Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dear Family & Friends,
Hello from Swapokmund, Namibia. The internet here is slow and funny and I don't have a lot of time so this might be an inferior attempt. Actually, this is only the second internet place we have had available in a week and when we went to the first one, in Springbok, South Africa, we couldn't get on there because of the rolling blackouts from the electrical company!
We are now on the second tour, which started from Capetown last Wednesday. There are 16 people in this group: 7 Canadians, 4 Americans, 1 Italian, and 4 English. All are pleasant and we have been having fun with them. Our new tour leader, Johan, is South African and kind of rigid but a good leader and we have been learning a lot from him. We spent one day and night in northern South Africa, at Lambert's Bay, where there is a huge breeding colony of gannets - large sea birds with very blue eyes. The guesthouse we stayed in there was really nice, and we had a good seafood dinner in town too. The next morning we had to get packed and dressed in the dark because the electricity was off for 2 hours, but our hostess still managed to prepare a very good breakfast.
The next day we proceeded across the border into Namibia, and the border crossing was not difficult. This is a very dry and arid country so when we pulled into our lodgings for the second night, we were pleasantly surprised by the greenery, as we stayed in thatched huts along the Orange River. They had every amenity and were very comfy. We saw a GAP tours overland camping vehicle there so we went over to look at it. These vehicles are built very high and although they look comfortable, they aren't air conditioned, which is a major deal here in a desert country where even now in autumn, it is very hot. Parts of Namibia are very desolate and parts are covered with drying grass after all the rain of the past few months. The rainy season has just ended. As we drive along, we sometimes see game animals, especially springbok, oryx, and ostrich. Driving here reminds me of the outback in Australia, because there are great huge areas with nothing and then we stop at a roadhouse. Here there are gas pumps, usually a small shop, bar, hotel, restaurant and toilets. Then we proceed on and there are more long, desolate roads. So far about 80% of the roads have been gravel. At one roadhouse the lady there showed us her pets: 2 rock dassies, which we had already seen in South Africa. Elaine thinks they are just big rodents, but actually their closest relatives are elephants.
Our second day in Namibia we went to the Fish River Canyon, which they claim is the second largest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon. It is very dry, even down at the river area, because it is dammed further upstream. Our guide kept warning us about snakes and on the road we passed a spitting cobra. We also stopped to look at huge nests in some of the trees made by birds called social weavers. The biggest nests might have up to 800 birds in them. That night we had our worst accommodation so far - a lodge outside the town of Aus, where we had 2 dormitories. It was located in a canyon 7 km from the hotel, but some of our group decided to stay at the hotel for an extra charge. The rest of us went to the lodge and basically had a giant slumber party. We spent the evening around the lodge table, drinking wine and getting to know each other better and it turned out to be really fun.
The next evening we stayed at the Nubia Game Ranch which was run by a very nice family. We each had our own thatched huts with nice bathrooms and wonderful views across savanna grasslands to the nearby colorful mountains. The owner took us on a free game drive in his open air truck on his property, ending with what they call Sundowners - cocktails while watching the sunset. We saw springboks and zebras and some birds. The food there was wonderful and they sent a really good packed breakfast with us the next day because we had to leave so early. We learned a lot about the area and the difficulties of living in such a remote place as we chatted with this man and his son. As we were driving out, our bus got stuck in the sandy riverbed we had to cross and the guy used his unimog truck to pull us out.
From there we drove to an area called Sossuvlei where there are many miles of big red sand dunes. Luckily they only allow people to climb one of them, and most of our group did it. We only went part way because I didn't want to stress my knee again. After the others got back, we drove to another area where we had to take 4 wheel drive vehicles through a really pretty part of the desert where there were even lots of trees and wildflowers, ending at a place where we hiked to a salt pan. This had been an inland sea and now is dry and there are lots of skeletons of old trees. Our last hike was supposed to be in an area where there was a canyon leading to a waterfall, but there was too much water in the canyon for our hike. While we were driving around this area, we stopped to see three oryx who were fairly near the road. Then we noticed a small cat that was trying to creep up on them. Our guide thought it was a juvenile leopard and he hustled us back on the bus because he was afraid the mother was nearby. Turns out that it was an African wildcat and not a small leopard at all. The ranger said that this cat is usually sighted very rarely - maybe once in 20 years or so!
