Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Africa 2012

Ranger Amon and Me
Me, Amon, and Tubby
The trip to Africa was wonderful, a success in every respect.  Brother Tom--or "Tubby" as he insisted everyone call him--was the perfect travel companion, a gregarious conversationalist who gently forced me to be a bit more outgoing than I normally am.  I'm sure he wished that he had been more successful in his efforts, but they were appreciated nonetheless. Rather than bore you with some kind of chronological travel log, I will--as is my custom--deal in various random thoughts and insights.

Durban, from the first night's hotel
1.  Getting There and Back.  There simply isn't any really easy way to get to a game preserve in South Africa from Easton, MD.  My trip consisted of a drive to Dulles, a semi-direct flight to Johannesburg (17 hours) (a one hour stop in Dakkar for fuel, transfers, etc), a one hour flight to Durban and a three hour drive to Zulu Nyala--our home for six days.  Getting home consisted of the three hour drive to Durban, an hour flight to Jo-burg, an 8.5 hour flight to Frankfurt GE, and another 8.5 hour flight to Dulles.  A bit grueling all in all, but I can say without reservation that air travel provides me one of the few opportunities to be thankful about being modestly sized.  I would have hated to be a six footer or better during these long flights--though both South African Airways and Lufthansa had a pretty fair amount of legroom.  I was able to sleep relatively well in each direction, which cut down on some of the boredom of travel, and I had iPads and iPods full of books, movies, and courses.  Additionally, I had an aisle seat on every flight, which made get up and stretch opportunities more easily available.  One drives in South Africa on the other side of the road, with the steering wheel also on the other side.  Takes a little getting used to, but works out fine pretty quickly.  What I couldn't get used to were the hand controls, as I was constantly turning on windshield wipers when I wanted turn signals.  SA's roads were excellent, speed was 60-75 mph on the main highways,  Of interest, the shoulders were generally considered to be travel lanes, as cars would routinely pull over to the left to allow faster vehicles to pass.

Tubby and Amon
Tubby and the Gate Guard
The Swaziland Border
2.  My Travel Companion.  People often say that Tubby and I are much alike, and until this trip, I generally agreed with them.  We have a passing resemblance, we both fancy ourselves as quick-witted, and we tend toward sarcasm in our humor.  That said, the single most interesting thing I learned on this trip was how incredibly different I am from him in temperament and gregariousness.  Simply put, Tubby is one of the most extroverted people I have ever been around.  This sets up an interesting parallel with my own life, in that people often comment that my sense of orderliness and organization was something I learned in the Navy--a statement which is patently false.  I had those things BEFORE I went in the Navy--and so perhaps they helped me thrive there.  Tubby's extroversion is clearly a boon to a medical device salesman (his job), but I find myself straining to remember him as this outgoing as a kid.  Perhaps he'll comment on it.  My suspicion is that he was this outgoing and friendly, just not to his little brother.  No one was immune to Tubby's charms.  Virtually every social transaction turned into an opportunity for him to tell a story or to solicit a story from his interlocutor.  He made friends wherever we went, considering himself  "an Ambassador of the United States."  We even made an hour's diversion from our trip to Pungola so that we could suffer four separate immigration processes to that he could leave South Africa and obtain a Swaziland passport stamp.  Four separate opportunities to regale the locals with the novelty of crossing a border simply to get a stamp.  There simply was never a dull moment in Tubby's company. Which is why I occasionally had to depart from his company, as I enjoy dull moments--I think probably more than he does.  I craved quiet sunsets for reading and solitude in our room, while he kept the bar entertained explaining America to anyone who happened by.  Bottom line:  I'd do it again in a heartbeat. 

The Game Lodge
Where we ate...and ate...
3.  The Lodge.  We stayed at Zulu Nyala Game Lodge, on the 1000 hectare (2.5 acres per hectare) Zula Nyala Game Preserve.  Everything--and I mean everything--was excellent.  Our room was spacious and well lit, with a big soaking tub and a stand up shower in the bathroom.  Three squares a day were provided, with coffee available seemingly round the clock.  Meals were hearty and primarily served buffet style, mixing in well known European cuisines with local dishes utilizing game stock for some of the choices.  I arrived with all good intentions of continuing to be a disciplined eater and failed miserably in the pursuit.  I mean, come on--buffet?  My kind of deal.  Meals were lengthy undertakings, as there were multiple trips to the buffet line, local entertainment (Zulu singing and dancing most nights), and interacting with our fellow guests.  Again--Tubby usually initiated conversation with the unsuspecting, and I joined in afterward.  The Lodge had a tennis court, a couple of great lounging areas with massive overstuffed leather couches, a great TV lounge, and a game area with Foosball and pool tables.  The ONLY thing lacking in the resort was an exercise area.  As we were prohibited from walking the grounds without a ranger, one generally went from bed, to a meal, to a game ride, to another meal, to a nap, to another game ride, to another meal, to post-meal relaxing/drinking, to bed.  Well, maybe not "one", but that's sorta the short hand of my trip....and I would like to have worked off a bit of the buffet each day.  The lodge is planning to build an exercise area in the near future.  The staff was unfailingly friendly and cooperative, and they did their very best to seem interested in whatever it was Tubby was telling them.  Bartenders were particularly drawn to Tubby, and their tips reflected their adoration. 

