South Africa and Swaziland – Safari – The BIG FIVE!!!

The most important thing about the South Africa trip was that Jeannine joined us!!! Big freaking YAY!!!

Before I proceed, I will tell you this was the HARDEST BLOG to write. For starters, it took me a while to get TO IT because the destination after this was also a TOUR (a very busy one) AND WIFI started to get more spotty. Also, in this blog, I added LOTS OF PHOTOS and I started making them ‘enlarge-able’ if that’s a word. HA. Also, I put in some videos, which I very slightly edited in iMovie (I mostly just shortened them and/or shrank them to make them a reasonable file size). And, of course, there was just SO MUCH TO WRITE ABOUT on this blog! Let me know what you think and if you have any trouble with the videos? Sorry in advance if you think this is too long. I swear it’s mostly pictures. HA!

Well, our South Africa experience started with a bit of a downer. Jeannine’s luggage didn’t arrive. Not that surprising, since she literally RAN – with a flight attendant – from her plane in Doha to the one Laney and I were already on, to take us to Joburg. The luggage apparently doesn’t move as fast as Jeannine does! HA!

We arrived at our ‘lodge’ in Joburg. I think lodge is South African for ‘crappy hotel’. HA. It wasn’t BAD, really, but it wasn’t good. HA!

We had a very small room that the 3 of us would share for 2 nights. Laney graciously took the futon on the floor.

The only place to put our bags was on the floor and we had to be EXTREMELY STRATEGIC about where we put them so that we would all still be able to walk and – say – get to the bathroom or the exit. Ha.

Jeannine and I headed out that evening to the nearby Santon City, to Nelson Mandella square, which is a nice shopping and restaurant area. We had been told NOT to walk (by our airport transport) so we hired a car to take us there and bring us back. The Nelson Mandella square itself was quite lovely, like an upscale shopping mall, with restaurants outside with great indoor and outdoor seating. It was definitely safe. We had an INSANELY delicious meal, including ribs and wings and filet and 2 sides and a bottle of wine  – for like $45. Total. Crazy good.

The next day the tour offered a half day around Joburg – a bike ride to a nearby Township, but we skipped it as we were waiting for Jeannine’s luggage.

That night, we did some last minute shopping. A shirt for Laney, and some pharmacy necessities (like bug spray/lotion, etc.). Then the three of us had another amazing and inexpensive dinner. Yes, more meat. I had fish. LOVING South Africa so far!

The following day, we left early and embarked on a long drive from Joburg (that’s common ‘short’ for Johannesburg) to Hluhluwe, where there are 2 national parks, Hluhluwe and Imfolozi. On our drive, we saw lots of beautiful purple flowering trees, and also a huge area of forestation, where a non-indigenous tree is grown specifically for harvesting for wood. We also saw lots of pineapple farms. I had no idea how pineapples grew, but I know now!

On the way, we stopped for a great lunch at a beautiful BnB in Piet Retief. The restaurant was called Munch. The Chicken salad sandwich was amazing!

I noted at the hotel – and verbalized at the restaurant, how the other family on the tour with us had no reservation drinking tap water and drinks with ice and fresh fruit and veg, unlike what the US doctors had told us (NONE OF THOSE). It took me a few days but I started following their lead. I still didn’t drink tap water but wasn’t afraid of some lettuce and tomato on my sandwich, or an apple here and there. It all turned out fine!

The roadway was paved most of the way to Hluhluwe. One part (say 30 minutes?) was very much NOT paved and rather rough. In Africa, they call this ‘African Massage’. HA. Not so soothing.

We had lots to look at along the way. Cows, with babies, and goats, all around, wandering ‘free’, sometimes in the road! HA. We saw lots of schoolchildren walking to and from school, all of them in uniform. At one place, the school let out and kids were walking near a bus stop, and right next to the bus stop was a cow with a baby calf. So adorable.

We arrived at Hluhluwe park in the middle of the afternoon, after a stop for some supplies (food for meals, which Colin and Gordon were buying), snacks and drinks for us. 🙂

Our first experience at the park was awesome. To set the stage, know that the parks are large areas in various sizes, with fences to keep the animals in the designated area, for their own safety. There are roads through the parks, where the cars drive, and the animals wander roads and non-roads alike. This particular park is the oldest in South Africa and is 960 sq km in size.

