Archive for April, 2011

Safari Upgrade

Wanting the Martens to have all their animal questions answered, we spent a few nights just outside  Kruger Park in the Thornybush Game Reserve at Kwa Mbili Lodge.  The owners were a South African man and his American wife who had both worked for IBM for years in California before deciding to do something different.  Very different.  They are now raising their two young daughters in the bush and hosting visitors from all over the world at their lovely property.

We had an amazing few days at Kwa Mbili, with several different incredible guides.  Our first, AK, was a South African version of the Crocodile Hunter.  He’d been a guide for decades and it was what he was born to do.  He loves the bush and the bush loves him.  At one point we got out of the Land Cruiser and pursued a rhino on foot before it got away from us!  That was a first!

AK and a tortoise

Our second guide was a man named Ocean.  Though a man of few words, he showed us all the animals.  Ted’s mom was bound and determined to see a lion and Ted and I were crossing our fingers that it would happen.  Within 10 minutes on our drive with Ocean, we rounded a corner to see a gigantic male lion within 10 feet of the road.  Needless to say, Sarah (Ted’s mom) was thrilled as were we all.  Ocean also almost got us run over by an aggressive charging male elephant.  Luckily we were able to reverse fast enough to avoid his pursuit!

King of the bush

This guy was enormous

Ocean delivers the animals

However, our most memorable animal sitings occurred with Kwa Mbili’s owner, Neil, as our guide.  With loads of help from our mighty tracker (a local man experienced in finding and deciphering animal tracks), we were able to see a cheetah (our first!) with his kill.  In fact, the baby impala was still alive when we came upon them.  It was amazing how close the animal allowed us to get to him and how intricate and beautiful the spots are on his body.

Cheetah with a fresh kill

Resting after a big feast

And a top highlight for sure was on our last game drive at the lodge.  After our sundowners and on the way back to the lodge, we came across a leopard in our headlights.  He was literally walking across the road and we couldn’t have had better timing – 5 seconds earlier and it would have still been in the bush and 5 seconds later he would have disappeared in the other direction.  We stopped in awe and he proceeded to walk by us within feet of the car.  I don’t think any of us were breathing at that point.  It was a totally incredible sighting and the perfect way to wrap up our time in the bush.

A bit close for comfort?

Goodbye Graces, Hello Martens

As the Graces were in mid-air back to Ann Arbor, Ted and I were once again at the Johannesburg International Airport (visits 4 and 5 of 10) to welcome our second round of parental visitors.  Similar to the Graces, it was the Martens’ first time to Africa and we so appreciate them coming so far to be with us.  Rob, Sarah (Ted’s mom is also named Sarah!), Ted and I have traveled together several times before, so we knew we were in for a good time.

We spent our first couple of nights in the Drakensburg Escarpment, in an amazing hilltop accommodation that Ted and I had identified while previously driving through the area during my parents visit.  Though none of us have been there, we imagine that the surrounding landscape was similar to the Irish countryside – lots of green, rolling hills.  We spent a whole day driving a scenic loop through the region taking in waterfalls, rock formations and exploring caves.

Could be Ireland?

Drakensburg Escarpment

Blythe River Canyon


We then ventured into the Kruger Park for a couple days of self-driving safari.  As Michiganders may spend vacation time on a lake Up North every year, many South Africans make an annual trip to the Kruger Park.  You stay in the park, you drive around looking for animals all day (drinking beer optional) and you BBQ in the evenings.  We channeled our inner South African and did exactly that.  Though Ted and I knew a little bit from our previous safaris, we were by no means a wealth of information, so we opted to do a ranger-guided night drive.  It was totally worth it as we finally saw our first rhino!  Ted and I had been on safari for a total of 18 days (between Botswana and South Africa) so it was long overdue.  Those things are ridiculously intimidating and very pre-historic looking.  The good news is, we had many more rhino spottings still in store for us!

Self-drive safari treats

Self-drive safari treats



Off to the Bush

After a week in Cape Town we headed to the eastern side of the country to see some big animals.  We spent a few nights at the Pondoro Lodge in part of the greater Kruger National Park.  Pondoro is an incredible spot and my parents were treated with quite an array of beasts.  Highlights included a pride of 9 lions lying together under a tree; a gigantic elephant saying hello while crossing the road; and dozens of hippos chilling in the river.  We enjoyed our nightly sundowners; Lar dug sitting shotgun with the safari guide and we all loved the amazing dinners including ostrich filet (which tastes like steak, not chicken) and impala pie!


Larry in shotgun

Sundowners in the bush


We had an incredible couple of weeks with Sal and Lar and we can’t thank them enough for making it all the way over to South Africa, and spoiling us to boot!

Wine, Wineries, and Wine Tasting

South Africa is a well-known wine-producing region of the world.  Stellenbosch is the unofficial capital of the wine region here, and is less than an hour from Cape Town in a beautiful mountainous valley.

Stellenbosch Vistas

Stellenbosch Vistas

Unbeknownst to me, Sal and Lar had never been wine-tasting before (Ted and I had been on a few tasting excursions in both Argentina and New Zealand).  Each wine region has their own approach, but here in South Africa the norm was to show up at a winery, pay a small fee and get the opportunity to taste 4-6 different types of wine.  We were warmed up pretty quickly when our first stop served us 6 wines before 11am!

Morning tasting!

I was hoping to get Sal and Lar on a cellar tour so that they could hear about how the wine is made and how they store it, bottle it, etc. but after 3 attempts, we realized that we should have made appointments.  Apparently, many of the workers were busy in the cellars due to it being harvest season and couldn’t be bothered to give a tour at a moment’s notice.  The nerve!  We think they should take notes from the Argentines, who will show you around any time of day.

