked a chalet in the nature reserve,” I tell her.

The ranger looks confused. “You’re not booked at the hotel?” she asks.

“No. A self-catering chalet.”

“Eish! You’ve come the wrong way.”

The ranger explains that this is the entrance to the Haven Hotel, which is inside the Dwesa/Cwebe reserve on the north side of the Mbhashe River mouth. The self-catering chalets, however, are on the south side of the river mouth. There is no bridge across the river mouth. To reach the chalets, we’ll have to backtrack and drive about 40 kilometers to the other side.

It takes my brain a while to absorb this news. We left Durban at 7:00 this morning and it’s now after 4:00. The sun is very low in the sky already — winter days are short in the Eastern Cape.

Mistake #1: Attempting to drive from Durban to Dwesa in one day.

Forty kilometers (about 24 miles) is an easy distance to cover under conventional circumstances. But this is the Wild Coast, in a region of the Eastern Cape formerly called the Transkei. The roads out here are not conventional. For the past two hours, we’ve been averaging 25 to 40 kilometers an hour on a rough, rutted dirt track.

Transkei scenery

The Wild Coast/Transkei. Beautiful, but it’s a bitch to navigate.

About an hour ago, we came to a fork in the road. Google Maps told us to turn left, but there was a sign for the Haven Hotel to the right. The left fork had no sign.

We’re going to Dwesa, we thought, and the Haven Hotel is in Dwesa. (Actually the Haven is in Cwebe, which adjoins Dwesa. But we didn’t know that at the time. It’s all very confusing.) So we went right at the fork. Google Maps continually nagged us to turn around, but we ignored it.

Mistake #2: Ignoring Google Maps.

So now we sit at the wrong gate with the friendly park ranger, considering our options: 1) We can check in at the Haven, if they happen to have a room. But we’ve already paid for our chalet and the Haven is more expensive. 2) We can backtrack and try to reach the other side of Dwesa, and our cozy chalet, before dark. Or as soon after dark as possible.

“If you leave now, you might get there by 6:00,” the ranger suggests. Option #2 it is.

Ray can see I’m not coping well. “Let me drive,” he says.

I climb out of the driver’s seat of our rented Nissan Qashqai SUV. It was a free upgrade from the Toyota Avanza that we originally reserved. Thank goodness — we could never have made it in a smaller vehicle.

Ray turns the car around and we head off again.

Mistake #3: Not staying at the Haven.

The late afternoon sun illuminates the walls of thatched, pastel-painted rondavels. Herds of livestock and domesticated geese saunter across the road. Gangs of teenage boys jog past, chanting and holding up long painted sticks. There must be an initiation ritual tonight.

I love places like this. But there’s no time to get out and take photos, no time to talk to the locals and find out what life is like here. We need to get where we’re going, as quickly and safely as possible.

Dwesa geese

I actually took this photo on a different day. But it’s similar to what we saw that afternoon. Except the road pictured here is much, much better than the one we drove that evening on the way to Dwesa.

We follow the GPS over endless hills, through countless valleys. Ray drives slowly, carefully, avoiding deep chasms and big rocks. Ray is very patient.

The sun disappears behind the mountains, and we begin to climb in earnest. We find ourselves on a steep, narrow mountain pass with no guard rail. “I’m not going to look,” Ray says, referring to the gaping drop-off to my left. We descend, skittering on the sparse gravel, then climb again, hugging the side of the mountain.

Twenty-five kilometers to Dwesa, according to the GPS. The light is fading fast.

We later learn that we could have avoided this entire harrowing experience if we’d taken a different, slightly longer route from Mthatha, via the towns of iDutya and Willowvale. But Google Maps doesn’t seem to know the difference between good roads and bad roads. The non-harrowing option was never suggested to us.

Mistake #4: Following Google Maps. (Yes, Mistake #4 contradicts Mistake #2. Because Transkei.)

Suddenly, a loud clunk. A sharp rock that Ray didn’t see. The car becomes harder to control. Ray pulls over and gets out.

“There’s a flat,” Ray says.

A walnut-sized puncture in the left-front tire. Inevitable, I suppose.

I’ve survived 25 years of driving life without ever changing a tire. Until now. Fortunately Ray knows what to do.

We empty our luggage from the trunk and pile it on the side of the road. Haul out the full-size spare tire and the jack. Set up the emergency reflector. I struggle to raise the jack, balanced awkwardly on the rocky, dusty road, while Ray labors to loosen the lug nuts. We’re each stabbed repeatedly by a thorn bush, which is pressing against the side of the car.

