Archive for November, 2008

See You Later, Sharks

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

Traveling this fast, and in a tight-knit group like ours, we seldom encounter people we have the time to get to know and like.

I cautiously approach tour operators. On one hand they want us there, on the other, they might resent the fact that their labor of love (if it is regarded as such) is yet another notch in our decked out belt of African freebies. Their concern is justified. Some activities on our itinerary are just checkmarks – necessary research on places we must write about but would rather skip.

Umkomaas was one of the core stops we have selected for our guidebook’s Shark Route. We’ve arrived so late that I was embarrassed to ring Dietmar and Rafaella’s doorbell, even though they’d said anytime before midnight would be alright. Tour operators rarely invite us to their homes, unless it’s a home office, so we were ready and expecting to have a short chat about tomorrow’s diving with tiger sharks and then go find a place to crash.

Surprisingly, we were invited to stay. A bit confused at first and trying not to overstay our welcome, we thought of declining the invitation, but somehow over some authentic Italian pasta and a few glasses of red wine we never got to that. For the first time in months we found ourselves at a proper dinner table, rather than a camping stove, having a relaxing dinner and good conversation. Not that we lack good conversation squatting over yet another pot of whatever-it-is-today stew, but it was a nice change of pace.

I’m used to making friends in a blink of an eye. Anybody who has ever done this sort of travel knows this is an inseparable part of being a backpacker. But this time I was just caught off guard – Dietmar and Raffa were just so naturally hospitable and friendly, it felt more like staying with good old friends.

Funny enough, we didn’t even get a chance to dive. The sky turned dark and the seas stormy. So all I have to show from our little stop in Umkomaas are a few photos of monkeys performing circus acts on Dietmar and Raffa’s telephone wires.

Not to worry though – we still have a job to do and no weather will avert us from doing it. We just need to wait out the storm. For now we will be continuing our way down to Cape Town, but as soon as we return Columbus we plan to fly back to Umkomaas. After all, we don’t want to keep old friends and tiger sharks waiting.

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African Highlands

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

African highlands, Lesotho and the adjacent South African Drakensberg Mountains (Dragon Mountains), fall like soft folds of green felt and stretch beyond the horizon. This fairytale landscape is very different from the Africa we’ve been seeing so far. Iridescent green sunbirds with bright red bibs drink from equally bright red flowers in strange-looking trees. Every puddle has a frog in it, and if I didn’t already have a prince, I’d kiss every single one of them.

Grasshoppers and cranes are dressed for a ball. I don’t know, maybe at midnight they become boring brown and gray again, but right now their vibrant Victorian collars and crowns match their tuxedos, bowties, and pantyhose breeches.

The steep, slippery road to Lesotho was cold, windy, and foggy. It was like driving an obstacle course in molasses. Plus our windshield wipers gave up working. We couldn’t see the mountains around us until we reached the South African border post – a tiny house surrounded by knee-deep mud. On the bright side though, every mountain flower and bush was covered in dew drops and looked bejeweled.

Beyond the pass, the sun was shining. People dressed in blankets and Zapatista hats welcomingly waved at us as I took pictures of them and their cattle.

In open valleys between rocky peaks the sun was scorching. But on summits the freezing wind threatened to blow away all three of us. We didn’t climb too high – just a bit over 3,300 meters. Well, the highest peak of Southern Africa is only 3,482 m high, so we couldn’t go much higher.

Highlands Gallery

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The Happy Family

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

vervet monkeys can be very protective when it comes to their babies. I often have to fend off relatives who don’t like me photographing their newest family members

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Lucia Leopard

Saturday, November 1st, 2008

This is Africa for you – a seemingly boring place can produce the most interesting of sightings. I shouldn’t knock St. Lucia. If you’ve never seen a croc or a hippo in your life, this is probably a good place to start. Cheap enough tours will take you everywhere from whale to bird watching, and though the park still recommends not getting out of your car, it’s relatively safe to do so – there are no lions. A small tourist town is adjacent to the park, and locals put up a good front trying to show competition between tour operators does not exist in this lovely place, and for the most part it’s true. Careful not to offend anybody, we tried almost every tour we were invited to. Vova even spent a night in the crocodile center to record mating songs and dances of local crocs. This would probably be my favorite part of the job. Not the freebee tours or accommodation, but the VIP privileges we sometimes get, like being allowed to climb into an enclosure with a Gabon viper to get a better picture, or to enter the park before the crowds swarm every decent waterhole in sight.

Our last event in St Lucia was going to be a night drive. Having visited the park during the day and finding nothing more interesting than a few wildebeest and reedbuck, we went through the motions as the guide pointed out chameleons and yet another bushbuck, until something big and feline appeared on a hill above us. Mesmerized, we found ourselves looking into the eyes of a striking leopard that squinted at the light from our spotlights and came down the hill towards our car to check what was making so much ruckus. It came and crouched beside the car. I could hear everybody’s heartbeat. The game drive car is an open jeep – nothing but some flashlights would stop an inquisitive leopard to come check what’s in the tin can. The driver waited until it was unsafe to wait anymore. When the leopard’s eyes begun to adjust to the light and it started looking like it has seen a fly it would like to catch inside the car, we sadly had to move on.


St Lucia Gallery

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