Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Glimpse of Africa

One of my favorite parts of traveling is going through immigration in a new country and seeing what kind of stamp I will get on my passport.  For whatever reason I see the stamps as a sort of sacred proof that, yes, I have been to Africa.
Children of Simogan Village.
Elephant crossing in Botswana.

It has just been a few days since I returned from Africa and I wonder if it was real.  The stamps and thousands of photographs prove to me that I was actually there.  Now, it seems like a hazy dream, one where the Lion King and news and travel articles I have read about Africa, came to life in a genuine, unforgettable way.

We flew into Johannesburg and left the next morning for Zambia.  We stayed at an intimate lodge just outside Livingstone called “The River Club.”  We arrived by boat.  
If you look closely you can see the brown chalets of The River Club.
It was enchanting to speed along the Zambezi River and pull up to a little wooden dock where we then climbed a rustic staircase that took us to a beautiful, classic British Colonial style lodge. 
My stepsister, Emma and her husband, James in their chalet.
Each chalet has a thatched roof and a floor to ceiling see-through screen overlooking the Zambezi River.  During the night I would wake to the gentle groaning of hippos in the river below my room, or the sound of velvet baboons jumping from tree-to-tree, and occasionally landing on the rooftop.  A mosquito net over my bed provided protection from the pesky bugs, but I enjoyed the net more for the reminder that I was someplace exotic, someplace which needed a net in the first place.
Victoria Falls.  You can see why they call it, "The smoke that Thunders."
We made a trip to the Victoria Falls, known as “the smoke that thunders” and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.  The highlight was riding out on a small boat through rapids to a tiny island about 150 feet from the edge of the falls.  
Walking through rapids to get a better view of the falls.
We covered ourselves with large, hooded ponchos and climbed barefoot over rocks and through the mud and water to get to the edge.  Two guides, Felix and Collins, held my hands as I peered over the falls, 300 feet down.  Without the ponchos, we would have been drenched as the dense “smoke” was more like rain. 

Playing an afternoon game of croquet on the River Club lawn.
Our three nights at River Club were filled with lots of croquet, delicious dinners served at a long table with the other River Club guests, and an eye-opening visit to a local village called “Simonga Village.”  
Playing "high-five" with an an adorable village boy.
Much of the River Club staff comes from this village and it was a pleasure to get to know them throughout our stay.  The people in the Simonga Village use a mud mixture to make their huts; old car batteries generate power for the few homes with electronic appliances.  
He is adorable.
The River Club started a partnership with the village aiming to increase the quality of life there.  Examples of their projects include installing water pumps, pipes and storage tanks and establishing a small health post in the village.   
I met a little boy in the Simonga Village who was anxious to show off his hand-made toy. 
We traveled by car, then boat, then open-air Jeep to cross the border from Zambia to Botswana. 
The Botswana-Zambia border is the Zambezi River. Truck drivers wait for days to cross to the other side because there is just one ferry that can handle one truck at a time. It was quite a scene.  
Boarding a boat for a five minute ride across the Zambezi River to get to Botswana.  
We spent the first three nights at The Chobe Game Lodge, which is located in a National Park.  For that reason, on our 6AM "game drives" we often saw almost as many Land Rovers with tourists as wild animals.  It was still worth our while because Chobe is home to several herds of elephants, families of giraffes, lions, hippos and countless lone, slithery and scaly crocodiles.  
Male Lion... Mufasa?
He never took his eyes of the herd of buffalo in the distance.
Hippos out of water--a rare sighting.  
Elephants drinking, playing.
So peaceful, when thirsty.

The first night, we stopped during our evening game drive for cocktails in the company of elephants.  It was surreal to be standing so close to the majestic creatures, all while enjoying a glass of wine and watching the African sunset.  
 Me, Dana, James, Emma, and John.
Buffet dinners drew hotel guests each night and the charismatic cooks, waiters and bus boys liked to show off their dance moves.  Worlds away, people are the same.
Our friends, Prince and Rich, showing off their moves!
From Chobe we boarded a 12-seater plane and headed south to the Okavango Delta.  Though I was tense for the hour-long flight, once we began descending into the Delta I loosened up and grew more and more excited as I saw the maze of waterways below.  
Descending into the Okavango Delta. 
The only way to get to our camp, Xigera Camp, is via boat.  We were met by our guide, named Ace who, by the end of our three nights there became part of our family.  
Drinks on a sandbar in the middle of the Okavango Delta. Ace is in the center.
Xigera Camp is much more remote than Chobe Camp.  We followed tracks, tested the strength of the Land Rover and powered over trees, branches and bushes and drove through water that nearly reached our elevated seats.  I wondered if the Land Rover was really Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in disguise.    
Our trusty Land Rover in Botswana.
One of my favorite animals is the zebra.  They are stunning, interesting animals and I was so excited when I spotted one while out on a game drive in the Delta!  

