Thursday July 24th
This work trip once again found me in one of my favourite places – South Africa. After a few tough days of meetings, I had arranged a trip back to Kruger for a few days in that amazing park. For whatever reason (political instability in Zimbabwe and Kenya maybe?), the lower part of the park that I know well was fully booked when I originally looked into the trip, so we were forced to get lodging in the northern part. I have never been that far north in the Park, and the downside was that it meant a much longer drive to get there on the first day. Fortuneately, as I continued to look at the accomodation web site, I was able to find us a cottage in the southern part of the Park for the last night. In hindsight, that ended up being a very good decision.
I ended up taking my boss, Simon, and Peter, our Director of Development with me, as neither of them had ever been to Kruger. While Simon is my boss, we’re also pretty good friends outside of work, and Peter is a good guy as well. Given that it was going to be a long drive, we left Centurion (a commuter town, about 30 minutes north of Johannesburg), at about 5:30 in the morning. As it turned out, we needed all that time. It seems my “navigators” left something to be desired – they managed to sleep most of the way, and when not sleeping were providing questionable input. You just can’t get good help these days…
The drive to the park is not really all that impressive – mostly lots of big highways, until you get fairly close. The last couple of hours were pretty amazing – there are some pretty serious hills (not quite mountains, as far as I am concerned) that we wove our way up and down. The views were spectacular, and as we got closer to the park, I found the terrain became more and more familiar. Just west of the Park there is some spectacular scenery, especially the area around God's WIndow and the town of Pilgrim's Rest. With a name like that, I'm sure you can imagine. I would have like to show that area to the guys, but we were pressed for time. So we by-passed it and took a more direct route.
It took us until about 12:30ish to arrive at Orpen Gate, which sits about half way up the length of the park. We could have driven on the main roads further north, but I wanted us to get into the park as soon as possible, while still being able to make it to our rest camp on time. You have to be in your camp by 5:30 pm, this time of year. As it was, we barely made it…
After registering at the main gates, we started our slow drive through the park. As neither Simon nor Peter had ever been there, I spent some (mostly futile) time trying to set realistic expectations. Of course that was a blown to bits by seeing two separate instances of baboons, and some impala, before we even got into the park. Once in the park, things started slowly – the usual impala sightings, but not much else. As we cruised through the Park, things started to pick up and we saw quite a bit on that first day.
Early on, amidst the impala, we had an initial wildebeest sighting. It was pretty far away, but still was a quite good. The first day ended up being our best day for giraffe. We had a large number of giraffe encounters, including a couple of very close drive-bys that left Simon a bit speechless. Also quite early on, we encountered a medium-sized herd of buffalo – our first “Big 5” sighting. I kind of messed up that one, as there were a bunch of cars further up the road that led me to believe there might be something more interesting ahead. There wasn’t anything really – the buffalo were probably more interesting (as Simon was quick to point out…).
About an hour into the trip, and a little further along the road past the buffalo, we saw a bunch of cars all pulled off. It ended up being the first of many elephant encounters we would have. They were down below the road, walking through the reeds. One was a fairly young elephant – not a baby, but still not fully grown. We sat and watched them for a little bit, before moving on. As it turns out, elephants seem to be more numerous in the northern part of the Park. While Kruger, in general, has too many elephants, we saw way more in the north than ion the south.
A little while later, I had the opportunity to expose Simon and Peter to the wonder of bridges over large rivers. They are excellent, as the permanent water source draws lots of animals. You’re up high so they don’t notice you, and you can get out of the car and wander around, which is great for taking pictures. This bridge ended up being pretty good – there was a huge buffalo sleeping on a small island in the river; there were a few hippos downstream; and we had crocodiles right under the bridge. We stayed there for a while, taking it all in.
One of the best sightings came a little while later, as we were driving. I noticed something sitting on a rock, right on the side of the road, but I wasn't sure if I was imagining things. I stopped, reversed the truck and sure enough, there was an African Wild Cat sitting on the rock. Think of a domestic house cat, but with slightly longer legs. They are incredibly hard to see – being generally nocturnal, and usually quite shy. This one wasn’t too fussed by us – he sat there for a while, and then took off into the bush.