The first animals we saw was a family of warthogs (Pumba, from the Lion King) – a mom and a few babies, very close to our vehicle. We also saw a group of buffalo, fairly close. Then a group of rhinos at a distance. Maybe 3 or 4 of them. We saw zebras as well as giraffes (we saw more of both, closer, later in the day). We even spotted 3 male lions, napping under a tree, and apparently bothered by bugs – they were getting irritated, flicking their tails, etc. The pictures of those lions are by our tour mate Andy. He had an incredible camera. We could see the lions like this but only through binoculars.

The giraffes above are babies. That is why they are smaller than the zebras. Ha.

. We saw groups of impalas and inyalas. These are both gazelle-type animals. Impalas have a black M on their tail which they use to follow each other during the day. At night, they flip their tails up, to show white, again to make it easy to follow each other. Very cool. A South African joke is that impalas have an M on their tail because they are like McDonald’s – ‘fast food’ for the lions. HA. Inyalas look a little different, they are striped. Male impalas look similar to the females, but with horns. Inyalas, the male looks completely different.

We took a break in this park, at a place with a beautiful view. It overlooks a huge expanse of the park. There is a lodge there as well, and it would be amazing to sit and watch this area while eating dinner or having coffee. As soon as we arrive, I spot an ornery monkey messing around in a nearby parked vehicle. He’s inside, on the mirrors, on the hood. Of course, it draws a crowd and we all take pics. SO CUTE! We learn later how ANNOYING they can be (but they are still cute). We take a few pictures of the view, have some coffee, and get back in the car for more animal spotting.

We are now on the way to our campground, and I am wanting to spot an elephant! This is Jeannine’s ABSOLUTE FAVORITE ANIMAL SINCE SHE WAS A KID! We didn’t see any that day. We saw rhinos very close to the road. Inyalas too.  And a lone buffalo who is likely old and will soon be a lions meal. So we are told. Lone animals don’t do well in the wild.

We get to our campsite, set up our tents. We learn we have access to the small cabins as our ‘bathrooms’ and decide to leave our suitcases in those cabins because I’m not sure we could fit in our tents with our suitcases anyway. Yikes, this is going to be interesting!

Around the campfire after dinner that night (turns out Colin is an amazing cook, and I think I may have put on a few pounds, HA!) – we hear owls talking to each other. So cool. We made up some ‘dialog’ for the owls which ended with them ‘hooking up’. HA. We also hear another sound and decide it’s a big bullfrog in the distance. There are monkeys everywhere in this campground. In fact, someone needs to be in the kitchen area at all times when food is out because otherwise, they will invade! HA!. If you look in the trees you can see the limbs moving from the monkeys jumping around. They aren’t hard to spot at all.

The next morning we pack up camp and head to a traditional Zulu Villiage. We ‘ring the doorbell’ by banging a drum, are allowed entrance. We are taught a few words in Kulu, like “hello”, “I’m good, how are you?”, and “thank you”. We are shown around, and we see how they live and dress. What married women wear (red hats and conservative clothes) versus unmarried women (show more skin, like shoulders and legs, and no hat). We see the Medicine man. We are shown the creation of weapons and shields. Here, the roles of women are still quite traditional, and Laney is not allowed to pose for a photo with the full-body shield and sword. Only the smaller one and only because women sometimes hold them in a wedding ceremony. The Kulu traditional homes are round with thatched roofs. We see some traditional dancing and a mock wedding ceremony. We also drink homemade Kulu beer, which tastes very yeast-y.

After visiting the Kulu village, we head to Kosi Bay Lodge. When we get there and check in we meet the local pets. A dog and some cats. Laney loves the young cat who is very soon chased into a tree by the dog. Ha. Now, she’s freaking out and I can’t get her to leave the cat – she fears the dog will hurt it. HA.