After all the heat of the desert and the hiking, we were very happy to arrive at the Namib Desert Lodge where there were 2 swimming pools and we had really nice rooms and a delicious buffet dinner that night. Elaine and I sat on our veranda, having a before dinner drink, and looking across the savanna right in front of us it reminded us of the camping scene in "Out of Africa". All we needed was the fabulous music.
The next day we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn on our way here to Swakopmund. This is a very German town and we are enjoying the infrastructure. Also, it is on the coast, so the temperature is much cooler. In fact today the fog never dissipated so it was overcast all day. Lots of our group went sand boarding and quad riding on the nearby dunes and they said it was sunny out there. Four of the guys went fishing and some others were supposed to take a scenic flight. We just walked the town, did our laundry, got a haircut, and enjoyed the down time. There is a lot of mining in this area. The Kristall Gallery in town is loaded with wonderful gems and crystals and we spent some time drooling over them. Tomorrow we head further north towards Etosha National Park where we hope to see lots more animals.
No doubt there will be no internet places until we arrive in Windhoek in 5 days. Until then, sending big hugs to you all.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Friday, April 18, 2008

Dear Friends & Family,
Have been having a few more adventures so I thought I would relate them to you before I forget all the details. Yesterday we had a fabulous day visiting Cape Point, which is located in a national park where the Cape of Good Hope is located. This is the farthest south western point in Africa. One of our problems about going here was that we didn't have a vehicle to get there and it is difficult to do without one. We don't want to rent a car because they drive on the left hand side here, which we haven't done in years, and the way they drive is somewhat scary. Nearly every car has several dents and scrapes. Also, neither one of us remembered to bring our driver's licenses! So we checked into excursions and they were rather expensive. When our very nice neighbors at the guesthouse where our apartment is invited us to tag along with them yesterday, we jumped at the chance. They are Jonathon & Bev, a couple from Johannesburg, and his visitingsister, Ruth, from England. We drove to Hout Bay again, and walked around the harbour so Ruth could see it. It was another perfect day, weather-wise, although the mist was still burning off at the seaside. There is a very scenic road, called Chapman's Peak Road, which runs along the Atlantic coast out of Hout Bay towards Cape Point and we stopped several times for views and pictures. Our next stop was for "tea" in Simonstown, a very picturesque village where there is also a major naval base. It is one of the oldest towns in South Africa and has lots of old restored buildings as well as a nice harbour. Not very far from there is a very large Jackass penguin colony at Boulder's Beach. There are about 3000 penguins nesting there now although the colony started with only 2 nesting pairs in the 1980's. The beach is also beautiful because there are lots of huge boulders, and a nicely done boardwalk which goes by a lot of the areas where they nest.
We pressed on to the national park which is covered in low-growing vegetation indigenous to this area called fynbos. After an excellent lunch at the Two Oceans restaurant, we hiked up a somewhat steep trail to the lighthouse. The name of the restaurant comes from the fact that the Atlantic and Indian Ocenas meet here. We had expected to have baboon encounters here because everyone warned us about them and said how aggressive they were, and to be sure we avoided them and locked our car. But there were none to be seen. Perhaps they had been removed because some nuns were attacked by them last week and it was in the news. What we did see were several mice on the trail, and one nibbled Elaine's shoe in the restaurant, so she wasn't too happy about that!! It was very windy at the top of the peak but sunny and beautiful. On the hike back we saw an eland in the vegetation near the funicular station, but no other antelope or zebras, which wasdisappointing. Of course, we had our picture taken at the sign that said the Cape of Good Hope, and the GPS reading for it. On the drive back we stopped in Hout Bay for dinner and enjoyed it immensely, as Bev and Jonathon are so interesting and informative.
