Monday, March 31, 2008

Dear Friends and Family,
Our friends, Ann & David, have gone to a birthday party and left us here in their house so I finally have a little time to try to write another travel tale to you all.
The last travelogue was from Durban, where we dropped off 10 of the people in our group and picked up 7 more. We were joined by 2 young English gals in their mid-20's, one retired Canadian man, a 40ish Canadian man, a young gal from New York, and 2 Austrian sisters in their 30's. We stayed at a nice hotel right on the beach promenade in Durban, which was actually the nicest area we saw in the whole city.
There has been a lot of money spent on the waterfront and there is a great aquarium here. Durban has the largest concentration of Muslims, or what they call Malays, because a lot of these people were brought here from Malaysia and India to work several hundred years ago. Now, unfortunately, Durban seems to be deteriorating and lots of the areas we passed looked very distressed. The countryside near Durban is beautiful, however. We didn't have time to visit the very large Indian market there.
The next day, we headed inland to the Drakensburg Mountains. This is a beautiful area as well, but was rainy and cold when we arrived there and stayed that way during our 2 days there. It was the first time that we needed to put on long-sleeved shirts, jeans, and fleece tops. The first day, most of our group went on a hike to some cave paintings done by the San people who were the first inhabitants here, even before the Zulu. Elaine and I stayed at the hotel because I had twisted my knee and she was still feeling the effects of an intestinal infection. The second day I joined the group for a tour through the local Zulu township. Previously, we had visited a Zulu Village which was a bunch of tourist schlock and quite a waste of time and money. This village was where the local people really live. We went to the school, the tribal spiritual healer, had a performance of Zulu songs and dances by about 20 kids, and visited a home and small farm. It was raining off and on the whole visit and by the time it was over, we were all covered in mud, a condition they have to endure whenever it rains, and when it doesn't rain, they endure lots of dust. The kids were enthusiastic and we were impressed with their English skills. The houses are very small, usually 2-3 rooms, in a cement block structure, and the families are usually large, often 10 children or more. Despite the fact that AIDS and TB are a huge problem here and these diseases are affecting up to 40% of the population, the birthrate is so high that populations are still increasing!
Our guide was a 25 year old man who is now responsible for 9 younger brothers and sisters after the deaths of their parents.
There is a huge disparity between the way the blacks and whites live. We drive through towns where there are nice middle class and upper class homes, inhabited by whites, and then there is always a black township on the outskirts where there are very small shacks.
Driving through towns there are usually people out selling things on the street, often right in front of the established supermarkets. There will be black women with a few piles of fruit to sell, and it is incredible to think that they will sit there all day to sell these few things and the profit it will bring will make a difference to their families.
In the news we have been learning about corruption and crime here. There is a thing that happens here called cable theft. This means that electrical wires (some to traffic lights) have been stolen and the wire itself has been used for making jewelry to sell or sold for the value of the metal.
We have visited parks and monuments where the descriptive plaques are missing, or even the rifles they were holding are gone, because of theft. There are rolling brown outs because they are not producing enough electricity yet they are raising the rates by up to 60% soon, and a lot of the electricity is being diverted to Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The government officials we have seen being interviewed on TV sound like idiots and later we find out that they got their positions due to family influences, and they are not doing their jobs properly. And the man who is now the president of the African National Congress, and likely to be the next President of the country, is a convicted rapist. Many of the white South Africans we have spoken with are in the process of trying to sell everything and emigrate to England or Australia, yet they are only allowed to take two million rand out of the country. (The rand is currently about 8 to the US dollar).
This all sounds so dismal and yet this is one of the most beautiful places we have ever visited. The land area is vast and because of the climate, they can grow just about anything here. There are diverse landscapes where there are huge areas of sugar cane and pineapples, bananas, then other areas where there are huge tracts of trees, fields of corn, wheat, canola, orchards of every fruit, and here in the Cape region, vineyards by the hundreds. There are wineries here that are 325 years old! The wines are delicious and also quite affordable. Not as cheap as 2 buck Chuck, but much better and we pay between 5 and 8 dollars for a very good wine. Food in restaurants is also very affordable.
