My African Travels Oct 2010

To the Great People at Pondoro (I don’t know who gets this ?),

Thank you so much for a dream come true. It was a trip of lifetime. Everyone at Pondoro gave us such great service. Please express my deepest gratitude. Thank you so much for the wonderful birthday treatment (meals, rose petals, candle lit path by the river and eating dinner at the river).  I will never forget it.   I wrote a blog on my experience. Can you please share this with Shaun and Rozanne ? I know Shaun was very interested in it. By the way he is a phenomenal ranger.  We saw everything we could see and more.  Rozanne is top rate, always a smile on her face.  Eric, America, Patricia, Martha, everyone was openhearted, kind and gracious. I love your country and I love you guys. Thank you so much. I want to come back again, next time with my kids.  Please share this blog, post it, do anything you would like if you find any parts helpful to your business in any way. Most Respectfully, Mimi  Attached are a few pics

My African Travels Oct. 2010 written and experienced by Mimi Coffey

Twilight Zone (Sat, Sun)
2 nights of no sleep: we left Dallas at 4:55 pm and landed in London at 7 am. Somehow we managed a 12 hour layover in London held captive in the airport. We flew out of London at 9 pm and landed in Johannesburgh at 9 am. I never thought I would be one of those people you hear about just strewn out in public like a homeless person asleep on a bench but Jerry and I both managed to do that on one of London Heathrow’s fancy airport couches. You learn a new language of travel survival. I slept with my purse nestled in between Jerry and I and my camera backpack attached to my feet.  Following the airport signs for connections through Heathrow we had no idea we were marching to captivity. Although the shops and eateries in Heathrow are akin to New York chic, they are not as pleasing with no sleep. We tried to get into the British Airways lounges; however, you cannot pay for such access. Attempt for sleep number 1: denied. Due to being on the “air” versus “landing” side we could not access the airport hotel. To our surprise once we discovered there would be no quick jet eye few hours of sleep we attempted to leave the airport to see London (hence the real reason for taking 2 long flights versus flying direct to Jo’burgh from Washington D.C.) only to be stopped by a new policy instituted 2 weeks ago that no travelers with commuting flights would be allowed to exit the airport. We spoke to British Airways customer service on 3 separate occasions only to be told no and passed off to security.  Security would not let us leave either. After giving up, still smiling but feet dragging at an interminably slow pace  (I had given up any hope for our plans) Jerry (while I sat half dozed near a rotating car exhibit) yells my name and miraculously leads me out of the airport with the help of two security workers. This  totally explains why Jerry, as the former wireless strategic manager of Radio Shack,  took his department from $35 million to over $400 million in two years. Nice to travel with a winner. Thought it darling and against the odds that we two local west Fort Worth kids who met approximately 28 years ago were on our way to an African safari. We caught the tube to Picadelly Circus to enjoy high tea at Criterion Restaurant, a fancy British restaurant opened in 1874 which is practically all marble with a gold gilded domed ceiling (voted one of London’s top 10 romantic restaurants). The weather was typically British: cold, rainy and dark exactly as you would picture it in a  Sherlock Holmes novel. The British are a refined  people, to be in their presence is to learn to enjoy better the quality of life. As one sleepless night morphed into another, our flight to J’burgh seemed to pass quick and comfortably (watching episodes of the last season of Tudors on my Ipad was like having a private HD movie theater). The food was excellent (chicken Marsala, hearty English breakfast) and the free alcohol beverages a super plus (why did we Americans stop doing this ? The Brits view this as a necessity of life).  .  Upon landing in Jo’burgh we took a commuter flight to Hodspruit (otherwise it would have been a 6 1/2 hour drive). Surprising they let me take my Listerine on the plane (we went through customes then had reentry), everything was low key. It was like what travel was like pre911. Africa does not seem to have security concerns (on the way back from Hoedspruit to Jo’burgh the electricity and phones went out and we did not even go through security.  Our boarding passes were handwritten). It is nice to feel respected as you travel.  Security at American airports has become downright ridiculous  (like toothpaste could be a weapon ?) Flying into Hoedspruit was like a scene from Out of Africa.   We literally flew into what looked like a ranch house in the middle of the bush. It was a one story brick house (I’m guessing 2000 square feet) where you walked out of the airplane onto a parking lot and the whole maybe 20 of us waited in a back parking lot to get our bags (on the way back to Jo’burgh it was quite different there must have been 100+ on the flight with a couple hundred people waiting about including outside and in a courtyard. The Pondoro Lodge arranged for us to have a private transport with another couple: Jonathon and Tina from England (Jonathon is a retired chemist, graduate of Oxford who upon graduating college travelled the world with a backpack for 2 1/2 years), a well cultured couple with two grown sons and grandkids in their 60s. Doug our driver ( a younger version of Meryl Streep’s husband in Out of Africa) met us with a smile.  We had hardly left the airport when in minutes we saw a giraffe along a fence line, apparently there were baboons waiting at the bus stop with locals but I missed this sight. We rattled along a forsaken, sandy bush path when in about an hour’s time we drove up to the Pondoro Lodge, a series of tall, well made thatched huts. We were greeted with lemonade in a setting by the friendliest Africans in a large open thatched roof hut (their sinks were and furniture were all trendy, haven’t even seen fluorescent sinks where the water spouts out in 3 holes over rocks even in the trendiest restaurants in Dallas).  Here the adventure begins…