It was great to be with a South African couple because we could ask them lots of questions. One thing we asked about was the crime problem and they verified that in Johannesburg it is very bad, although they live there. For example, they never leave their garden door open or unlocked because then it is possible that a gang of blacks will invade and rob them. They also said that it happens occasionally that a gang of 5-6 blacks with AK-47's will go in a restaurant or even a grocery store and rob everybody in the place. The police seem to be either corrupt or unable to deal with problems like this, so this kind of behavior is escalating. We also asked them about whether they had to pay for school, since they have one son in college and one in high school. They said they pay about 1000 rand a month for high school and college is about 2000 rand per month. Another lady told us that her primary school son also had to pay about 800 rand. Currently the rand is 7.86 to the dollar. Hearing about these costs expalins why so many of the blacks here are uneducated and why we see so many young kids on the streets trying to sell things, or even just begging.
4/16/08 I stopped yesterday and will try to finish this up today. We have just come back from another seaside stroll at Sea Point, since today and tomorrow are supposed to be the best days and then a front is going to come in. Last week we had a few VERY windy days and nights, so we did some museums and one more movie. They call the wind "the Cape Doctor" because it blows all the crappy air out of here, although we have not noticed too much smog in the air at all. On one of our last days with David & Ann, we drove by a huge fire in a mostly deserted hillside area near Paarl, and we took some pictures. When we passed the fire again after dark, it had spread all over the ridge and was throwing up huge flames. For several days after that the air was awful in the whole area. It has cleared up now, and in fact, we think that one of the most delightful things about all of South Africa is that the air was so clear everywhere.
One of the museums we went to was the Gold Museum. There was a whole history of gold mining and gold jewelry making and LOTS of gold artifacts. Of course, a lot of the gold in the world has been mined here in Africa, and it has been traditional that African tribal leaders, kings, etc. always wear a lot of gold and use gold covered utensils to impress their people and other tribes too. The other museum we went to was the South African National Gallery. We were not impressed with the painting section, but other areas, such as the photographic part were brilliant, and did a lot to show conditions during Apartheid. We bought a few things at the shop there because they were so much better than you can find out on the street.
The movie we went to was called "Zeitgeist", and was supposed to be a commentary on social fallacies. It started by comparing Christianity to pagan religions; went on to support the theory that 9/11, and indeed other national catastrophies such a Pearl Harbor, were actually set up by our own government to get popular approval to wage wars; and ended by explaining how the banking systems own all the politicians and are calling all the shots in world governments. It was quite a thought provoking evening.
Just watching the news on TV here can be thought provoking, given the state of the Zimbabwe elections. Perhaps it will all come to a head today when the South African president is due to address the UN Security Council concerning the fact that Mogabe, the Zimbabwe dictator, is refusing to release the results of the election (since he probably lost). If some international pressure isn't put on him, he will no doubt still maintain power and everone says he is a nutcase who is ruining the country, and maybe taking the whole region down with him. On a lighter side, about South African TV, we have never been in a country before where TV programs star at such odd times. For example, tonight's episode of "Friends" starts at 6:27. There are 4 channels and luckily, we are also getting one cable channel, the Travel channel, because the first 4 are not very good. The travel channel here is much better than the one we get in the USA and we are enjoying it.