A vehicle approaches — a single man in a bakkie (small pickup truck). I wave and the man waves back. But doesn’t stop.

Jack is raised, flat tire is off. We can’t get the spare tire on though. The jack isn’t quite high enough. Ray digs out the space under the wheel and I try to raise the jack higher, twisting the small, awkward wrench.

Ray nearly has the new tire on. “We need some light,” he pants, sitting back on his heels. I look inside the car and see my iPhone in the cup holder. Without a thought, I pull open the door.

Mistake #5: Opening the passenger side car door while changing the passenger side tire.

A loud bang as the car door explodes into my face. Ray reels back, stunned. “Oh my god, are you okay?” I’m crying, afraid Ray is hurt. But he looks fine. Luckily he wasn’t under the car when it fell. The jack has collapsed and the car tilts awkwardly. My face hurts.

I put my hand to my face and feel swelling above my eye. “I hurt myself, ” I moan. Ray is hugging me. “You’re bleeding,” he says. He strips off his t-shirt and holds it tightly to my face. I sob, the sound echoing across the valley. Far below, the young male initiates are still chanting.

What the fuck are we going to do now?

“It’s okay,” Ray soothes. “We’re okay. I’ll call the Haven.” He gently puts my hand on his t-shirt, which is still against my head. “Hold that there.”

Ray is on the phone, calling the Haven. (Cell phone signal is surprisingly strong around here.) “My girlfriend might have a concussion,” I hear him say. While he’s speaking to the Haven staff (who are nice but ultimately unhelpful), another bakkie approaches. This one stops.

We’re saved by an angel named Luwazi and Luwazi’s friend, whose name I never learn. Luwazi has a sister in Joburg and he used to stay with her in Northcliff. He and his friend are expert tire-changers (duh, they live in the Transkei). We’re ready to go in under 15 minutes.

I’m feeling so much love for Luwazi and his friend. They have truly saved our asses. I hand them R300 ($25). “I wish we could give you more,” I say, and I mean it. But from the size of their smiles, I can see that R300 goes a long way in the Transkei. We follow them until the next turnoff to Dwesa.

It’s pitch dark. Ray is shirtless, driving under 20km per hour with the high-beams on, dodging pedestrians, cows, and holes in the road. I’m still holding the t-shirt to my head but I’m not bleeding much. I can tell I’m okay.

I look at my phone: it’s just after 6:00. It feels like midnight.

We reach the Dwesa gate between 7:00 and 7:30, after navigating an endless maze of twists and turns. It’s been 12 hours since we left Durban. There’s an elderly man standing just outside the gate, his bakkie stuck in the mud. We stop next to him.

“Are you okay?” Ray asks.

“Oh, yeeeees. Someone is coming for me.” The man has a beautiful face. “Where are you going?” he asks.

We point to the sign for the nature reserve. “Ohhhh, it’s very nice there,” the man says. “The road is bad out here but once you’re in the forest, it’s good.”

We wave goodbye to the kind old man and approach the park entrance. There is a gatehouse, curiously dark and abandoned, but no gate. We drive through, into another world.

The journey isn’t over yet.

Read Part 2.
Read Part 3.

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Pop-Up Travel: Addo Elephant National Park

I visited Addo Elelphant National Park about a year-and-a-half ago as part of a blogger trip to Port Elizabeth. Addo is one of South Africa’s largest national parks and one of the best places in the world to view elephants in the wild. There are more than 600 elephants living in Addo, up from just 11 when the park was proclaimed in 1931.

I only visited Addo for about half a day. It rained the day we went and our safari was cut short. I guess this is why I never got around to blogging about it — I figured I’d get back to Addo sometime soon, take more pictures, and write a full-length post. But alas, I haven’t made it back yet and my Addo elephant photos are languishing. So here are a few of my favorites.

Addo wide shot

A small herd of elephants bathing in a dam (small lake) in Addo.

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This young elephant was cruising the shore close to our vehicle.

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Still cruising.

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Now stopping for a drink. End of sequence. Heavy rain moved in around this time and we had to return to the camp.

Addo Elephant National Park is less than an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth and makes a great day trip from there. Addo protects all of the “Big 5” — elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards, and buffalo — as well as southern right whales and great white sharks along the coast, rounding out what is now called the “Big 7”. The park also offers hiking, marine eco tours, and horseback-riding. I did go horseback-riding there and loved it — perhaps a topic for a future pop-up travel post.

I Climbed the Highest Mountain in Zimbabwe

Apologies for the lag in posting lately. My trip to Zimbabwe was a month ago and I’m just writing about it now.