Oct. 4 night safari,  Animal Talk
Within hours of our arrival we were on a land cruiser with our British mates, Kal (Dane whose  knowledge of Danish, South African and WWII history is spellbinding) his grown son Eric (our age and with a great sense of humor, divorced dad of 2 kids), and a retired Dutch couple (an electrical engineer who went into management and a she a lawyer who also taught a law class for Dutch highs schoolers). Within minutes we saw impalas, zebras, African guineas and other common African wildlife. It felt like what you would imagine at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom but the real thing.  The Land Cruiser ride physically was like a 4 wheeler ride but on steroids. Barreling down a bush road to my shock and amazement my eyes saw a huge lion with it’s regal mane walking ever so slowly toward our path. Then out popped another.  To behold them in all their majesty took my breath away. When the experience continued and they both literally walked alongside the cruiser within two feet of me I felt the greatest fear I have ever experienced  in my life.  As my eyes swallowed in their overwhelming presence my mind raced with unhealthy logic and visions of them pouncing on us, leaping into the open air vehicle and mauling us with ferocity.  I was so  paralyzed with intimidation that only by some bizarre form of subconscious  I managed to take pictures. To have such a terrifying experience amidst this form of grandeur splendor changes your soul forever. Going to the zoo and viewing these exotic animals I have never remotely sensed any form of communication from them. They have always appeared to me as exhibits on display; but like an epiphany, after initially brushing up with the lions once our guide circled offroad back into the bush and we continued to follow them (an amazing pattern repeated all week that only happens in a private game lodge, the public Krueger Park safaris don’t do this). For a priceless moment,  looking deep into the lion’s eyes and reading his reactive body language I have no doubt if he could understand him. If he could talk, at that moment he would have said rolling his eyes, “Really ? Just leave us alone why don’t you ?!”  It is really indescribable to sense the spiritual connection that results from being within their habitat among  them  experiencing life as they naturally experience it (the lodge does not feed the animals whatsoever, these animals must hunt to survive ).  One of my favorite things about Africa which struck me immediately is what can best be described as transcending the environment you know to exist in one only in your dreams. The trees of Africa at this time of year (their spring which looks a lot like our early fall) create a Halloween backdrop: jutting into the rich, dark blue beautiful sky are leafless, bare trees whose oddly shaped branches captivate your eyes and thoughts making it easy to envision Ichabod Crane the headless horseman darting around the tree with his black cape flapping in the wind appearing like the Lone Ranger suddenly before you.   On the drive back within a minute of me having to relieve myself in the dark at the back of the jeep (thought I was staring death in the eye when in the dark the wind rippled through the tall grass and I envisioned meeting my maker through the mouth of a lion or leopard, Shaun told us one woman tourist was so afraid she plopped right in front of the jeep’s headlights to relieve herself to everyone’s dismay) Shaun stops the jeep to show us a red lipped snake. He literally picked it up to demonstrate it. It  first struggled about fighting off being placed on the flattened cold windshield.  Once Shaun held it just in his hand it stopped moving as it liked Shaun’s warmth. Thankfully it was not the Black Mambo snake which the South Africans call  the 20 minute snake. It’s venom will kill a person in 20 minutes ( being out by the bush that makes getting to the anti venom rather difficult). To Shaun’s amazement we spot an anteater (aardvark), one if the rarest things ever seen in the bush (This was Shaun’s second spotting in 8 years and our van driver Rigula (sp?)  who took us back to Hoedspruit Airport after the 4 day safari, also a guide was in shock at hearing this because it is so rare).  It was a rare ugly but cute fat creature foraging around on an elevated surface hidden in the trees looking for ants.

Oct. 5 am safari, Domestic Cows They are Not
Outside of seeing giraffes, zebras, impalas and elephants the morning highlight was staring into the eyes of two male water buffalo.  Like many other animals (impalas, zebras, wildebeests, rhinos, lions and elephants among others)  one powerful male fights all the other males to take control of the female herd. The rejected males become outcasts and sometimes travel in bachelor groups. During mating season they can become particularly mean and aggressive. The water buffalo are the meanest (deadlier than lions, Shaun shared one documented case  of a herd of water buffalo throwing a 400 pond lion up in the air with their horns ripping it apart to and fro like a beach ball. We came across two of these bachelor buffaloes and we stared each other down for about twenty minutes. Without this knowledge one would mistake them for dull, listless cows of no intellect and no threat. This could not be furthest from the truth. Once again , if animals could talk these bulls were saying “I double dare you ..” I never knew that my trial lawyer face reading and body language skills would prove telling in the bush.  Once again, by feeling nonverbal communication amongst these creatures the safari turns yet again spiritual for me (and everytime I felt this as with the elephant detailed on Oct. 6 am safari).

Oct. 5 pm safari, Baja in the Bush
Everyone comes to South Africa to see “The Big Five” : the rhino, elephant, water buffalo, lion and leopard. Most people will not see all five in one safari vacation. Our Danish friend Kal has gone on safai 6 years and only seen the leopard twice. Shaun gets radio’d by another ranger of a leopard spotting and even though the leopard is on the other side of the 200,000 hectares and it is dark Shaun, the  quintessential guide, decides to go for it. In this 4 tiered Land Cruiser that seats 12 {with the tracker seated in what looks like a portable stadium seat out front attached with a side handle {Danish Eric remarked in jest African Eric wasn’t getting paid enough for what I am about to tell you)} Shaun drives like a bat out of hell approximately 60 km/hr (roughly 40 mph) for 20 minutes as we fly through the bush on bumpy, hilly terrain negotiating sharp curves and steep rocky, dirt ramps. Jerry aptly coined this drive ‘Baja in the Bush’.  Wind in our hair, flying through the darkness (Danish Eric, Jerry and I occupy the back row which is the least comfortable and most bumpy with hardly any shock absorption…note to future safari folks for comfort you may want to avoid the back row), Danish Eric remarks this as the best fun of the evening. Male testosterone  at an all-time happy high, Jerry gets into the excitement too by struggling to video some of  this dirt motor cross racing excitement. We arrive (all limbs intact and with African Eric still in tow as he managed to defy the odds by hanging on with one hand) to the leopard sighting and lo behold  the sexiest, slinkiest feline imaginable. It was a huge male leopard who just nonchalantly walked along as if not bothered while 4-5 jeeps struggle to follow it keeping a spotlight on it  as it winds around in the darkness. We all breathed great satisfaction at the opportunity to behold such magnificence. On our way back Danish Eric reaches into his pants pocket (side mid leg cargo pocket) and realizes that our great leopard sighting came at a price. The wallet in the Baja Bush rush went flying out of Danish Eric’s pocket. The whole jeep saddened,  but the odds of finding that wallet in the bush were akin to finding a needle in a haystack. On the way back we managed a rare sighting of a Sharpe’s greybok. Shaun was quite pleased (anything that excites a Ranger of over 8 years is worth writing home about). It was a nocturnal miniature impala.