One last social commentary. A few years ago the company called Eskom, which supplies electricity applied for a permit to build more power plants and when they wouldn't let them, they warned that by 2008 there would be shortages. Sure enough, there are now rolling blackouts. They turn off the power for several hours in different areas because there isn't enough. The really silly thing is that they publish a schedule of the proposed blackout areas and then they don't stick to it, so when the police try to have people to direct traffic at the stoplights in the areas where the blackouts are supposed to be, they aren't in the right places and traffic is hopelessly snarled. And, to add insult to injury, now Eskom is warning that there is going to be a 60% increase for electrical service! Probably I have bored you silly once again so I will close and try to bat off another one of these the next time we have anything of interest to impart. Our next tour starts next Tuesday, so we will be leaving Capetown next Wednesday. Sending big hugs to all and hoping things are going well there.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dear Family & Friends,
Another sunny day here in Capetown, although some clouds are now rolling over the mountain nearby and we can see the beginnings of "the Tablecloth". This is their name for a cloud that covers the top of Table Mountain, the flat topped mountain that towers over the main part of the city. Three days ago we hiked from our apartment up to the cable car station and took the cable car up to the top. Previously, when our tour bus took us up there and we couldn't take the cable car because it wasn't running (too windy), we looked at the view just from the bottom cable car station and it was fantastic. We could see the City Bowl, and the entire waterfront, plus good views of Lion's Head, a nearby peak. However, taking the cable car up to the top was tons better. We could see all of the communities that surround Capetown along the coasts, and all the way down to Cape Point. We walked almost all over the top, and stayed for lunch at the self-service restaurant there. It was such a sunny and gorgeous day that the line was rather long to get tickets. The cable car itself moves really rapidly and is unique in that the floor rotates 360 degrees on the way up so everyone gets to see all the views. A nice woman from Durban was ahead of us in line and she very kindly bought our tickets for us so we could get in for about half price. This is because "pensioners" get a great rate but they stipulate South African pensioners. Other places, such as at the movies, they only ask that you be old, not South African as well!
Actually, lots of things here aren't very expensive, such as a movie ticket. We have been paying about 20 rand each, or $2.50. The cable car was 130 rand, with pensioners paying 68 rand. We usually take a city bus to get to the waterfront, and that is 3.1 rand. A decent bottle of wine costs between 25 and 100 rand, and most meals out are between 40 and 80 rand. A glass of wine with a meal costs about 13-18 rand, and a beer between 10 and 15 rand. Currently the exchange rate is about 7.9 rand per dollar.
Yesterday we took the city sightseeing bus which is a red double decker, open top bus where you can get off and on at various points of interest. There are 2 routes; the red one around the city and up to Table Mountain, and the blue route goes to some places in the outskirts. We did the blue one and got off at a place called World of Birds. Here they had hundreds of birds from all over the world, and also some monkeys, meerkats, etc. Quite interesting and enjoyable, especially the section where they had all the birds that had been donated to them from homes where people couldn't keep them anymore, so most of them talked! At lunchtime we got off the bus at Hout Bay, a small maritime community where there is working harbour and where we ate at a nice restaurant overlooking the yachts. The beach there looked quite clean and was very protected because of the headlands nearby. Then we took the bus back to Capetown. The route runs all along the Atlantic coast communities where there are lots of high rise condos and expensive beach front properties, especially near some of the nicer beaches. This gave us the idea of taking the city bus to Sea Point today, the closest beach town. We wanted to enjoy this sunny day by walking along the beachside promenade and also check out the little shops there. It was fun.
Lest you think we have just been enjoying frivolous activities, let me assure you that we tried to learn more about Apartheid and some of the social struggles here by visiting the District 6 museum. In my last letter I mentioned that District 6 was the place where they removed all the blacks and then bulldozed their homes. I wish I could say that the museum was enlightening but it turned out to be poorly done with many things in very small print or located too high up on the wall to read. There were a very interesting exhibits such as a reconstructed one room home of a family from District 6, but we found the rest of it tedious and left.
Another day we took the ferry out to Robben Island, which is South Africa's Alcatraz Island. This is an island about 6 miles off the waterfront where previously there was a leper colony and also, on and off over hundreds of years, it has had a prison there. This is where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners of the Apartheid era were held for periods from 7 to 27 years. The tour through the prison was led by a former political prisoner, and he told us about some of his experiences there. Before seeing the actual prison, we had a bus tour of the island and we also saw some of the Jackass penguins that nest there. The views across the water at Capetown, with Table Mountain towering over it, were incredible. We were lucky to get tickets because usually you have to book in advance, sometimes weeks in advance. We didn't want to do that in case our tickets ended up being on a bad weather day. So we went to the ticket line about 45 minutes before a tour and waited to see if there were cancellations. The first time we just got to the front of the line when there were no more tickets. So we went back for afternoon tours and got on one. Hooray.