YAY! Rooms and Power! And an attached bathroom! HA! We are offered, and elect to go on, a boat ride and look for hippos. We are lucky, we see 3 right away and another 2-3 later on. They are mostly submerged to stay cool and out of the sun. When they start to feel threatened or have had enough of our presence, they open their mouths. We got some great pics. I can’t imagine what kind of damage those teeth would do. Very intimidating for an herbivore. HA. We also see some cool birds like cormorants and kingfisher. And we learn about the fishing methods of the Tonga people.

We have dinner and drinks as a group at the lodge.

The next day we head out for kayaking and snorkeling at Kosi Bay. First, it’s a bit of a drive to a lookout point, then down to the bay area. It’s all dirt roads, and a 4-wheel-drive is essential. Sugar Sand, they would call it in NJ. Deep, dry sand that is easy to get stuck in.

In the picture above, off the tip of that driftwood tree, in the ‘sandbar island’  is what remains of a dead whale. It was pretty awful when you were downwind of it. Local people walked miles in the crazy heat and hacked off pieces of bone to bring to the medicine man for money. I couldn’t get within 50 feet of it and they were knee and elbow deep!!

The bay is beautiful and feels SO remote. The kayaking isn’t too fun because it’s so windy. Going one way was good, coming back was impossible. HA. We have a box type lunch then head out for snorkeling.  The snorkeling is great. We saw probably 40 different kinds of fish. Including triggerfish, lionfish, lots of eels (white spotted and red), angel fish, lots of tangs.  Supposedly 200 different species of fish live here.  Laney also found a crab in the sand.  It was a little chilly, both the water and the air because it was so windy.

Laney got some great underwater shots with the go Pro.

After we’ve snorkelled the area a few times (the current takes us inland, we walk back toward the sea each time to take another pass – swimming against the current is just impossible and we’re also not wearing fins) – we take a  swim in the Indian Ocean – it is beautiful blue and  great but so VERY rough. Big waves. Big rip current. We don’t swim long, the tide is coming in, and the ‘bay’ we are in is getting filled up with water rather quickly. What was a ‘walk’ from to the shore/mainland is now a swim to get back. With some fast-moving water. It’s a challenge to get back to the shore, and a bit scary at times. The water is rushing so much that, at waist high, you can’t really make progress walking against it. We walk perpendicular to it and get there eventually. WHEW!

A group of people who stayed at the beach longer than us needs to be ‘rescued’ by some locals in kayaks. The people are brought back but their belongings are left on the beach.

Unfortunately, we are little late getting back to the lodge, so I miss out on the massage that we had booked. Jeannine manages to fit hers in and I am glad it’s her. I plan to get massages OFTEN in Thailand. HA.

Notice the band-aid on my toe. I was not the only one to sustain injuries during the snorkeling. It was a bit difficult walking back to the starting point. Laney fell at one point and got pretty scraped up from the oyster beds and coral. At one point we were swimming above the oyster beds and Laney grabbed my legs and I promptly gashed my thigh on the oysters or coral. Not to worry though between our guides and my first aid kit and people nearby we were easily patched up. Ha! This is me chilling by the pool before dinner.

Once again dinner is great. We eat at the lodge and I have shrimp curry. YUM. And a great white wine. South African of course. Some Chardonnay, some Sauvignon Blanc. And so cheap. Like a couple dollars per glass. LOVE SA! The wine is from a winery called Spier. Get it if you can.

The next day we are back in the car headed to a campground with no power. Yikes!!

We are headed to Hlane Royal National Park in Swaziland. Swaziland is a small kingdom bordered by South Africa and Mozambique. The border crossing is mostly uneventful. As it was coming into South Africa, they require special paperwork for Laney, as a minor traveling with just one parent. Seems I have it all so we’re all good.

We arrive at our campground and it’s beautiful. There are even some game animals (impala, inyala types, not lions) wandering around the tent and restaurant area. We learn there are no evening/night game drives available, so we opt to sit by the waterhole in Adirondack chairs with a drink! TOUGH LIFE!  I couldn’t be happier as we watch hippos in the water. Elephants wandering around. Inyala. Waterbucks. Rhinos. Amazing!

The next morning we have signed up for a rhino drive. Never did I even imagine we would get OUT OF OUR VEHICLE and stand within 10 feet of rhinos. It was one thing when they were laying down sleeping. When they got up and walked towards us I thought I was going to die!!