By this point, we were a bit pressed for time. We had more elephants and giraffes on the road, and towards the end of the day we saw a pair of big hyenas. That all contributed to us almost not making the gate on time – I was driving way too fast for being in the park.
We got to the gate of Mopani Camp basically with no time to spare. Peter managed to get some sunset pictures that hopefully turned out really well. After getting gas and registering (which took forever!), we made our way to our guest cottage. The cottage space was great – big high ceilings, thatched roof and most importantly, a braai (BBQ) outside.
We cooked a fantastic meal outside on the braai, and had an absolutely clear night. The night sky was amazing – full of stars, a clear view of the Milky Way, and even a number of shooting stars. We went for a quick walk through the camp, and found a deck over the dam. It was pitch black, and you couldn’t see the water or anything that was going on, but there were lots of sounds. The most significant was hearing what sounded like a croc take an animal at the water’s edge – maybe a zebra – and hearing the dying screams of the animal as it thrashed in the water. While you couldn’t see anything, it was something to hear – and made you pretty sure you’re not going anywhere near water!
Friday July 25th
The second day started early; we didn’t have far to go to get to Shimuwini Bush Camp where we were spending the next two nights, so the plan was to spend some time exploring the northern part of the park.
Frankly, the northern part of the park was a bit of a disappointment for me. The game is definitely sparser; sightings were hard to come by. We did see a lot of elephants – but I think that’s true in the entire park now. We headed north from Mopani, towards Shingwedzi, though we never really went that far north. The driving was pretty typical; wandering down arbitrary routes that take you basically in the direction you want to go. As mentioned, the game viewing was not great. However, we did see a lot of different antelope species, many that I had not seen before. These included tsessebe, kudu, impala (obviously), wildebeest, nyala, common duiker, steenbok and waterbuck. I like seeing antelope, but as it was Simon and Peter's first time, I was hoping for something more spectacular. We had to wait, but it came.
Another thing that the northern part has been good for is birds. We saw tons of birds, and I got some great shots of birds to add to the collection. At lunch time, we stopped at a picnic site, and made some lunch. It was a beautiful site overlooking a river, perched up on the bank. I had a weird “The Birds” moment with a flock of glossy starlings that seemed to have me surrounded, but after a while they took off.
The rest of the afternoon was pretty uneventful. We did spend a good amount of time watching a small herd of bull elephants at a man-made watering hole. It was interesting watching them interact, and seeing them deal with the man-made facilities. They seemed to have figured out the steps to get access to the water in the tank. Pretty cool.
One of the interesting things about this part of the Park is that the Tropic of Capricorn runs through it, about 10 km north of the Camp. Of course we had to see that, so we drove north and found the marker. We had some fun straddling the Tropic of Capricorn – Simon had to ham it up a bit, and it gave us a chance to get out of the car and stretch and move around.
While the area wasn’t great for game, the scenery was spectacular. The location of our camp in many ways made up for the poor game spotting. We had an amazing guest cottage, perched up on the edge of a river. Great views over the river, and what turned out to be a very productive river bank on the other side. Over the course of the two evenings, we managed to see a leopard (stalking across the far bank), two big male kudu, crocodiles and numerous water birds. All from our patio and the excellent braai that had us cooking, eating and drinking well into the evening.
Saturday July 26th
We were up and at it pretty early on Saturday, and were rewarded with some excellent sighting pretty much straight off. On the road out of the camp, we came across a number of huge baobab trees. In one of them, we witnessed a flock of ground hornbills emerging from a crack in the tree. Baobabs are hollow in the middle, and I guess this flock decided the tree would make a good home. Not long after that, at the intersection of the road to the camp and the main paved road, we came across a pair of young hyenas. The odd thing about this sighting was that one of them was lame – one of his front paws was deformed. We found out later that it was born that way – I was amazed it survived, until we found out that people had been feeding it. That also explained its actions later that day, when we returned home. The same two were there and one tried to jump up on the side of the truck. I got the window closed pretty quick, but I wonder how far it would have gone?