Each day when we head into the main part of Capetown from our apartment, we walk through the Company's Gardens. This is a big area of beautiful big trees, grass, and lots of plants, with nice walkways and some sculptures. Many of the main buildings, such as the President's house, Parliament building, South African National Gallery, etc. are along the edge of these gardens. This is because the gardens were one of the first things the Dutch created in Capetown. Originally they planted these gardens with fruits and veggies for the ships of the Dutch East India Company who stopped here for reprovisioning. In fact, that was why Capetown was first started - they didn't start allowing colonists to come here for many years, only workers for the Company who did the things needed to replenish the ships, or repair them. As we walk through the gardens, we are constantly confronted by squirrels who are used to people feeding them! They will eat right out of your hand, but after my episode with the monkey, I am not getting anywhere near any animals!!
Before closing, I want to tell you about an anomaly - the gas station which is located right at the end of our street. It has a bunch of gas pumps, and also a store, as our gas stations often do. But this one has a wonderful bakery, gourmet food items, fruits and veggies, even a deli type counter where you can get meat pies and Portugese style chicken meals. All at a GAS STATION!! Amazing.
Next time, if I remember, I must comment on South African TV and newspapers. It is quite surprising to read, right at the top of the TV listings in the newspaper, "inaccurate and unreliable based on information supplied by the SABC". You would never see such candidness in OUR newspapers!
Sending big hugs.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Friday, April 04, 2008

Dear Family & Friends,
Hello from Capetown where we are enjoying being on our own now and exploring this beautiful city in a leisurely fashion. Two days ago David & Ann dropped us off at the Silver Lattice Guesthouse, where we have rented a one bedroom self-catering apartment until April 22. It is located on a small and quiet street in the part of Capetown called Gardens. We have all the comforts of home with plenty of good shopping and other amenities, such as a nearby theater, just a block or two away, all for about $45 per night. It is an easy walk to just about everything we want to see or do here, and we spent yesterday just exploring on foot. I am able to do this now that my knee has mostly healed, and so has my monkey bite.
Today we walked downtown and then caught a city bus to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. There are hundreds of stores there, plus entertainment, restaurants, etc. We looked at the exhibits at the Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island. That is the place where he was imprisoned for most of the 27 years he was jailed, and it is located about 6 miles out on Table Bay. We decided not to go out to the island today because it is cooler and cloudy today with a chance of rain. We will go at a later time, when we can have sun for our boat trip out there. Because we are here after the major tourist time, and the school holidays will be over on the 15th, we will have a much easier time getting tickets for this. Some English girls on our first tour tried to get tickets several weeks before we arrived here and they couldn't get booked.
Ann and David took us to lots of the most beautiful areas around here where there are wineries and good restaurants. There are over 300 vineyards and wineries in this area! Wednesday we went to one in an affluent area very near Capetown called Constantia. We also drove the coast along False Bay, which was beautiful, and we passed a lot of the townships in the Cape Flats area. This is a huge flat area outside of Capetown where the black people were forced to live when they took their land away from them during apartheid and bulldozed their homes in District 6. They did this to about 60,000 people. Now they are starting to restore their land to them and helping them build better houses if they do have to stay in the Cape Flats area. Speaking of houses, we find it interesting that they do not use wood for framing houses here. Instead they build brick houses, often then covering the bricks with plaster and painting the plaster.
One thing I haven't explained before is that there is a language here called Afrikaans. Since South Africa was settled first by Dutch people starting in the 1600's, they spoke Dutch which has evolved and changed into a unique language called Afrikaans. Most people here speak English too because South Africa was eventually taken over by the British. There are also 9 other languages which were the ones of the African tribes living here: Bantu, Zulu, Xhosa, etc. So when we want to watch the TV news, often it is in Afrikaans with some English mixed in. Very confusing.
One thing I forgot to talk about in a previous letter was that we visited Addo Elephant Park on our way here. It started with only a few elephants and now there are thousands. We only saw 5-10, but they were big and right near the road. We also saw meerkats, a jackal, ostrich, lots of warthogs, various antelopes, monkeys, and some of our group saw lions eating at a kill. This park had really varied terrain and showed us how easy it is for elephants to hide when the foliage is thick and tall. It is also one of the closest parks for game viewing to Capetown.
More tales next week.
Love, Mary & Elaine