Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Victoria Falls: One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World

We've been fortunate to have many moments on our travels that make us feel like we are seeing a little slice of the world unknown to many.  As we headed further towards the African interior, Victoria Falls, became one of those very special places.  Vic Falls is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Statistically speaking, it is the largest waterfall in the world. This recognition comes from combining the height and width together to create the largest single sheet of flowing water.
Victoria Falls is located on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and travelers can access the falls through either Livingstone, Zambia or Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The Zambezi River, which originates in northern Zambia, serves as the fall's water source.
The name Victoria Falls was given to the falls by the Scottish explorer Dr. David Livingstone. He named the falls after the reining queen at the time. The locals called the falls Mosi-oa-Tunya meaning “smoke that thunders.”  
Everything about Victoria Falls looks like it is leaping from the pages of romantic African novel, from the gentle babble of the Zambezi river (during low season) punctuated by the occasional grunts of the prolific hippo pods, to the mosquito nets billowing in the breeze while your treated to a massive blood red sunset, it has all the elements of an quaint and exotic back water, enhanced with the Victorian touches of a bygone colonial era.
Life in Zambia is hard however, it has one of the highest incidence rates of HIV in the world, and most live in poverty.  Our tourist guide told us that he had recently recovered from malaria, which he had contracted now for the fiftieth time.  Our river guide, nicknamed Potato, slipped into a coma after nearly drowning after being tossed into a whirlpool on one of his daily trips down the rapids a few years ago.  When I asked him if he was terrified to return back to the river he simply said "how else would my family eat?"  There is a underlying sense that survival teeters on a knife's edge in Zambia and yet it's clear that major investments in infrastructure and education are taking place.  The Zambian's are a high spirited and hopeful people, and we can't say enough about how meaningful our visit was with them.  We carry them in our heart and our minds until the day we get to say 'hello' again.  

A room with a view - the open air cottage enjoys an amazing view of the Zambezi
A beautiful sunset washed the shores in pink light
These traditional boats are carved from a single tree
In the two dozen times I've been escorted back to my room on safari, we've never encountered anything - this time there was a hippo in our path!  A face to face with Africa's most dangerous animal definitely gets the heart rate going.  (When this happens you back away, slowly, without turning your back on the animal)  
Following in the foot steps of David Livingstone
Some of the fuzzy local foliage
To the falls!  The rainbows form off the cliffs due to the amount of mist in the air.
This is the dry season, so you can see much more rock than normal
No optical illusion here!  Matt takes the plunge into the Devil's Pool!
Living life on the edge?
Matt decided that hanging off the edge of the falls wasn't enough, so we signed up for white water rafting.  What follows is without a doubt one of the scariest experiences of my life.  Take me back to the edge of the falls any day!

Of the 10 rapids we ran on the half-day trip, SEVEN were CLASS 5 - I think my heart is still pumping.  You know you are in trouble when your river safety guide begins with "so guys, when the boat flips over here is what you do".  

I forgot to bring my scuba gear.

Ok, Mother Nature, you win!  (I'm in the blue, Matt is right in front of me, engulfed by the wave that is about to pummel me).
After that day, observing the river from dry land was a welcome change.  This is the front of our cottage on Sindabezi Island looking at the Zimbabwe National Park.
The shower facilities were au naturale.  They even ran me a bubble bath one night!
The humidity lead to a stunning heat lighting display every night.  It looked like a rock concert was taking place.

At the Royal Livingstone hotel, they employ only the finest lawn mowers.
To the victor of the Zambezi goes the spoils!  We treated our bruised bodies to high tea - a perfect send off from beautiful Victoria Falls and our African adventure.  Thanks, for coming along!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

When Nature Calls: Ask Her to Book You a Safari

Brian Jackman, 2004 Travel Writer of the Year once said, "Everything in Africa bites, but the safari bug is worst of all."  It's true, I've been ailing from my safari affliction since our 2009 honeymoon in Kenya.  There is something so wonderful about safari that it's hard to describe if you've never been on one.  There is a feeling that no habitat, or zoo could ever capture - which is that you are really there on the animal's terms.  The privilege of watching a leopard stalk his prey, or a new born baby monkey cling to its mother's back, is just something that can truly not be recreated.  It also reinforces the often ignored blessing of patience.  Animals do not cater to your ego.  Therefore, safari is in some ways a great equalizer.  No matter who you are, or how much money you have, or how important you may be - the rest of mother nature doesn't care.  The animal kingdom isn't trained to make sure you get your money's worth.  To capture all of these moments is luck of the draw, and based on the animals allowing you to share it.  I also love it because it's not all razzle and dazzle.  In a world that gets faster and flashier with each passing moment, we've become accustomed to an over stimulated environment that can often mean we don't, quite literally, stop and smell the roses.  In a day where you see no big game, you being to take solace in watching a bird build it's nest, or listening to the incredible symphony of the various tree frogs, and realize that these things, too, are far more beautiful than you ever allowed your ears and eyes to believe.  

I can't say enough for our safari experiences except to say that I am deeply, deeply moved by the moments that I've witness in the African plains and Savannah and that the addiction to safari is a welcome one, as long as the remedy is to experience it as many times as possible.  There is no experience I can recommend more highly.