Oct. 6, 2010 am safari  “Throwing Money to the Wind”
Danish Eric managed to comment that in last night’s debacle (he with his tall legs sitting on the edge of the seat and not buttoning his pocket) he had new appreciation for the phrase “throwing money to the wind”. I thought it was positive that he could manage such good humor considering the circumstances. We got to spend excellent quality time with an outcast 50 some odd year old bachelor elephant foraging the trees for food. It was amazing to be within ten feet of him out in the middle of the bush with nothing to prevent him from trampling us. We listened to the crackles of the branches. This colossal beast walks quietly due to the special coating over its feet its body secretes. It is interesting to note that the African people when questioned fear hippos, snakes and elephants the most. This elder powerful elephant at first walked away  but after steadfastly circling him he gave up, continued his eating diversion (interesting to behold) and watched us closely. Elephants have soft tongues like humans yet eat tough, thorny branches and tree bark besides grass. Their hearing is phenomenal as they can hear  frequencies that humans cannot. The African elephant has huge ears which they flap to cool them off and function as an air-conditioning system.  Because of such necessity the skin in the back of their ears is the smoothest velvet. Their sense of smell is far more precise than the best trained hunting dogs . Shaun shared with us one elephant story in which it was given many hats from the heads of many strangers (never having had contact with any of them) and gave  the right hat back to the right stranger by smell alone.  It felt spiritual being in such close proximity to that elephant as it watched us and vice versa:  we at peace with him and he with us. When our jeep drove away I felt sad, almost as if I wished I could say bye. Although  different species we bridged some form of understanding.  African Eric spotted a vine snake on a tree just as we were pulling out. This snake, Shaun astutely pointed at  with a leaf but dared not touch  (not always fatal but no anti venom exists). I could not distinguish it from the other branches for minutes, even with Shaun pointing at it. It is  amazing how evolution and survival of the fittest rise to the occasion, looking like a stick it awaits with perfect stillness until a bird lights upon it and then strikes  likes lighting instantly killing it. Although it seems like a small sighting in comparison to the big five, it was my most intellectually enlightening safari moment.  Africa is truly a land where the sticks not only move but bite !  Only something you imagine out of a Chronicles of Narnia book. Now for the “you gotta be kidding me moment” of the safari….. As we travelers reflect contentedly on our  elephant bonding, the jeep barrels down on a dusty, red bush road and all of a sudden African Eric the tracker signals to Shaun; Shaun calmly (as he always remains calm  under these circumstances giving him the most uncanny sense of humor and level of import to everything he says) offhandedly declares “here’s your wallet” to Danish Eric. Shaun stops the jeep, African Eric jumps out and grabs it from the dust to which the whole Jeep in unison and unconsciously releasea deep breath of amazement.  We all clapped, laughed and marveled  in joy. Once Danish Eric got over his caratonic shock, joked of the incredulity of this find remarking how the only charges made were by monkeys for large amounts of bananas (I managed to get some of this priceless reaction on video).  When we all interrogated Shaun as to discover if he was trying to retrace our Baja travel route it turns out that Danish Eric lost his wallet way before he thought. We were not even on a road of the Baja travel that Shaun was driving to ( in an effort per luck to find it). I must say that the thought ran across my mind to ask Danish Eric for some scrap of paper he might have in that wallet as a lucky charm (perhaps carry it in my briefcase on trial day). Glad Danish Eric defied the odds….normally when you throw money out the window it does not come back !

Oct. 6 pm safari, the Lion King
The greatest thing about Disney’s Lion King movie and that is so heart uplifting is that it is a  story about family togetherness and love. Tonight we managed to live, rest, breathe and move with the pride of 16 lions (a family of 2 male lions that control the pride, females and cubs) for close to an hour. On my first safari night when they walked right next to the jeep and my mind raced with pure horror, tonight (as with the elephant bonding) logical and innate fear gave way to adoration and fascination. These royal creatures watched and sensed us as we did the same daring not to exit the jeep (one jeep did whose inhabitants miraculously did make it back to the lodge that night and only from the lions’ mercy knowing this personally as I watched the lions watch them). Looking into the eyes of the great maned  Big Boy (the dominant male lion) and feeling that he was tenderly watching me (a descriptor of which I suspect in his mind more akin to Ghosts of the Darkness desire to ravish had I stepped out of the jeep) filled me with a deep, satisfying reflective peace (the kind you imagine the Tibetan monks conjure up as they meditate  and chant in total zen like satisfaction) . Watching the females nudge him with affection and playfully wrestle with their cubs made you feel like they thought like humans.  With all that kind of love and affection why would you want to live alone ? It is interesting that the lion is the only cat that lives in a social family as opposed to a solitary existence ( the leopard we saw appeared happy to be alone).  Too good to be true and what a photo safari traveller could only hope for, as the lions slowly strolled along (sometimes they would sit and rest for 15 minutes or so) the cubs in a playful mood jumped into a tree. The pictures we took would rival any of National Geographic’s.  Everything was perfect until Jonathon (the retired British chemist who heretofore had been most placid and quiet) asked Shaun if he could drive directly under the tree ! (Wasn’t 5 feet away close enough?) Seriously not knowing if this was British humor  (he repeated the request again to my confusion) I immediately interjected that I for one thought we were close enough. Thankfully Shaun, our South African version of Crocodile Dundee took no heed of Jonathon’s request ( yes he got a good tip at th end of the week as did African Eric the tracker). In all of our time spent with the lions the only aggressive move was when a cub half heartedly growled and jumped toward the jeep a bit (more show than go). Jerry was videotaping closest to the lion and lost control of the video camera briefly… It was a great night and despite all the animals I saw on all my safaris this week, time with the lions was what I enjoyed the most. We also saw a rhino (2 huge ones, hard to believe they just subsist on grass).  This marked the crowning moment of seeing all 5 of the Big Five. Hard to believe I managed to do it on my first safari vacation. Danish Eric and his dad had left this morning and he so wanted to see a rhino. I was sad he missed it by just one safari outing.