Last month I traveled to Zim with Ray‘s family to celebrate his grandmother’s 90th birthday. We spent a couple of days in Harare (the capital) and then four days in Nyanga, in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands. The whole family stayed together in Nyanga, in a rambling mountain holiday house.

Nyanga is a magical place. I’ll have more to say about the area as a whole in a future post.

Nyangani vista2

Nyanga National Park.

But first let me tell you about one of the highlights of the trip — climbing Mount Nyangani, the highest mountain in Zimbabwe. I’m pretty sure I’ve never climbed the highest mountain in any country before so this was a pretty big deal. It wasn’t all that hard, either. And of course the views were amazing.

Nyangani sign

Mount Nyangani is the highest mountain in Zimbabwe at 2592 meters (8504 feet) above sea level. The mountain is inside Nyanga National Park. The sign above states that Mount Nyangani is spiritually important to many Zimbabweans and tourists are asked to respect traditional beliefs. Among other things, you should point at objects with a clenched fist, rather than a finger, and “maintain a poker face” if you are privileged enough to observe spiritual phenomena such as “trees with breasts”, “smouldering clay pots and caves”, or “granite boulders shaped like a grave”. Unfortunately I didn’t see any of those things.

The climb is somewhat strenuous but certainly no Everest — we made it to the top in less than two hours.

Nyangani foothills2

A little less than halfway up.

Nyangani hikers

My climbing partners: Ray, Ray’s Uncle Chris, Ray’s cousin Sarah, and Sarah’s boyfriend Ben.

Nyangani foothills

View from the back side of the mountain.

Ray on rock

Believe it or not, Ray is afraid of heights.
 Nyangani tree

Nice tree.

wildflowers

We saw some beautiful wildflowers during the climb.

Protea

The protea trees were in full bloom.

We were only marginally tired by the time we reached the top. It’s a pretty easy hike for a relatively fit person. The steepest climbs are at the beginning.

Ben on top

Ben relaxes near the summit.

Nyangani mist

Apparently it’s almost always misty at the top, even in the middle of the day. For some perspective on how high we were, check out how tiny that road looks in the bottom-right corner.

Some notes for anyone planning to climb Mount Nyangani:

1) The mountain in inside Nyanga National Park and you have to pay an entry fee to get in. The price of admission varies according to your nationality. I managed to pass as a South African and I think I paid $8 (admission is higher for Americans and Europeans). There are lots of other cool things to see in the park, which I plan to discuss in a future post.

2) Technically tourists are not supposed to climb Mount Nyangani alone, but rather with a guide from the park. A solo climber disappeared on the mountain several months ago so the park is being extra careful. We were unaware of this though, and when we arrived at 7:30 a.m. the entrance to the park was open and no one was there. So we managed to slip in and climb the mountain on our own. The park rangers weren’t happy with us though.

3) I almost forgot the most important point. The roads in Nyanga are extremely rough and it would be very difficult to reach Nyangani in a regular car. A 4×4 is highly recommended.

More Nyanga stories to come.

Heather Ray at top

Ray and I atop Mount Nyangani. (Photo: Sarah Charnaud)

PS: The comment section on the blog is finally working again. And in fact it works even better than before. So please comment away — I’ve missed all your feedback.

Mystery Photo: Where Did I Take It?

I spent the weekend in a beautiful, exotic place. Here’s a photo that I took there. Any guesses as to where I was? Sand Dune small In reality, it’s impossible to keep secrets in this digital age. If you follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram then you already know the answer. Nonetheless, guesses are welcome from the social media haters among you. A longer post with more details is coming soon.

UPDATE: Want the answer? Click here.

Jozi Top Fives: The Best Parks in Town

In the second installment of my “top five” series, I present my five favorite parks in Joburg.

An editor once asked me to review a description of Joburg for an expat website. The description said something like, “It’s difficult to spend time outdoors in Johannesburg because there are no safe parks in the city.” I nearly laughed aloud when I read this, as it’s such complete nonsense. There are so many lovely parks in Joburg that I struggled to narrow my choices to five. All of the parks listed here are safe in my opinion, as long as you don’t go alone or at night.

1) Sandton Field and Study Centre
Corner of Louise Ave. and 14th Street, Parkmore

Parkmore - Field and Study dog

A swimming dog at the Sandton Field and Study Centre.

Parkmore - Field and Study trees

I don’t think the trees are indigenous but I love them anyway.