One day, at sunset, we took a mokoro ride through the narrow "hippo highways" of the Delta.  Surrounded by lily pads and tall grass, we glided silently over crystal clear water. 
My mom and me in a mokoro canoe.
Though many events on my trip to Africa were unique, one stands out as utterly unforgettable. On our way to breakfast in the morning, there was a bit of a hold up: an elephant decided to feed on plants right next to the wooden walkway that connects the rooms of Xigera Camp.  Despite Disney's depiction of elephants like "Dumbo," elephants are actually very dangerous animals.  They are known for stampeding anything they see as a threat.  If you steer clear of them, they are generally peaceful, but at up to a powerful 15-tons in size, there is no room for risk.  Ace waited with us and kept his eye on the elephant while we waited 15 minutes for him to finish feeding.  My heart was racing the entire time.  One misstep, one frightening sound, and I thought I would surely be a goner.
Just your usual morning hold-up.
Luckily this elephant ate his breakfast and turned around, headed back for the jungle.  It was unreal to be mere feet from this elephant, but I have to admit I was happy to get into the open breakfast room where we were safe! 
Boarding our plane and saying goodbye to Ace.
I cried when we left Xigera Camp.  There was something magical about being alone with nature, hearing nothing but jungle noises.  One night at dinner, the entire Xigera staff came out by the fire and sang a song.  Though it was in their native tongue, I could not stop trying to hum and sing along.  I ran a quick search on YouTube, and turns out someone recorded a "show" in 2009.  I have included it below:

South Africa  
Our flight from Botswana to Cape Town was a few hours, but it seemed like another world.  Striking cliffs, monstrous waves and 5-star restaurants, shops and hotels awaited us.  We stayed on the Waterfront at the One&Only Resort near the working harbor.  
Cape Town harbor. 
We spent one morning hiking two hours to the top of Table Mountain.  Though steep and strenuous, the view from the top is worth every leg-shaking, sweat-dripping moment.  
On the way to the top.
At the top of Table Mountain.
To get a feel for the city in the brief time we were there, just three nights, we drove around quite a bit.  Perhaps it is effective marketing to sell something to people at their car window.  In San Francisco, people make signs asking for money, a reminder of the issue of homelessness.  On the bustling streets of Cape Town, people walk in between taxis, trucks and private cars selling trinkets ranging from yo-yos to my favorite, melon-sized, rotating globes.  Staring out the window of our awkwardly shaped white Nissan rental car, I spotted Africa on the map spinning in the hand of an African man, and it hit me: I was on the other side of the world, one where I could not help but wonder if sighting stray elephants is as mundane as sighting a stray dog in the U.S.?  I doubt it.

For our final night we went to the winelands about an hour outside of Cape Town.  We stayed at a bed and breakfast in Franschhoek and did some wine tasting.  
Wine tasting in Franschhoek, South Africa. 
South African wines have grown in popularity over the past couple decades, really taking off after the end of apartheid in 1994.  Today, South Africa exports 500 million liters of wine around the world each year, compared with just 50 million liters in 1992.  If you have never tried "Pinotage" a distinctively South African grape, which is a combination of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, I highly recommend the curiously delicious blend.   
View of Franschhoek and the Bed&Breakfast cottage where we stayed.
This may be one of few blogs where I rarely mention food.  Well, that changes now!  In Franschhoek we went to a restaurant called "Ryan's Kitchen."  Chef Ryan serves South African cuisine with a modern, fusion twist.  The food was simply delectable, but my favorite part was the restaurant setting.  
You can see how close our table was to the kitchen. 
Located inside the dining room of a house, the restaurant has just seven tables and each had a very intimate view of Chef Ryan and his sous chefs preparing the food.  I was surprised how calm and quiet it was.  Kitchens I have been in seem to be chaotic with chefs and waiters shouting orders constantly.  Watching them prepare built anticipation.  I wish more restaurants were set up like Ryan's.  
Sous chefs cooking up a storm.
There is really no way I can sum up my trip to Africa.  It was a taste and a tease.  I have just had a bite and I cannot wait to have more.  Despite Africa's problems, the people are warm with contagious smiles.  Guide books warn about how dangerous certain places can be, and while I am sure there are places unsafe for tourists, I never once felt afraid.  Well, except for the time I thought an elephant was going to stampede. 
Now that I am back home, back to warm showers, gadgets galore and paved roadways, I sometimes find myself longing for the simplicity of the African wild.  I feel thankful and fortunate to have had the chance to see so many amazing things and meet people that I will remember forever.  I only hope one day I can give back to the welcoming people of Africa.  
Beautiful African sunset.

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