Oct. 7 am safari, It Ain’t Easy Having a Harem says the Impala…
It rained somewhat this morning. Shaun explained that animals are like humans when it rains they would rather hide in a safe place and relax, much like how we enjoy laying in bed watching movies.  We did see about 50 impalas (that normally run away at the first sign of anything) stay in one area (all females and young impalas) while the dominant male impala gallops the perimeter and keeps them all in check (due to the rain they were safer in this  spot). Jerry does a hilarious impression of the male impala (bug eyed and jerking it’s head about nonstop every second). It’s really fascinating when you think of it, the male is the protector, he finds where they will graze (impalas have adapted to eating both twigs and grass in order to survive unlike most animals); he must make sure he keeps them all together so he knows where they are and to protect them. Many men would say taking care of  one  woman is a handful, much less 50.  Got some more up close and personal time with rhinos (not as spiritually bonding as with the lions as elephants, they just don’t seem to be very smart) . Learned that when two particular rhinos were introduced to the land they would always run if they heard the jeep. Over time and adaptation they stopped running. Interesting to note that even rhinos in the wild can adapt. Of particular curiosity is their horrible eyesight. With the jeep turned off one nearly walked right into us barring some 15 feet. It is sad that poachers are attacking the rhino for the lucrative sale of it’s horn. Supposedly ground up powder of  its horn is an aphrodisiac. Jonathon the British chemist remarked under his breath, ‘Why don’t they just grind up fingernail clippings ?’ Wretchedly sad considering that this endemic is based on what is sure to be totally nonscientific nonscientific wives’ tales whether out of the camps of the African witchdoctors or Chinese charlatan medicine men. More revolting is the fact that the most reviled rhino poacher in Africa is a veterinarian who has them shot down from a helicoper ! Shaun informs us that his right hand man has been detained.

Oct. 7 pm safari, If the Lion is the King of the Jungle, then the Croc is his Boss (Shaun saying)
Saw a hippo in the water. He never got out. While the sun is out they stay in the water. Just as we were leaving , Shaun spots a crocodile.  It remains motionless the whole time we are viewing it.   Shaun shares how a couple of  local kids took the risk of swimming in the dam we were looking at and both were killed by crocodiles. There is a tradition in the area that after the dry season and the first real rain fills up the dams, the owners of the Balule land (area we were in)  hop in their jeeps; drive to the dam; swim across it; hop back into the jeep and drive to the next dam until they have swam in every dam that day. By day 2 fill with hippos and crocodiles, no longer safe. During our drink break (gin & tonic for me and coffee with alcohol amarula cream in the mornings) I got to hear a lion roar in the darkness .We had passed by them earlier as the second male (who has no mating privileges with the pride because only the dominant one does) stole a female to attempt to mate with.  Shaun pointed out she must have some hormone imbalance because it has been sending out signals (lions smell the female’s urine) that did not make sense throughout the year (all these lions only  give birth in March). This male lion was roaring to  the rest of the pride to send out a signal of location. Lions only roar for 2 reasons: signal roars and warning roars. Before a lion attacks (where he or she is not on the hunt) they will stomp their feet, roar and then charge (stopping their charge just short of their prey.  Hearing this lion roar was  a dream come true. Understanding the reason for its communication even better. It was also neat to look up into twinkling stars of the southern hemisphere sky and see a whole different set of stars.  Remarkable to look up and not see the North star but the  Southern Cross instead (which they use to figure out north). It was a very satisfying safari ( as they all were, Shaun always seemed to know innately what we wanted to see next) followed by a lifetime bank of memories. Arriving back (every night they had an African woman with towels to clean our hands and one to serve us shots) the night became magical. It was a birthday of a lifetime. As it was my birthday they lit a double candle path from the dining lodge to the river to a most fantastic dinner setting in the sand. They had America posted on the other side of the shrubs to watch out for lions, leopards,  and elephants. (I myself was afraid of hippos knowing they leave the water at night and I had seen one get out of the river during the day from my back patio. I was also freaked out by the fact America said there were crocodiles in that river.). Putting all those thoughts aside, Jerry and I were treated to a special romantic dinner and just when I thought the evening could not be more perfect,  the openhearted staff came down the path singing Happy Birthday to me in their native Shangaan tribal language. They resang it in English then broke out singing two more Shangaan songs  accompanied by chanting, whooping and drumming. America emerged from the shrubs and started dancing too. They all had me dancing with them and I could not hold back my tears of joy. It was truly surreal. Jerry captured some of the dancing on video. Jerry and I ate a piece of the special birthday cake they made me I then insisted to Rozanne (the manager who takes care of every little detail and has the beauty and grace of  Grace Kelly, former queen of Monaco) that the staff share it too. The next morning a Scottish man on his honeymoon commented to me that the party carried on up to the veranda for the rest of the guests.  He said they were heating up the drum by the fire before they all proceeded down the candle path by the river to our table and after our party the staff were so happy they continued the singing and dancing on the veranda. He genuinely thanked me for having my birthday and commented he thoroughly enjoyed the festivities. I genuinely thank all the good people at Pondoro Lodge and Jerry for planning it all out. It was an experience I would never have imagined. Originally I was suppose to go to South Africa as part of a law delegation to compare notes and review the post apartheid criminal  laws of South Africa. After being nominated , confirmed and requesting the time off  from the courts they canceled the trip because not enough lawyers agreed to go. I was heartbroken as I had my heart set on a safari. Little did I know that you can’t really have the safari experience in one morning, day or afternoon safari (as I would have done on that trip). My associate lawyer Rieker convinced me I  should not give up that dream but plan my own safari trip. I am so glad I listened to him ! Life is for the living. If you want to experience the world you have to go out there and find it.