I first visited the Sandton Field and Study Centre while researching for the SandtonPlaces book. Sorry for the cliché but the Field and Study Centre is Sandton’s best-kept secret. It’s just minutes from downtown Sandton and yet it feels so relaxing and rural. The Braamfontein Spruit runs right through the park, its grassy banks lined with huge trees. The Field and Study Centre has its own restaurant, the River Café, as well as a beautiful historic house and horse stable. Read more about the Field and Study Centre in my previous post. 

2) The Johannesburg Botanical Garden/Emmarentia Dam
Olifants Road, Emmarentia (multiple entrances)

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The most beautiful rose at the Johannesburg Botanical Garden.

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Dog-walking at Emmarentia Dam.

The Johannesburg Botanical Garden/Emmarentia Dam is two parks in one: the manicured botanical gardens on one side, where dogs are not allowed, and the larger, wilder Emmarentia Dam on the other side, where dog-walking, mountain-biking, etc. are permitted. The dam also has a boat house for canoeing and rowing.

The Rose Garden is my favorite place to hang out (especially on Sundays, when the garden is filled with wedding parties) but I also like walking around the dam and watching the dogs. This is my go-to park for picnics and a good place for running, too.

3) James and Ethel Gray Park
North Street and St. Andrews Street, Birdhaven (multiple entrances)

Dog-walkers

A family at James and Ethel Gray Park.

People walking in park

This park has a fantastic view of the Joburg skyline.

I also found James and Ethel Gray Park while researching for SandtonPlaces (see my previous post about James and Ethel Gray). I love the layout of the park and also the location — Birdhaven is such a tranquil suburb and there is a nice shopping centre nearby with good restaurants. James and Ethel Gray has a great community vibe and is one of the best places in the northern suburbs to watch the sunset over the Joburg skyline.

4) Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Malcolm Road, Roodepoort 

Walter Sisulu waterfall

The iconic waterfall at Walter Sisulu.

Walter Sisulu clouds

Sunset over the wildflowers in Walter Sisulu’s indigenous plant section.

Not to be confused with the Johannesburg Botanical Garden, which is a Joburg city park, Walter Sisulu is Joburg’s only national botanical garden. (There are nine national botanical gardens nationwide, run by the South African National Biodiversity Institute.) Getting to Walter Sisulu requires a bit of a drive out into the West Rand but it’s worth the journey. The grounds are massive with miles of hiking trails, the indigenous garden is a plant-lover’s dream, and the huge waterfall is stunning. Walter Sisulu also has a bird-watching hide and a musical performance area where big-name artists play concerts.

5) Melville Koppies Nature Reserve
Multiple entrances around Melville, Westdene and Emmarentia (see website)

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Sunset from Melville Koppies East. I took this photo a week after I moved here, on my old point-and-shoot.

Koppies sunset

Another sunset from the Koppies.

I’ve saved the best for last. The Melville Koppies are directly behind my house — I’m looking out at them as I type this. I’ve blogged about the Koppies many times (see a few examples here and here and here and here). The Melville Koppies will always be my favorite park in Joburg and my favorite place in town to gaze at the Joburg skyline.

What I love most about the Koppies, beside the fact that they’re in my back yard, is how wild they are while also being so accessible. I could go on and on but the best place to learn about the Koppies is the Friends of the Melville Koppies website. The site also has a schedule for guided Koppies group walks, which I highly recommend. (Melville Koppies Central, which contains significant Iron Age ruins, is closed to the public except for guided group walks.)

Note: I’ve heard some rumors about recent muggings on Melville Koppies West, on the Westdene side of Beyers Naude Drive. I rarely visit Melville Koppies West but I walk on Melville Koppies East all the time — always with a dog or another person — and I’ve never felt in danger. I haven’t heard about any crimes on Melville Koppies East during the four years I’ve lived in Melville.

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A moody Instagram shot from the top of Melville Koppies East.

Summer has arrived and Joburg has one of the best climates on earth. So print this list and get out there. More top five posts are on the way.

Zip-lining Through the Magaliesberg on an Autumn Easter Weekend

Nearly four years after my move from America to South Africa, I’m still disturbed by holiday season-inversion. Celebrating Christmas in summer is surreal, and I will never adjust to my July birthday — which used to be a summer rite of passage — now falling in the middle of winter.

However, Easter in autumn (or fall, as we Americans call it) is a holiday season-inversion that I actually enjoy. Autumn isn’t so different from spring, after all, and somehow this holiday lends itself well to the end of summer. Easter is also a bigger deal in South Africa than it is in the United States. Both Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays so everyone gets a four-day weekend.