After the Drakensburg mountains, we drove down to the coast and it is just as beautiful as California, but warmer. We stopped at a place where Neil, one of the younger Canadian men, did the world's highest bungy jump - 216 meters off a bridge. We could have done another zipline tour through the canopy of the forest near Tsitskamma, but we just visited the national park instead, since we had already done the ziplines in Costa Rica. Then we had a marvelous drive along the Garden Route, a very beautiful drive along the coast. We headed inland into an area called the Klein Karoo, where there are lots of ostrich farms, and a town called Oodschoorn, which is a big Afrikaans area. Part of the group went to the Cango Caves, while part of us stayed in town to attend a big festival held there yearly. It was a music festival so we had a wonderful time visiting the various venues where different people were performing, and most people were drinking and listening and having a great time. Lots of the songs were in Afrikaans but some were in English. We even got free baseball caps and tee shirts from a local radio station while we were sitting with some new local friends drinking a local brandy called Klipdrift. We also enjoyed a hard cider called Hunter's Dry, even though Savannah is the one most people recommend.
The drive to Capetown from this region was absolutely spectacular. The mountains are incredible and alongside the road we periodically came across groups of baboons. The topography near Capetown is really incredible because there are lush valleys with orchards and vineyards and then these huge mountains towering above them. This area makes the Napa Valley look puny. Everywhere there are wineries with impressive buildings and beautiful tasting rooms. Lots of them have art and sculpture displays as well.
Now I have to close, because David and Ann are back and I can tell you the rest later. Thank you to those friends who have e-mailed us or made comments on our blog - we enjoy your input. Sending big hugs to everybody.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Friday, March 28, 2008

Dear Friends & Family,
This is just an update and not really a travelogue. We just wanted to tell you that we arrived safely in Capetown several days ago and our first tour is over. Our friends, Ann Howell and David Brown have picked us up and we are staying with them for about a week at their rented house about 40 kms outside of Capetown. They have been wonderful hosts for the past 2 days as we have been driving all over the beautiful areas of the winelands and coast of False Bay. The first day we did some wine tasting at La Motte which has some very nice wines, and then had a world class lunch at the best restaurant in Franschhoek. We finished off the day by having drinks at sunset at Moyo, an African bar and restaurant at Spier Winery. Yesterday we drove along the coast to Hermanus, an old fishing village and because the weather has been sunny and warm, had fabulous views and a delicious lunch along the water. Today we are going to another area for more exploring. Capetown and its surrounds are incredibly beautiful and we are here at a perfect time of year.
So you can see that I don't have time right now to describe the adventures we had on the second half of the tour. That will happen in a day or 2 when David & Ann have a social obligation and I can get back to this computer again. We are both well and hoping that all is going fine for all of you too.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Monday, March 17, 2008

Dear Friends and Family,
Please excuse the long lapse in correspondence but we have been in places where there was no internet!! Hard to believe, isn't it? But of course, we have been mostly in game parks and rural areas.
The good news is that our luggage arrived just before our group left Pretoria, and right after we had bought a few items of clothing, so now we are really overloaded. Our group of 16 turned out to be very amiable, with 5 Canadians, 3 Swiss, 4 Americans, 3 Aussies, and 1 English man. Our guide, Arthur, is South African. I guess I should be talking about them in the past tense because we are now in Durban where all but 6 of us are departing, and we get 10 more new people for the second half of the trip.
It has been fabulous seeing so much game. When we get near a game area, we start to see exotic animals, even alongside the road. Prior to Kruger National Park, we did 2 game drives in a smaller reserve and the first animal we saw was a rhino right on the road. Then we did several game drives in Kruger and by the time we had done all this we had seen the big five: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and cape buffalo. Add all the other animals such as giraffes, zebras, and the many types of antelope and we are seeing LOTS of game. Unfortunately, in our camp in Kruger, when I went out to take a picture of the monkeys right near our hut, one of them chased me and gave me a nasty bite right in the calf of my right leg. It still isn't healed, but it is not infected and is healing slowly. Rabies is not a problem here.
From there we went into Mozambique, which is extrememly poor and over populated compared to South Africa, and also it was very hot while we were there. The terrain and the way the people live outside, even the shape and style of their huts, reminded us a lot of Belize and other parts of Central America. We had several beach experiences while there, including one where there were bedbugs in all the beds of the communal houses we shared.