Oct. 8, 2010 the Safari Ends
What can I say ? I woke up this morning in my beautiful waterfall bed surrounded by draped white mosquito netting (the bed you expect a princess to sleep in) facing a wall of floor to ceiling windows overlooking our patio and the  Olifant River. Wistfully I wonder how is it that I got to experience the most luxurious , exclusive vacation in nature’s wonderland called Africa and that it was ending. The whole experience was like a dream. We have breakfast out on the veranda (where yesterday morning while we finished and was enjoying our coffee 3 small monkeys entertained us with their tree hopping as they stratagized how to steal our food without us looking). Dropped off the tip envelopes for incredible service (envelopes for the staff, ranger and tracker), bought some African art, signed the guest book and we were off ! Saying goodbye to Shaun our guide/ranger, Rozanne and Senti (among some of her job duties she was the masseuse and I enjoyed amazing spa treatments at her hand !) made my heart hurt. They are such good people whose love of Africa is infectious, their kindness, professionalism and hospitality most genuine. Jerry and I invite them to visit us in Fort Worth/Dallas and I hope they do as it would please me greatly to roll out the red carpet and expose them to the United States, even more so Texas. Rigula, our South African native Hoedspruit van driver who spent 2 years in England to explore the world, whisked us away and charmed us with stimulating conversation. It was comforting to be leaving in the company of an open minded, kind and intelligent game guide driver.  She talked of how Nelson Mandela was the right man at the right time for a country that could have exploded civil war. She also managed to point out warthogs right before  we entered the airport area. I think back with happiness to the sweet African people and travelers we got to share safari with which includeds of note: the Danish, Dutch, British, a Switzerland family with their kids and a fun retired California couple (the man spent 6 months planning this Sarai trip and nothing but childlike satisfaction gleamed from his eyes especially after they returned from this morning’s safari where they hung out with the pride of 16 lions within feet). Riding to the airport I get my last glimpses of Halloween trees and miles and miles of sandy colored bush. Prior to this experience the image of sandy colored bush with bare trees never captivated my interest. Now this visual stirs love in my soul. There is an African blessing that goes “May the African sun always shine on you. May the rhythm of its drums beat deeply in your heart. May the vision of all of its glory fill you with joy, and may the memory of Africa be with you, always.” Africa, I love your blessing. I love you.

The Lodge Experience itself
In order to get to and from our dinners at night coming back from the safari and freshening up a bit we always had an African guide. Our guide America told me that he has seen a lion 100 feet away hidden in the darkness. On one night America said he saw 2 elephants on the property, on another 3.  Just lying out on our private back patio overlooking the Olifant River  I saw a hippopotamus emerge slowly out of the water in addition to 2 beautiful birds a bit larger than a hummingbird with turquoise feathers on their back with a canary yellow underbelly.  Being in the southern hemisphere it is fascinating to see the water in the sinks and tubs drain counter clockwise. I enjoyed watching this in my daily afternoon baths before my naps in my concrete sunk in tub (as I imagine these must have been  similar chalet living conditions that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie enjoyed in Africa in their early courtship). The South African wine is excellent and they make a liquor from a fruit called Amarula which I very much enjoyed in my coffee.  The private chalet Jerry and I stayed in for the week was indescribably luxurious (the owners of the Pondoro Game Lodge were away in Thailand at an awards ceremony for being nominated the best luxury game lodge in the world, everyone was hoping they would win).  Our bed had a beautiful trickling waterfall wall behind our heads . The wooden African art that adorns the walls are well placed and the room is zebra themed with a real skinned zebra on the floor from it’s head to it’s tail.
The food is world class. The first night we had ostrich prepared like medium rare fillets. The second night we had impala pie. The third night beef fillet. The last night lamb shank on the bone. All meals were three course accommpanied by sumptious, creamy soups and perfectly prepared rich desserts. The dining was first class and rivaled  and sometimes exceeded the five star restaurants in Dallas/Fort Worth. I could not help thinking as I ate the beef fillet how much the French chef at the Petroleum  Club  would be impressed (as I have never been unimpressed by his creations and often thought it would be impossible to impress him). On my birthday (Oct. 7) for breakfast out on the veranda they decorated a special table for us with flower petals, thoughtful notes a card and a bottle of champagne.  The spa has an outside bath that is built into the ground surrounded by aloe plants and trees.  Enjoying one of their special baths followed by a massage by Senti amidst the natural beauty, African art and calming music with all the finest amenities (luxury robes, slippers and towels, drinks) is a self indulgent luxury not to be missed. We did not have time to enjoy their pool surrounded by natural beauty just outside the main hut. Our private chalet was so luxurious with such resplendent wall to ceiling river views it was difficult to pull away outside of meals, spa treatments and safaris. The super polite, thoughtful and respectful staff are what makes the resort the crown experience.