Our next stop was a hide on the edge of a swamp and/or lake. There was a big group of hippos, and elephant wandering the bank and tons of bird life. The hide was pretty busy, but we sat and watched for quite a while. The hippos were quite close, and you could really see them interacting.
After watching for a while we continued on our way. The half-way point on the trip was Letaba Camp. I wanted Simon and Peter to see the elephant display – all the tusks from the biggest elephants that have lived in the Park. It’s an impressive display, and gives you a sense of how big these things can get, and how small most of the ones we see are. We strolled around the camp a bit, and I managed to get lots of amazing bird pictures.
The drive back to the Camp was relatively uneventful – there were no spectacular sightings, but a fair bit of cool stuff nonetheless. Peter and I went on an evening drive that ran the gamut from amazing to dull. It started out really well, with the rangers taking into a “do not enter” area, but the river. I assumed that they were just taking us down to the river’s edge. Then things got really cool as they drove across the river and up the bank on the other side! There was a small herd of buffalo not far down the road, and we had a great view of an African Fish-Eagle with a catch, before we scared it off. After coming back across the river (just as cool the second time), we headed deeper into the bush for the night drive. The night drive was a disappointment. We never saw anything really; I’ve been on much better night drives. If we were to do it again, I would have done the night drive in the south part of the Park.
Sunday July 27th
Wow. All I can do is shake my head at how amazing today was. You just don’t get better days than that in the park – even if it was a long day. As mentioned, my perception was that the south end of the park has better game viewing, so for the last night, I managed to get us booked into a camp at the far south eastern end of the Park. It took me three weeks of trying, as the reservation system was showing the whole south end of the Park as fully booked. I guess we caught a cancellation or something. What that meant was that we had to drive about two thirds the length of the Park – about 300 kilometres between 6:00 a.m. when the gates open, and 5:30 p.m. when the gates close (at that time of year). It was going to be tight, and not surprisingly there were some… interesting events… before the day was out. But more on that later.
The day started well, with an excellent elephant encounter while the light was still nice. We started working our way south along the main roads, towards Malelane, our final destination. We made a quick stop at Letaba, before heading back out on our way. As we made our way south, all of the “common” game became much more plentiful – the impalas, kudu, giraffe, zebra and wildebeest were common sightings. The scenery also became more spectacular, as our route followed the Oliphants River for a time, and we were presented with some amazing vistas that included lots of game on the river banks. It was spectacular.
After the excellent scenery, we had our second-best sighting of the day – lions! I was starting to feel pretty good about the Big Five – well four of the five anyway. It was an amazing sighting – a small family pride ran across the road, almost right in front of us. There were five females – three adults or sub adults and two cubs – one very small. It was probably from last year’s litter. The five of them crossed the road, and then promptly sat down under some tree on the other side. We had a pretty good view of them, but there were a lot of tree branches and such in the way, so the pictures weren’t very good. Still, it was amazing. We stayed for a while – lions actually get a little boring to watch during the day – like big house cats, they just sleep. And by this time there were way too many people gathered around.
Amazed, we continued on our way south. About five minutes after the lions, we hit a bridge. Bridges are always good, if there is water in the river. This time we were in luck. On the river banks under this bridge, we had hippos (out of the water), crocs, impala, baboons, turtles and some kudu. It was a great scene. We stayed there for a while, just taking it all in.
After those sightings, we really had to move. We cruised south, past Satara, checked out the southern-most Baobab tree, and then around 1:00, we stopped for lunch. It was pretty quick – some sandwiches and on our way. Not long after lunch we stopped at Skukuza, the administrative centre of the park. It was a gas/gift shop break, and then we were back on the road.
As I had promised the guys, the game viewing continued to get better as we headed south. The herds of impala got quite big; there were zebra, buffalo, waterbuck and wildebeest everywhere; we saw ostrich and I saw more big male kudu on that part of the drive than I had seen in all my trips to the Park. We were stopping every five minutes it seemed! We even saw more hyenas, at one point on the road. It was a strange sighting for the middle of the day, but very cool.