Above, the Rhino behind the dead tree, this picture was taken by my iPhone. No Zoom. So you know how close this one was! Crazy! I was a little nervous. HA.

Later in the day we go for an evening drive and see LIONS! 5 of them. It’s a grandma, a mom, and 3 young males. So close they could eat us!! At one point, they have surrounded the vehicle. This made me a little nervous. It wasn’t in an aggressive way – as far as I can tell, but what do I know???. Two of the young males were lying in the road ahead of us. The other 3 lions had wandered off and were behind us. We started to turn around, but the young males in front of us moved, then, so we headed forward. Little did we know they would CHASE THE TRUCK! OK, little scary. I mean, these things can jump into the truck at any time! Perhaps they were just playing, perhaps not. The only other thing we saw in the lion section of the park was ‘lion food’. Yup. impalas, inyalas. Just a couple.

In the picture above, you can see how this male lion is not yet fully developed – he has something like ‘half’ of a mane of a full grown lion.

In the video below, the lions were closer when they started chasing. They were both beside and behind the truck.

It’s interesting to know that, in this park, they arranged the animals one way, originally, then had to change. Due to rhino poachers, the rhinos, elephants, hippos and other game animals were moved into the circle immediately surrounding the camp. And the lions were moved outside of that, so the park staff could keep close watch on the rhinos, and be able to care for them – without worrying about the lions 🙂

At night, in Hlane, we can hear lions at night. It’s not really a roar, but more of a growl or a grumble. We hear it every night and it wakes me up a few times a night. I must be exhausted though because I don’t stay awake for long. I fall right back to sleep. HA! Worried? Who me? HA! Later, in Kruger, I understand what the sound was.

The next day we leave for Kruger National Park. On our drive into our campsite (which is inside of Kruger, though surrounded by fences) we see LOTS of animals, including LOTS of elephants – I am overjoyed with happiness for all of us – but mostly for Jeannine.

We also saw some very large crocodiles. We were on a bridge looking down at them. This was the biggest of them

We arrived in our camp as the sun was setting. By the time we registered for our campsite and arranged tours for the next day it was seriously getting dark. YAY – setting up tents in the dark! HA! Well, it turned out to be even MORE interesting because there was no space for us. The campground was ‘full’. We eventually were assigned an area and managed to set up our tents in the dark, with lots of flying beetles around. In case you didn’t know, Laney is not a big fan of insects, bees in particular, and although I could show her these were beetles, she was still pretty much freaking out. #challenges.

We had a quick dinner and went to bed. The three adult women had signed up for a morning bush walk, and needed to be at the meeting place at 4:15am!! YIKES! That would be followed by a day game drive (8/9 to 4/5) and then a night drive (8-10/11). LONG DAY!

What a wonderful experience it all was! The morning walk we saw elephants from a distance. Unlike the Hlane park, these guides carried rifles and were much more hesitant to get near the animals. I think this is because of the size of Kruger, it’s not as likely that the animals have had regular contact/interaction/sight of humans and thus are less predictable. Anyway, in addition to elephants we got to see some cool flowers, and spiders, and a pair of dung beetles in action. I know, doesn’t sound like much compared to lions, etc, but it was actually really cool watching these dung beetles try to get the ball of dung out of the hole they had made. HA!

We also saw a beautiful sunrise!!

The day drive was a lot of driving, our guide was desperately seeking ‘cats’, which are the hardest animals to see. We saw TONS of impalas. It got to be like National Lampoon’s European Vacation – only instead of ‘hey kids, look, it’s big ben’ – it was ‘hey look, impala’. Seriously, they were everywhere. We saw more elephants, and monkeys, and baboons, and zebra. Unfortunately, no lions, though. Can’t say we didn’t try.

Literally, the cutest thing I ever saw in my life was the small elephant running to catch up with his/her mother, and its trunk started swinging wildly. Flopping about. It was obvious that the baby had little control over the trunk but was enjoying the experience nonetheless. It was so adorable to see these animals wild, free, and happy. Nothing like seeing them in captivity.

Also very cool, as you saw above, was watching baboons and monkeys carry their babies around

And the hyenas you see, some of those are babies, which just makes them so CUTE. Though they are not known for being attractive animals.