Oct. 9, 2010 Jo’burgh
Took a flight out of Hoedspruit Airport (whose square footage it’s safe to say is smaller than my ranch house) which was an hour delayed (we almost missed the flight as we expected there to be some form of pa announcement and we had no idea where the departure lounge was (unlucky us, we sat outside the gift shop smoking cigars in the courtyard when we could have been in the departure lobby enjoying cocktails with those cigars !). We manage to get on the plane  and in good South African hospitality, although the flight was only one hour, they served a sandwich , drinks and chocolate (same thing on the way to Hoedspruit but it was a different kind of cucumber sandwich). I just really got the feeling in South Africa that they do everything they can to make you happy (Jerry remarked that the attitude is quite different than on some American flights where you are lucky to get peanuts). Took awhile to figure out how to find the shuttle for the D’Oreale Hotel (many South Africans in Jo’burgh had difficulty  understanding my Texan English accent but we managed (the 4th airport worker who tried to help just walked us to the shuttle).  I always thought DFW was a big airport but Jo’burgh seemed far more challenging for some reason. The D’Orealel is similar to Caesar’s Palace in Vegas (they used to own it in fact). It is a luxury resort hotel where the doormen greet you in top hats and  white gloves. We got a corner executive suite with a  living area (flat screened TVs), jacuzzi tub, etc. I had a personal letter addressed to me upon entering the room thanking me for my stay personally signed and they left a bowl of snacks (fruit, beef jerky, chips). The room was well appointed in rich mahagony furniture with decorative Grecian accents, luxurious drapes and bedding (deep brown and gold earth tones) and 2 balconies both overlooking the gorgeous pool and it’s Grecian landscaping and pavilion. Jerry was excited about the casino (I was proud of him once he doubled his money on roulette and slots he cashed out coming home a winner. A man who knows when to say when. I am not much of a gambler as I gamble with people’s lives every day for a living. That’s enough for me. Just like in Vegas, the hotel had shopping attached and wonderful restaurants. We got dressed up and had African food (me a Kudu fillet , him a warthog fillet which he said tasted like pork) at a trendy restaurant called Tribes. We then smoked Cuban cigars, drank scotch and listened to live music ( a guitarist singing everything from Kenny Rogers to Journey). The next morning we were treated to an unbelievable breakfast buffet from their fine dining restaurant Aurelia’s outside with a pool view in 70 degree weather conditions. We followed that up with an afternoon in their incredible Roman spa facilities enjoying a private mud treatment (a specially tiled Roman theme room with Grecian columns, wall sized cupid like paintings where the black sky ceiling twinkles with LED lights as you lather each other up privately with sea salt then mud first enveloped in steam then bathed in cold water as the ceiling rain down refreshingly on you; then we enjoyed the communal  Roman bath gorgeous beyond description, the kinds Turkish sultans today still enjoy. Jerry commented this spa is better than the ones in Vegas and Mexico  and the first one he has ever gone to where  men and men share the same Roman bath. Of course there were free teas, coffees and lemon water and their bathrooms and changing rooms top rate.  The hotel then provided us a private driver (black Mercedes) who drove us to and from a local mall for souvenirs and gave us curbside service to the international gate of  the airport. It was a perfect way to end our trip. The only thing that I would change is that I would stay at least another day at the D’Oreale. They even had a Vegas style show we did not have time to enjoy.  To enjoy two polar opposite experiences (bush safaris and big city Vegas style action) in one vacation together seemed perfect bookends.

Oct. 2010 Safari Experience where Phrases Take on Whole New Meanings (a meaningful conglomeration pithy on unique instances on my safari):

1.”throwing money out the window”:
Please see Danish Eric’s adventure blogged on Oct 5 pm safari and Oct 6 am safari.

2.”talk is cheap”: I may not have been able to talk my way out of the airport with British security (thankfully Jerry did) but as a result if my loquaciousness it turned out saving us $70 for an extra bag because the British Airways employee did not know the right questions to as or what she was doing. She already had Jerry on his way to the back of the line to pay for another bag.  What I learned from this trip is that it definitely helps to travel in pairs ! Besides, whoever said “talk is cheap” never needed a lawyer !

3.”hardheaded”: Jerry (who claims he is clumsy and I don’t think I will argue with that) accidentally banged the back of his head against the concrete waterfall behind our bed.  He also banged it bending over to plug in a converter and forgetting the safe was open over his had at the D’Oreale Hotel in Jo’burgh. Thankfully he only has 2 knots in his head as a result (he use to box in high school and said he is use to it) .  Bless his heart. Thankfully I had some Advil when he needed it.  He truly gives new meaning to “hard headedness” but not for traditional reasons as he has  the most pleasant personality. Despite days of no sleep and a  layovers, unfamiliarity in a foreign land,  true to nature he never loses his cool. This explains his motto of winning, “There never was a winner that didn’t expect to win.” He possesses all the charming characteristics that true leaders in wisdom possess. It is truly an honor to spend any time with him. I do so enjoy his company.

4.”Licking your wounds” : Saw a female young lion with what we would consider an ICU wound (softball size gaping hole in her back left leg clear to the bone with all the flesh torn out) licking her wound with care, resting a bit more and walking towards the back of the pack but moving forward with the pride with steely resolve ! For this lion, licking her wound is nature’s way of healing. We use the phrase “licking your wounds” to imply losing. The bigger philosophy in life is that there will always be times where it is necessary to “lick your wounds” but this is necessary in the healing process to get get up and moving again. Steely resolve, the key to life I believe.

Interesting safari facts (that I would like to record, share and preserve learned from this safari experience which may be of interest to others):