Then we had our best sighting of the day – a leopard, cruising through the brush on the side of the road. We had turned down towards Malelane, and saw a huge crush of cars on the road, not far up. Cruising up, we managed to find ourselves in a prime location to watch this amazing big cat take a look at the throngs of idiot people, then cruise off into the bush. I only got in two, very bad photographs, as it was on the wrong side of the car, and obscured by bushes. Someone needs to cut the damn things down… It wasn’t a long sighting, but we did get to see it quite well. Truly spectacular.
That left me only rhinos to deliver the Big Five to Peter and Simon, and even that materialized within minutes. Still awed at actually seeing a leopard (a very rare sight), we were about ten minutes further down the road when I noticed a mother rhino and it’s young one, off to the right. Ten minutes after that, a whole herd of them turned up. The Big Five (plus a ton of other great sightinings) all in one day – amazing really. You just can’t ask for much more than that.
With all the amazing game viewing we had that day, it was no surprise that we were really pushing our limits in getting to camp before the gates were shut. This was made more difficult by the fact that the animals kept crawling out of the woodwork to present themselves to us – first there were rhinos, then elephants, then a huge herd of buffalo, right on the edge of the road. Malelane has both a Park Gate and a Camp – and of course we were almost at the Gate before we realized our mistake. So we headed back to the Camp (past the herd of buffalo and a family of elephants, including the first really small ones we’d seen), only to discover that there are no reception facilities at the Camp – they’re back at the Gate! Of course, it’s 5:30 by this point and we’re not supposed to be on the roads. We mad our way carefully back to the Gate, got registered and then made our way back to the Camp. By this time it’s almost 6:00, and they’ve locked the gate to the Camp. Fortunately they are more worried about animals than people, and we were able to open the gate and get through. It was a crazy end, to a wild, fantastic day.
Monday July 28th
Sadly, as always, the last day in the Park is a short one. I had to get Peter and Simon to the airport by about 6:00, which means leaving the Park around lunch time. We did pretty well to get up and off, and we were out driving by 6:15. The day started a bit slowly – strangely, all of our mornings, which are supposed to be good viewing times, were light on good sightings. I’m not sure why.
The day started off with some good bird photography, and some nice elephant and rhino sightings. The elephant was especially good, as she was down drinking in a river, in some reeds and was accompanied by a young calf. There was a herd of impalas not far off – all in all, it made a great scene. The day also provided some of the best wildebeest and zebra sightings.
The road between Lower Sabie and Crocodile Bridge (the Gate we planned to leave by) is supposed to offer the best viewing opportunities in the Park. So the plan was to make our way back north to Lower Sabie, then head back south and out of the Park. My other goal for visiting Lower Sabie (probably my favourite main Camp in the Park), was to spend some time by the lake, just outside the camp. I’ve had some amazing sightings there, and this trip proved to be no exception.
The lake has a good population of hippos, crocs and water birds, and all were on display, sadly on the far side of the lake. Still, with binoculars, we were able to see quite a bit. At one point, a young hippo decided to provoke a huge croc, sunning on the bank. This got him snapped at by the croc, but you could tell neither was too worried about it really. The other one, a little odder, was the impala that seemed to be a little too close to the crocs. I guess if the crocs are out of the water, the impala can get away. I don’t know, me, I’d be giving crocs that big a really wide berth. There were also saddle-billed storks and tons of grey herons around the lake. From the nesting activity, they must have been close to laying eggs.
After spending some time at the lake, and after a short stop at the Camp, we headed south. We were getting close to the noon time limit, and had to hurry a little more than I would have liked. We didn’t have any great sightings along the way – some more elephants, and a huge herd of buffalo (on the far side of the river), but other than that it was pretty quiet. I imagine that had a lot to do with it being close to noon. Our last stop, before exiting the park, was at the Hippo Pool, which ended up being memorable.
The Hippo Pool is only a few kilometres from the Crocodile Bridge Gate, and most days they station a ranger at the site, who will walk people down to the edge of the river. As you would expect, there is a resident family of hippos in the river. As we pulled up, the ranger motioned for us to come up on the rock where he was sitting, and pointed out a pride of seven lions that was roaming the far bank of the river! It seems they had been there all day, and he was watching them hunt warthogs earlier in the morning. So we got another lion sighting, granted at a pretty significant distance. Still, it was very cool to see. Speaking of warthogs, there was one hanging out with the ranger – I guess he liked his chances with the people better than off on his own in the bush. He was a little skittish, but let you get pretty close.