Another great dinner by Colin and we headed out on our night drive. I have to say I was pretty tired and a little cranky by this time (I’m not that good without sufficient sleep, HA). Laney was even falling asleep on the drive. I had no idea what to expect of this trip – and my phone battery was low, so I left it in the shared kitchen are to charge (no opportunity to charge while I slept as I usually do – no power in our tents, obviously).  So I didn’t have my phone/camera. Fortunately, Jeannine did, because we saw LIONS!  EATING THEIR PREY! from less than 10 feet away! Our guides were smart enough to know that when we saw hundreds of buffalo moving a bit urgently in one direction, that something had clearly spooked them. Looping around to where they were running from, we found the loins. They had killed a small buffalo.  THEN, after watching the lions a while, on our way home to the campground, we FINALLY SAW A LEOPARD! We completed the Big 5 and we were all so so excited!! WHOO HOO! I think it’s pretty unusual to see them all on such a relatively short trip. Colin and Gordon kept saying how lucky we were!

WHOO HOO! We all went to bed feeling so happy and fulfilled. We did it. Well, it was done for us. HA. I firmly believe that Doris (my Mom) and Ray (Jeannine’s Dad) made this happen for us. Both Jeannine and I teared up more than once during this trip thinking of them. They were both powerful in their own way.

The next day we were up and out and on our way to Blyde River Canyon, the 3rd largest canyon in the world. AND, we were to stay in a LODGE! En Suite! WITH POWER and EVERYTHING! HA!

Blyde River Canyon we visited 3 main viewing spots and they were all beautiful. We saw God’s Window, the Three Rondavels, and Bourke’s Luck Potholes.

In the pictute above are the 3 Rondavels. These are 3 natural formations that look a lot like the traditional Zulu huts. They are round with a peaked roof (though, on the one on the right still looks peaked). During the ‘viewpoint sightseeing’ Laney mostly tried to find shade, wherever she could HA! Above Laney is another tourmate, Alex. It was good for Laney to have someone her age for a while.

These round holes in the rock are formed over time by swirling water and are called the potholes. Aptly named, I think. We also had a chance to do some shopping from the locals selling various crafts and wares at those spots. Perfect. Jeannine and I had decided to buy a suitcase to get them all home so for the first time, I was able to buy some souvenirs. YAY. After the Blyde River Canyon viewing, we headed back to the lodge and the kids were stoked to do the zip line and swing. The swing is like a bungee jump only it’s not bouncy, and it’s mounted from the centre of the canyon. You jump from one side of the canyon, so when you stop the free-fall, the momentum sends you swinging, at the bottom of the rope, to the other side of the canyon, and back and forth until it’s only a small arc and you get lowered to the ground. The free fall was CRAZY!! Like maybe 4 seconds. So scary falling from that platform. SO exhilarating. I love that I did this with one of my BFF’s Jeannine. The whole trip was made SO much more amazing by her presence, but this in particular!


The next day, we decided to do the swing again. HA! Yes, we’re that dumb. You know that NONE of the guys who works the swing has ever done it!? What does THAT tell you?! HA. Anyway, it was just as great the second time.

Then, we were off to head to Joburg and wrap up our trip.  Once again, Jeannine, Laney and I shared a very small room. HA. Rather amicably if I may say so. Laney’s long-awaited movie had just come out (Carmilla) so she stayed in the room while Jeannine and I headed out to another great dinner (and a bit of shopping) at Nelson Mandella square in Sandton City, I believe a section of Joburg.

The next day, Jeannine’s flight was a little earlier, so we saw her off, got ourselves ready and packed, and went to the airport to ready ourselves for a LONG DAY OF TRAVEL. Of course, we’re at the airport like 3 hours before our flight (Joburg struggles with occasional bad traffic, so the trip was 30 minutes but could have been 2 hours) – and our flight to Doha would be 8 hours, with a 2 hour layover, then a 10 hour flight to Tokyo, with a 12 hour layover, then a 1 hour hop to Osaka. WHEW! This is going to be fun! Who booked this anyway, and what was she THINKING???? HA.