Anyway, we had a beautiful day driving around and exploring all the amazing properties.  After our strong start with the wine-tasting in the morning, I was reminded that my folks aren’t really winos and were just as happy to stop into a winery and have a look around – they didn’t feel the need to do the tastings!  That is not something I inherited from them.




Never seen a warning like this before:

Scenic Drives, a Little History, and Lots of Fish and Chips

Beyond the excitement of Table Mountain, we did a lot of other activities that were not-so-life-threatening. One highlight was driving along the coast and to the Cape of Good Hope, a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean south of the city. We’d stop when we felt like it to check out a cool beach or watch the fishermen bring in their catch. African wildlife viewing began here – we saw the adorable African penguins at Boulders Beach, as well as ostrich, antelope and zebras on the Cape Peninsula.

Muizenberg Beach, False Bay

Cape Peninsula

Cape Point

Lots of penguins!

We spent a morning at Robben Island which is where Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner for 27 years. The tours are led by former political prisoners of Robben Island which made the experience so much more authentic, and it was a stark reminder of how recently apartheid ended (1991!).

Mandela's cell, Robben Island

Robben Island

Ferry back from Robben Island

And no good trip would be complete without excellent eating. One of our favorite meals was the hilariously named Cod Father restaurant. It was highly recommended by our lodge and it was certainly a unique eating experience. There are no menus at the Cod Father – you waiter simply brings you to the display cases and shows you exactly what fresh catches the restaurant has available. As a group of four, we got an amazing assortment of different things – from crawfish (like lobster) to butterfish to prawns. It all came steaming hot to the table with overshadowed sides of fries and vegetables. We all supped to sufficiency and finished every single thing put in front of us. In honor of our memorable meal, Lar now has a Cod Father hat to add to his amazingly expansive collection that I imagine I’ll see him wearing while BBQing up north this summer.

Cod Father dinner choices

Massive seafood feast!

Table Mountain Trials and Tribulations

We arrived in Cape Town at the tail end of an extreme heat wave. Temperatures were at or near 100 degrees and the whole city was moaning and groaning in discomfort. Though the thermometer had dropped a few degrees, it was on a still very hot day that our fit and ambitious group attempted to climb Cape Town’s famous and beautiful Table Mountain.

Our host at the Lodge had tried to deter us and told us that we needed to leave early in the morning to avoid the direct sunshine on the path, but we merely smiled and nodded as we continued to enjoy our leisurely breakfast.

Upon reaching the trailhead, we were greeted with some rather steep stairs and very minimal shade. Within 90 seconds I was pretty sure that it was going to be too hot and/or difficult for our group to make it to the top however, I kept my mouth shut and we pressed on.

Nearly 1 hour into what is supposed to be a 2-3 hour hike, the group had a pow-wow to discuss our options. My mother, who is in great shape, was extremely uncomfortable in the heat and wanted to head down to the take the cable car up instead. I offered to go with her. My Dad, was determined to press on to the top, as was Ted.

View from the trailhead - a long way to go!

Mid-way up, getting real hot...

Looking back as we near the top

After nearly losing my mother to heat exhaustion (I swear the woman doesn’t sweat), we made it safely to the bottom where we promptly consumed one Powerade and one bottle of water each (as we’d sent most of our water on with the men). Once I was sure that neither of us were going faint, we bought our tickets for the cable car and ascended the mountain like 99% of the tourists do.

Once we got to the top, it had been over 3 hours and I was almost expecting that Ted and Lar would be up there waiting for us. When we arrived and there was no sign of them, I decided to go looking. I plopped Sal (who was quite worried at this point) at our planned meeting-up spot, bought a couple of liters of water and went running down to trail to rescue my husband and father.

But no rescue was needed. I didn’t get more than 200 yards before running into to them. They were tired and had run out of water so were thrilled to see I had some (though Ted had been wishing for it about 30 minutes earlier). However, they were there in one piece and were happy to have successfully made it to the top.

After a group refueling, we finally got around to taking in the amazing panorama. The view of the city and the surrounding beaches from the top is different in every direction. We had a blue-sky clear day and we could see for miles.

Northward views from the top!

Southward views from the top!

Graces on top!

The rest of the day was rightfully spent napping and relaxing before heading out for a much deserved celebratory dinner!

Family Fun Time!

It’s very exciting to be driving into a big city on the other side of the world and to know your parents are waiting for you when you get there!

Sal and Lar (my Mom and Dad) had made the long trip to the southern tip of Africa and we were thrilled to have them there. Lar had done a lot of the organizing for the trip and hit a home run finding the Rutland Lodge for our home base (Sal was busy first-time grandmother-ing in Minnesota during most of the planning). Situated up in the highlands overlooking the whole city and the ocean, the Lodge is just a short trip from the base of Cape Town’s famous Table Mountain.

View from Rutland Lodge

View of Table Mountain from Rutland Lodge

Cape Town is an impressive city that has many things going for it, from beautiful secluded beaches, to mountains as a backdrop, to a multi-cultural mix of people and music and food that is incredibly intriguing. It’s part San Diego, part Sydney but all South African. However, Cape Town isn’t all sunshine and good. Like the rest of South Africa, crime and safety are huge issues. Most houses and businesses in this beautiful place are behind tall walls with security alarms and electric and/or razor fences. It is something you are aware of at all times, but more so than in any other cities we visited in South Africa, you actually feel quite safe.

I guess you have to have at least one negative thing to say about the place or otherwise it would just be too perfect. We were excited to be there and have nearly a week to explore it with my parents.

Cape Town Beaches

Arrival in Africa - Welcome Graces!


Apparently, there is a tourist demand for packaged elephant crap.  Who buys this sh*t?!?  :)

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