The lions here always give birth in March so the cubs will have their strongest chance at surviving because food is more plentiful in winter as the lions prey on animals at their weakest. Impalas always give birth all at once because there is power in numbers and after the first rain because they  will have fresh grass to eat and the chances of survival are higher. Squirrels sound out a warning cry to warn other wildlife when the lions are nearby. It is a miracle they ever get any prey. There are 3 times when you know you are going to die out in the South African bush: when you encounter a bachelor water buffalo who wants you ( they always get what they want, when they charge they mean business as opposed to a warning given by lions and elephants), when a male hippopotamus comes out of the water and heads your direction or when you encounter a bachelor elephant in must (an elephant who has been rejected by the matriarchal elephant society and it is mating season). Rhinos can hardly see and have no front teeth. The shape of their whole head is like a lawnmower. They have large square lips with their eyes and nose close to the ground and their ears on top of their heads to hear for protection. Wildebeests require  flat open plains with short grass like the Serengeti to survive. It is no coincidence that the wildebeest in Balule by the aiport due to perfect environmental conditions were all killed by lions. The male wildebeest that gets the best clearing gets all the females. Termite mounds  can grow upwards of 7 feet (like miniature Egyptian pyramids). They always have their tips point north so if you are out in the bush all you have to do is find the termite mounds ( a small mound of a few inches can take 5 years to build ) to find your direction. Kudus are always within 3 kilometers of water so if you are lost and thirsty in the bush you know there is hope if you can find the kudus. The water bok are the same way.  Giraffes have the highest blood pressure  of all animals due to how hard their blood must pump to get to the brain. In order to make this possible there is hardly any blood flow in their bottom legs and ankles which explains why their skin is so tight around this area why lions do not devour these parts. Giraffes and zebras can fight off a lion by kicking ferociously with their feet.  The older a giraffe becomes the darker it becomes. This is how you can tell if a giraffe is old. There is a snake called the vine snake that looks exactly like a tree branch.  It lies there motionless looking like a tree branch and when a bird perches on it , the snake strikes at sonic speed killing it with a venom that has no antidote.  Lions have white markings under their eyes like the leopards and other night predators because the moonlight reflects off these markings so they can see better. Day predators like the cheetah have black markings under their eyes to absorb the sunlight to help them hunt. It is interesting to see in the bush thereare trees that have their bark peeled off. This is because the elephants eat tree bark. They also uproot trees with their trunks to get to the more nutritious roots. Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal. They mainly kill people who are walking in their water paths (“hippo highways”), ripping their body in two and once the path is clear throwing them to the side.  One of the most, if not the most interesting safari fact {during our morning and evening safaris Shaun would stop for drink breaks (and yes alcohol was always served ! Love that South African Amarula in my coffee) and he would educate us} is that the hunting industry is preserving the African wildlife. It all took off in Tanzania when hunters like Teddy Roosevelt came to Africa to hunt big game and the landowners charged them exorbitant fees to shoot and kill. Because of the money involved Africans took great care to breed and preserve these species of wildlife and their habitats as this  market makes is more profitable than agriculture.  If it was not for hunters, all the African land would eventually be turned into massive farms. Rhinos, elephants, lions and the other species outside of the desired “Big five” like giraffes and zebras would eventually go the way of the American buffalo: virtually extinct.  Shaun had to go through much education and training to be a Ranger including getting his hunter guide certification so he knows with first hand knowledge how essential it is to the whole world that hunters be allowed to perpetuate the species. It was interesting to find out the ethical rules and concerns that all honest hunters who pay big fees have towards the wildlife. You can only approach and shoot an animal on foot (to be in a vehicle or helicopter gives unfair advantage) and if you wound an animal you must take it out.