From there we went to Swaziland, and the minute we crossed the border we could tell that it was much more affluent and westernized than Mozambique. They have much more substantial houses, and also English is the main language, whereas in Mozambique it is Portugese. We stayed at a very nice game park there where they served us good food, including some game dishes such as bleisbok and impala. The Swazi crafts are very good and we bought a couple of small baskets. Can't carry much though! So far, in these other 2 countries, we have observed that all the businesses seem to be owned by white South Africans and most of the work is done by blacks, who receive very low wages. For example, in the last place we stayed, a gardener there works 6 days a week, and earns 600 rand, which is less than $100 a month. It probably blows their minds that they work in places where people like us pay 95 rand for a dinner buffet which is a lot to them. As we drove out of that place yesterday, there were 12 giraffes in a field right next to the road.
There have been many long drives on the bus. We were supposed to have a van and a trailer for the baggage but that didn't happen. In fact, the first day of our trip, we all sat in the hotel waiting for the van which never arrived and after 6 1/2 hours, they finally produced the big bus which we now travel in. Luckily, it has a toilet because starting 2 days ago, Elaine and one of the Aussie gals have had a touch of an intestinal bug and have been unable to keep much food in. Today I feel like I am getting it too.
We have had good weather except for the past few days when it has been raining off and on. They really need the water here, so they are glad to have it. Yesterday we took a boat trip on the St. Lucia Estuary and saw lot of hippos and crocs and some interesting birds: storks, huge goliath herons, eagles, etc. The rain held off until afterwards, which was nice.
Today we leave Durban at 10AM with our new group. Luckily, 2 of the people going on with us to Capetown are 2 ladies of about our age from Victoria and we are enjoying their company. More travel reports later if and when internet places are available. Thanks to those of you who have sent us short newsy messages. We always appreciate hearing from everyone. Sending big hugs.
Love, Mary & Elaine

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Dear Friends and Family,
This is a good news, bad news letter. The good news is we have arrived safely in Pretoria and are established in our hotel. The bad news is that not one of our bags has arrived as yet. Luckily, we carried a complete change of clothing in our carry on bag and also all medications, cameras, etc. But a lot of the stuff we need for our upcoming safari is in the checked luggage and we are REALLY hoping that it arrives today! We have spent a few hours today buying a couple of new shirts, some sandals, gel insoles, and a manicure kit. Perhaps this will be a trip in which we will learn just how lightly we can travel with regard to STUFF.
Our flights were not too bad, although the South African Airlines flight left Dulles about 3 hours late. They also had lousy service which they said was because of the delay, they had to allow their cabin personnel extra rest time, so most of the flight, they weren't even anywhere to be found. Then when our luggage didn't arrive and we had to file a claim, that wasn't handled very efficiently either. And there were hundreds of bags just sitting around in that area, which didn't make us feel any better about the way they were handling things. After such a long travel time, and the loss of our bags, we were very relieved when we exited the customs area to see that the guy was still there waiting to take us to the hotel, even though we were so late. We have been trying to adapt to the time change ever since, and also get over jet lag.
Yesterday we walked around in the downtown part of Pretoria and so far have not had a very good impression of this city. There are not a lot of tourist attractions and even though this city is recommended over Johannesburg with regard to safety, we are always cautioned never to go out of the hotel at night. Everyone suggests leaving all money and valuables in the room safe and not even showing a camera most of the time. We have been severely reprimanded twice by people who thought we were doing something offensive, such as entering the wrong door of the store, and taking a picture of a costume on a mannequin in a restaurant. But overall, most people have been friendly and helpful.
In the central part of Pretoria, we visited Church Square yesterday, which is surrounded by old stately sandstone buildings from centuries ago. Very interesting but mostly not available for entry. Today we walked down to an area called Hatfield, which is one of the only areas recommended for walking around and finding decent restaurants and shopping. On the walk down here we passed lots of consulates and embassies, including the US embassy, and most were stately and had nice gardens and flowers. The US Embassy looks like a modern fortress however. Every property of any value has high fences and the windows are often barred.
Our tour starts tomorrow, although we don't leave Pretoria until Monday. So in the next report, we will tell you about our leader and our group. Sending big hugs.
Love, Mary & Elaine