Note the turtle
Note the bird
Very big animals
These guys were a favorite
A case of "blue balls"
Another favorite
Torsten, in the game spotter chair
4.  The Animals.  Obviously the reason one goes on a safari is for the animals--and we were not disappointed.  Zula Nyala has a great assortment including cheetah, nyala, impala, zebra, giraffes, baboons, monkeys, elephants, hippos, rhinos, wildebeest, cape buffalo, wart hogs....I could go on and on.  Viewing the animals is facilitated by your game ranger, and ours was amazing.  Amon was his name, and he knew has craft well.  He was very knowledgeable of the animals and their habits, and he REALLY went out of his way to take care of us.  Now--I think he probably does that for all his visitors--but Tubby and I greased him UP FRONT with what Tubby estimates to be a week's salary, and that seemed to motivate him accordingly.  Zulu Nyala is a relatively small preserve, and so we took a side trip to Phinda--a 68,000 hectare preserve abutting it.  In terms of game viewing, Phinda is the major league.  They have 30 lions, 30 leopards, cheetahs, a ton of elephants, giraffes, zebras--the whole gamut and a lot of it. Phinda has six different lodges, sandy, level roads, and the big cats everyone wants to see.  Our guide at Phinda (Sebastian) was superb--and our 3.5 hour tour was segmented by a nice stop in the bush for drinks and snacks.  This stop was rudely interrupted by a group of elephants seemingly uninterested in our libation.  We were joined on our tour by two others from our lodge, Torsten and Edmund, from Germany.  Both Tubby and I speak German, and they spoke perfect English, so we were a great group.  Torsten and Edmund were actually working--their job is to go around the world and rate resorts!  Tubby and I agreed that as far as jobs went, theirs were pretty good. 

Sebastian, from Phinda
5.  The People.  We were in the heart of Zulu Country, and the overwhelming majority of the people we interacted with were Zulus.  The culture, singing and dancing we were exposed to at the lodge was all zulu, as were the art/crafts available for sale.  We did not meet an unfriendly person, period.  Now, we were interacting with the tourism industry, and clearly they are paid to be nice--but this observation extends to everyone we met.  Now, most of you know that South Africa has had an interesting recent history.  Eighteen years ago, Apartheid officially ended and South Africa's peaceful revolution occurred, in which hundreds of years of minority white rule and decades of legislatively imposed racial segregation came to an end.  I took the opportunity to speak with black South Africans about the revolution, and they were uniformly positive about it--as one would expect.  There is a great deal of national pride in the country, and the country is beginning to come together culturally, as eleven distinct tribal languages are being nosed out by English as the official language.  White South Africans are not nearly as happy with life 18 years down the road, which also is to be expected.  Tubby and I had an interesting cultural exchange one afternoon in the town of Pongola, two hours drive north of our lodge.  We went there to break up the pattern of meals and game rides, and basically encountered a medium sized commercial district of no great acclaim.  After a meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken, we decided to head back to our lodge.  On a whim, I suggested we turn down a road in town to see where it took us, an on it, was the Pungola Golf Club.  Tubby smelled vodka, and so we pulled off for a snort or two. It turned out to be a small bastion of Afrikaner "whiteness".  There were about a dozen folks at the bar who had just completed an afternoon golf scramble, and the scene could have been the Burlington Country Club, 1978 with Jimmy wires holding court with Don Alvarez, Gordon Keanan, and Butchy Eckman.  Tubby of course, broke the ice, and after a time, we were being hailed across the bar in Afrikans as "two Americans who are all right".  Apparently, our political opposition to President Obama was a hit.  I asked some of our new friends about how things were going--and again, uniformly, they were negative.  The biggest problem?  Law and order...crime.  Their impression is that the old government provided it, and the new government does not.  On our first day in country back in Durban, we had breakfast with a white couple from Capetown--and they echoed similar views on law and order.  The man was in business, and he indicated that the trade unions and the government were cut of whole cloth, and I indicated it was moving in that direction under our current government.  Of note--the Afrikaners at the golf club were nearly as reverential to Nelson Mandela as the black residents I spoke to.  I found that encouraging.

First night sunset
Last night sunset
 No question--this trip was worth every penny, and more.  Definitely one to put on your bucket list--in order to remove it.


Moondog said...

nice post Bryan, thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

Back in the day, I knew your brothers. He wasn't known as Tubby back then and judging by the pictures he ain't so tubby. Did he give himself the nickname? You know what they say about that.

Rob said...

Good post - it's interesting reading about my country from a tourist's perspective. I run South Africa Travel Online, and am always looking for interesting material to show our readers. I'm happy to let you know, that we're going to link to this blog post from tomorrow's newsletter (check it out in our famous "Purple shall rule" section of our newsletter - scroll to the bottom). Kudos for a great writeup. Rob

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