What I Learned about South Africa
Besides the natural beauty of the country, Andrew , a Nigerian who is a defense lawyer in the Dallas Public Defender’s office was right: the African people are the sweetest people. I think back to the Pondoro Game Lodge where America, our night watchman gave us a note the last night with his contact information and it said ‘I love you.’ I think back to how the African kitchen staff baked me a wonderful vanilla/chocolate birthday cake; sang to me in their tribal Shangaan language then in English and then danced two songs with me beating their drum and sharing their African traditions with me with no reserve and in full acceptance. I think of Senti who told me I was beautiful everyday and she meant it. I think of Shadrack our private D’Oreale driver who went out of his way to help Jerry when he lost his glasses and wanted to send an email just to check on us to see that we got back to the US safely and find out if Jerry ever found his glasses. Shadrack upon hardly knowing us shared that if we were living here he would bring us back avocados, bananas and other fruits that grew from the trees on his land.  I think back to beautiful Rozanne who dreamt all  her life she wanted to work out in  the bush: her perfect manners, charm and 5 star treatment and attitude in how she runs Pondoro. I think back to Shaun and his humbleness, his expert knowledge of the African bush and his dedication at doing 2 safaris a day starting at 5 am with his night safari starting t 4  plus a nature walk every day and other jobs he performs like bar tending and other needs of the lodge 7 days a week. I think of tracker Eric and his kind smile, quiet nature and how he would leave everyone to find Jerry and I if we were late (not a surprise that I am not a morning person so that 5 am is nothing short of miraculous for me to be up and about) so we would not miss the safari. When I think about all the stereotypes of apartheid and blacks and whites my mind recalls the smiles, jokes and kindness Shaun has with all the black Africans. Rozanne, too, interacts the same. I truly don’t think that anyone at Pondoro sees color. They just see people. I think back to Doug who picked us up from Hoedspruit and brought us to Pondoro. He spoke of  growing up as the only white child in his area.  He speaks multiple African languages. I think about Rigula, the van driver who took us from Pondoro to Hoedspruit, a proud white South African who sees no color, talking about how Nelson Mandela was the greatest leader who ever lived and how after living in England 2 years after college she was happy to be back to her beloved South Africa. I remember her recalling a story how a black American family she was giving a ride to after a Soweto tour was spewing hateful comments to her about South Africa’s past apartheid until the family’s  daughter reminded the mom that racism is worse in the United States (something that makes me sick to my stomach and ashamed).  It is a great testament to the South African people that they broke down ten apartheid  without  civil war, which the Americans cannot claim. I should hate for any of my innocent African friends to come to America and taste racism. It would crush them and tear up my heart. It is not acceptable to tell African American jokes or disrespect President Obama openly because he is black. I think America could benefit from taking some pages out of the South Africa book. The fact that they have 11 official languages, embrace all their cultures is the way things ought to be. People fear what they don’t know or understand. Ignorance is the root of racism. South Africa is a country that is putting that behind them. Another fascinating thing about South Africans among the black Africans is that all their names have meanings. Patricia, one of the sweet kitchen staff at the Pondoro, shared that her oldest son is 18 and now she is pregnant with another one. His name will be “the Answer” (in African). A pregnant lady treating herself to the spa at D’Oreale shared with me this will be her first child and her name will mean “Gratitude”. When I first asked America how he got his name, he said to me with a childlike sweetness “I don’t know” but I suspect that his  mother saw the beauty of capitalistic ‘make your own destiny” in the USA and named him this accompanied with hope. He told me he doesn’t think he will ever have the money to visit the USA but I would bet he is wrong as I truly believe people rise to the occasion and their destinies.  These African names are given to inspire meaning and inspiration to their children. Our D’Oreale  private driver Shadrack said that on January 1, 1971 three little boys were born and the hospital named them after the Biblical tale : Shadrack, Meshack and Abindigo. He said that he could survive any fire just like Shadrack. He said that he has a picture of him and the two other babies. His life dream is to go to the hospital get their information and one day find them. He commented he thought it would be so cool for them to start sharing birthdays together. It is this love for  2 total strangers that personifies  the Africans. On a cultural note, there was just so much that seemed like going back 20 years in time. The airport security was reasonable (they weren’t going to make you throw out household items you just bought). The airlines actually feed you no matter how short the flight or time of day. 80s music is literally everywhere. At first I thought it was just the casino (Another One Bites the Dust playing from a slot machine) , my favorite 80s music ( ex. Duran Duran, the Go Go Girls, etc.) including one hit wonders played everywhere in public. When Jerry and I went to Rand Mall ( in town, not a part of  the casino) we were shocked to hear the same 80s music everywhere. While we were buying luggage; I witnessed the cutest sight: a boy who looked 3 ran into the shop dancing to Michael Jackson’s Beat It. Jerry and I felt like we were in a time machine so Jerry insisted on finding a music store in the mall. We asked the young clerk why we were hearing 80s music everywhere and he said that it was the music phenomena. Sure enough we looked at what they were selling … No Shakira in sight ! On an overwhelming life philosophical mental journey, I can’t help but wonder with 80s music surrounding me everywhere what my life might have been like had I married my South African boyfriend back in the late 80s that I met while my parents were working in Europe (his were too). I will never forget his descriptions of South Africa, it may have take over 20 years but it sure was nice to see and experience the things he told me. Also of interest is the fact that the clerk at the music store said most people buy cd(s). They do not download their music.  They had exotic fruit I have never seen before (one looked like a dwarf apple). I ate dishes I have never heard of before or do not know how to pronounce. What I can say was my culinary experience exceeded all expectations !  I never got sick and find myself at this moment craving the spinach, black mushroom cheese appetizer at Tribes that just melted in my mouth. I never knew a Kudu fillet or ostrich could be as tasty as my Texan medium rare Angus beef ! South Africa is full of magical sights, smells, sounds, tastes and wonders.  Hans Christian Anderson said ( Kal the Dane proclaimed  it when I asked him why he loves to travel) “To travel is to live.” A part of my soul was asleep before I went to South Africa. I will never be the same. I am a much more knowledgeable and better person because of it. South Africa, thank you .
Preparation (for an October safari) Great reminder advice for future safaris and helpful tips for people planning a safari:
Hunting clothes are brilliant as they have many pockets. Pockets come in handy for camera items and the like. Workout gear does quite nicely (long running pants, Nike long sleeve shirts that breathe, windbreakers a must). In warm weather shorts and flip flops will do. The more pockets, the better. Rain gear is unnecessary as there are ponchos on the cruisers. Also important is sunscreen, sunglasses, cameras and definitely video equipment . Be particularly careful with keeping up with lens covers. Test out the spare batteries for your camera and camcorder first to make sure they are the right size.  Jerry’s river raft shoes proved perfect as they were sturdy and let his feet breathe. A pocket flashlight would have proved most useful in finding places to go to the bathroom in the bush and getting to and from our hut. A pocket voice recorder would be perfect to dictate observations and facts to later replay for diary, journal or blog purposes. For me, my iPad worked brilliantly as I could record facts during the drive times animals are not spotted. I started doing this into my 5th safari in 4 days out of 7 and wish I had started earlier. I would highly recommend buying a keyboard for the ipad as typing without one was tedious. I also recommend buying the camera adaptor for the ipad so you can download your pictures in the plane.  As for travel, you need to get a very unusual 3 prong adaptor (prongs are round) and a voltage converter. We could not find these to buy in Texas (You should order them online). Jerry use to work for Radio Shack and had never seen one. My Swedish friend Karl who is a technology genius lent me one he was sure to work and it didn’t. Good point to know is that you can not exchange money anywhere without a passport (very inconvenient in the casinos in Jo’burgh when you don’t have it on you. Also important to know (wish someone had told me before my second to last shopping spree) is that you must save every receipt (if it is over 3k Rand then the receipt must have your name and address printed on the receipt) because as soon as you enter the airport to fly back (and before you check your luggage) you go to a tax desk where you show them the items you bought and the receipts so they stamp your receipts . Then once you check your baggage and go through immigration you then go to another tax office where as long as the receipts are stamped they issue you a refund check for the total amount of taxes that you paid.  You then proceed to a money counter where they cash your check and (the Amex counter charged me a 25% fee). It is a pretty cool thing that South Africa does in promoting tourism. Very important to pack light. Once you arrive in South Africa they have a weight limit of 40 kilograms per bag and I am pretty sure it is only one bag. If you book through American Airlines from the US with a layover and another sister airlines that American uses (in our case British Airways) make sure on the return you remind the sister airlines that American Airlines allows 2 bags per person (Jerry has gold status with American which flies our bags for free) otherwise they will send you to a different desk to pay for the bag (about $70) and worse,  you go to the back of the line. Very important to take Pepto Bismo (as it is has a low level antibiotic) and take one religiously every day so that you don’t get sick from the food.  A head cushion is excellent for the long flights. Bring your own earphones which are better than the airline earphones. Bring your ifone to you can also get video and camera coverage that you can share with people independent of your camera and camcorder. If you can get biodegradable toilet paper (we did not have this but it would have been better than leaves) bring this for your safaris if it is allowed or a ziplock bag to dispose it in and later throw away. Bring a pen to fill out all the customs forms with your carryon. Bring Listerine strips so that you don’t knock out your travel companion many hours on safari and on the plane. There were no tvs or radios in our lodge. I wish I had brought my portable Bose speaker to plug in my ifone to listen to music in the bath and on the patio. Binoculars are a must. Also make sure not to buy meat to bring back. I bought the must luscious beef jerky and they confiscated it at the airport. It is illegal to bring back meat from Africa. My beef jerky was even vacuum packed.


One Response to “My African Travels Oct 2010”

  1. Dear Mimi
    Thank you very much for the well written and very interesting article. Your kind words about Pondoro and its staff is much appreciated. The most important part, however, is where you wrote about South Africa, its people and their hearts.
    Thank you again!
    Robbie

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