Autumn at Modderfontein

Fall colors are more muted here than they are on the East Coast of the U.S., but still beautiful. I shot this during a weekend Instagram gathering at Modderfontein Dam on Joburg’s East Rand.

I did quite a few cool things over this Easter weekend, including a great Instawalk (see photo above) and lunch at a delicious Turkish restaurant in Mayfair. (You’ll have to wait a bit for that post.) But my most notable Easter weekend activity was a zip-lining adventure in the Magaliesberg Mountains.

Nina zip-lining start

My friend Nina zips through the Magaliesberg.

Ziplining is one of those activities that I would never think to do myself. But my friend Nina organized the outing and I followed along. It turned out to be a great daytrip — something different from the more popular Joburg daytrip activities like visiting an animal park or touring the Cradle of Humankind.

There are a couple of different places around the Magaliesberg Mountains where you can go zip-lining, but we did the Magaliesberg Canopy Tour at Sparkling Waters Hotel & Spa. Sparkling Waters is about 90 minutes from downtown Joburg, west of the Hartebeespoort Dam. (While technically a mountain range, the Magaliesberg is more like a collection of medium-sized hills. I learned this weekend that the Magaliesberg is the second-oldest mountain range in the world, which explains why the mountains aren’t very big.)

We arrived at Sparkling Waters at 9:45 a.m. We were promptly greeted and briefed on our upcoming adventure. Within 20 minutes, I was decked out in zip-lining gear and ready to go.

Zipline prep

Zip-lining gear is not super-attractive. (Photo: Nina Neubauer)

There were eight people in our group. Our friendly and hilarious guides, Thabiso and Lenah, loaded us into the back of a bakkie (pickup truck) and off we went into the bush. We disembarked on the edge of a gorge called Ysterhout Kloof.

Zip-liners in bakkie

Our group is on the right. We were paired up with a friendly family of four. (Photo: Thabiso, our friendly and hilarious guide.)

I vaguely remember zip-lining once before as a kid, on a school camping trip somewhere in the Appalachians. I imagined this experience would be much the same but it was actually nothing like I remembered. Rather than zipping down one long, straight line, as I remembered doing before, we crisscrossed back and forth over the gorge on lines of varying lengths and heights. The shortest “zip” was about three-to-five seconds (about 50 meters) and the longest was maybe eight or nine seconds (140 meters).

Tiny Nina

Nina wins the prize for most stylish and graceful zip-liner: She occasionally went no-hands (not sure that’s really allowed but she looked good doing it) and yelled “Geronimo!” as she zipped. Unfortunately I never got a good shot of her from the front. (I took pictures with my phone. Thabiso said I could bring my camera but I decided it would be too cumbersome.)

Jen ziplining

Jen approaches the end of a run. The scariest part is right at the end, before you reach the platform. Lenah clearly delighted in terrifying us by pulling the brakes at the very last second. Don’t worry though — it’s 100% safe.

I didn’t really know what to expect from this experience. It’s called a “canopy tour”, but I had never thought of the Magaliesberg as forest-like so I wasn’t sure what that meant. I feared the scenery might be a bit boring. But sailing over the gorge, with sandstone cliffs above and thick vegetation below, was beautiful and quite exhilarating. The longest line, at 140-meters, really allowed me to enjoy the view and the feel of almost-flying.

Heather ziplining

Nina also wins the prize for best photo of the day, taken with her tiny point-and-shoot. (By “best”, I obviously do not mean “most flattering”.)

I think zip-lining is the perfect compromise for someone looking for an outdoor adventure but not quite up for bunjee-jumping, skydiving, or other such death-defying activities. Incidentally, this was a good warm-up for me because there is some possible bunjee-jumping and sky-diving in my future. Wait for it.

Our zip-lining experience cost R495 (just under $50) per person, including a light lunch. The outing lasted about two hours. Visit magaliescanopytour.co.za for details.

Charged by a Dassie in Fourways

Fourth in my series of Sandton Snapshot posts, leading up to the publication of SandtonPlaces. Read posts 12 and 3.

This past weekend I went to Fourways, the northernmost Joburg suburb.

I know what you Jozi city folk are thinking: Fourways is a sprawling, traffic-choked suburban wasteland and I wouldn’t go there if you paid me. I know many of you are thinking that, because I used to think it myself. Until someone actually did pay me to go to Fourways. So I went. And I discovered interesting things.

Lonehill Dassie_edited-1

Sure, Fourways has traffic and gated communities and Montecasino. But Fourways also has chubby, slightly evil-looking dassies, living in the wild. (Dassies are kind of like prairie dogs. But bigger.)

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