The following are a collection of our favorite images from the Kruger National Park in South Africa and Richard Branson's private reserve Ulusaba in the Sabi Sands.  More so now than ever, I do really feel that the photographs speak for themselves.
A stunning male Kudu crosses the road in Kruger.  Check out that car for scale.
One of the rarest animals to see on safari, the African wild dog, stunningly effective pack hunters.
Sharing the open plain with a mother white rhino and her new baby was a truly special place for a sundowner (read: safari happy hour drinks).
Just in case you needed reminding that they aren't just cute and cuddly.  This male baboon makes himself known.
Sometimes you are just too tall to get to the good stuff!
My Achilles heel.  I simply love elephants and seeing the largest land mammal in the world grazing just a few feet away always takes my breath away. 
The beautiful site of mother and (very new) baby.  Only about 150lbs at 2 months old!
A hot shower is always a luxury in the bush but being about to do so outside looking at the dry riverbed was wonderful.
You never go hungry on safari, I think the guides like to make sure you look tastier than they are in case of emergency.
All I want for Christmas is a...
This lady had it rough.  She was tired and hungry, unfortunately she had a near miss with a warthog as we watched her, which meant back the the drawing board for dinner.
A true tailgate.  The bar is open!
Amazing our guide spotted this chameleon at night in a tree, and Matt of course, took the chance to say hello.
No better place for a dinner over the fire than during the full moon.

While we don't see much at night, no doubt this guy does.
We tried a lot of new experiences this holiday including an attempt at facial hair!
The view overlooking the Savannah from the Rock Lodge at Ulusaba.
We got super luck finding this queen hyena's den!  And there were two little cubs to entertain us!
I may have mentioned that you don't go hungry on safari, well you don't go thirsty either...
The grand hall at Ulusaba uses the local foliage to decorate, including building the roof around existing trees.
Impala have three stripes on their backside that form an "M".  You can always remember this because they are consider the "Big Mac" to lions. :)
An adolescence male white rhino soaks up the rays at sunset.
When your the King of the Jungle you can sit anywhere you please.  Including right out in the open.
My most exhilarating game viewing this safari, a male leopard languidly patrolling his territory.  They are very difficult to see, but when you do - wow - it is a truly stunning looking animal. 

We had the very special opportunity to attend the opening of a brand new kindergarten for local school children who live just outside of the reserve.  Two of the guests (Americans from L.A.) at Ulusaba had sponsored the school.  We were so delighted to have the chance to share in this very special moment.

Alas, although travelling makes you get used to a sense of impermanence, you are still never quite ready to leave a place that you fall in love with.  

Thankfully, I know I've got a boy (and a plane) that will always be ready to return.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hermanus & Franschhoek: Whales and Tall Tales

Heading East from the Cape we headed to Hermanus, known for being the best land-based whale watching in the world, and then on to Franschhoek in the wine lands, known for being the undisputed gastronomic capital of South Africa (settled by the French of course!).  So in summary - after whale watching, we then went on to eat enough food to become actual whales.

Hermanus (originally called Hermanuspietersfontein, but shortened as the name was too long for the postal service - can't see why), is a town with 49,000 inhabitants on the southern coast of the Western Cape province of South Africa. It is famous for watching southern right whales during the southern winter and spring.  And boy do those whales not disappoint.  I've been whale watching many times in my life and I have never seen anything like this.  The whales are pretty much exclusively mothers and calves, and there is only one natural predator that can take out a southern right whale calf - a great white shark, who has it happens is also in the neighborhood (more on them later).  So in order to keep the babies safe the mothers bring them almost to land where they sit in the shallow surf beyond the reach of an ambush predator like the GWS.

For those of us even with the feeble naked eye, it's no trouble at all to simply stand on the beach and watch whale after whale breech, or slap the surface with their mighty fins and tails.  It's truly a magical experience.
We actually had this baby right whale come up and bump our boat (they are only white when they are really young).  It was fantastic.

Mother and baby cruising along.
Waving bye?
This is the famous Seal Island, home to over 40,000 cape fur seals.  It is also the site of the Planet Earth footage of the GWS leaping out of the water to make a meal out of these guys.  Consider it a shark buffet.
Did you say shark?  I want to see one!  What's that the water is 50 degrees?  Ok, lets make this quick.
So of course we had to get into the water with the GWS.  Cage diving!  This male is just a juvenile.

Matt was pretty committed to getting this video in spite of a scratched  lens and poor visibility.  Luckily our friendly shark made it pretty easy to capture him on camera. 

Nothing like celebrating your survival of the cage diving experience with a few bubbles and more whale watching (they are in the water right behind Matt).
Not a bad way to spend your 33rd birthday!

Now off to dive into a bottle of wine, rather than a shark cage.
The scenery at Jordan Winery was beautiful, and made all the more charming by the resident population of chameleons.
Let the calorie loading begin!
Yeah, you don't need a birthday cake when you have the world's best souffle.
And we actually spotted one!  I love the color scheme.
With the seasons inverted from the northern hemisphere, spring was in full effect in South Africa.  These little fuzzies where to cute for words.
Trying out the house vintage at the Auberge Clermont, our home for two nights.

We also took the opportunity to horse back riding between the vineyards.  No officer, I'm not sober but my horse is!
The scenery surround the vines was stunning.
We were treated to a beautiful sunset amongst the vines.

Matt fell in love with his all white mare.  Thankfully she doesn't fit in a carry on.
Did I mention the food?
This salmon three ways was a standout.
After an afternoon of rain, we lucked out with this final sunset.  It was spectacular!