The ranger took us down to the river’s edge, and the hippos were there. They were pretty quiet – not really all that active, but again, that was mostly due to it being the middle of the day. We also had a big male waterbuck hanging out in the reeds around the river, as well as a kudu skeleton (or what was left of it), that the ranger said was from a pride of lions, earlier that month. It ended up being a great stop, and a fitting end to our time in the park.
The drive back was long and uneventful, as you would hope. I got the guys to the airport on time; actually with time to spare. It was a great trip to the park. The nice thing about this trip was that after a couple of more days working in the office, I was off to Cape Town for a little more fun and vacation.
So I spent a couple of days in Centurion, at the office doing work and the like. While we were in the area, I had noticed an advert for an outdoor skating rink, open from June through the end of August. How cool is that? Sadly, when I checked it out, it turned out to be the world’s smallest ice rink – good for kids, but too small for adults. Too bad, that would have been cool.
Thursday, July 31st
I arrived in Cape Town to threatening, dark, overcast skies, blustery winds (bit of a rough landing), and, as I picked up my rental car, a deluge of rain. The downpour lasted a good 15-20 minutes, until I was well on my way towards downtown Cape Town. On the way, the skies lightened slightly, and I got a peek at Lion’s Head, the Table Mountains and the ocean. It wasn’t a great start, but the city looked like it would be pretty nice, if it cleared up.
I checked into my hotel – the Commodore, at the V&A Waterfront. Choosing that location ended up being a very good decision. It allowed me to walk to many of the local attractions, and provided a very central base of operations. The view from my top floor balcony was pretty good – I could see the ocean, off to Robben Island as well as the construction on the new football stadium for the 2010 World Cup (I just don't see them getting it done on time...). Despite the weather, I decided to head out – I’m not one for sitting around.
The weather was OK – it wasn’t raining, but it was windy and cold, so I figured indoor attractions were in order. I spent part of the afternoon wandering through the “craft markets”, which were pretty interesting. I didn’t buy anything, but did see some things of interest. After exhausting that, I wandered over to the Two Oceans Aquarium, which I had heard good things about.
What a great facility! It may be the nicest, small aquarium that I’ve been to. While not large, it makes up for it by doing the things it does very well. The habitats were well designed and provided very good descriptions of the contents of the habitats. They had two big displays – a kelp forest and the big shark tank. They have designed good seating areas, as well as lots of secondary viewing spots. And they had some great critters in the tanks – including the biggest stingrays, sand tigers and lobsters I’ve ever seen. It’s not a huge place, but it was a great way to spend a couple of hours. After the aquarium, I wandered around the Waterfront, checking out the local shops and attractions, also trying to scout out some place for dinner. That ended up working out really well…
Before heading out for dinner, I grabbed a drink at the lobby bar. The whole hotel is nautically-themed, but the bar really took it to a new level. Lots of pictures of ships; the beams in the ceiling decked out to look like the ribs of a ship; that sort of thing. I had a very nice glass of scotch, and then headed out to the Waterfront to track down dinner. I had decided I was going to splurge a bit on dinner, and chose a highly rated seafood place – the seafood in South Africa is amazing. I started with some wine as I looked over the menu, but I already knew what I wanted – lobster – specifically Mozambican deep-water lobster. These lobsters don’t have claws, but make up for it in mass. A little while later, they brought the beast to my table – 1.4 kg (and that was a small one…) – beautifully grilled and cut in half. It was spectacular, one of my best meals ever. I think I’ve been saying that a lot lately, haven’t I? I was exactly half way through the beast when the waiter came up to me.
“I’m only half way though this monster!” I replied.
“You’ll be OK mate.”
And with that he wandered off. And he was right – I was OK. Way more than OK.
There was this kid at the table next to me, having dinner with his parents and his parent’s friend. He was probably nine or ten or something. From my casual observations, he looked like a good kid. When the lobster got there, you should have seen the look in his eyes – they got bigger than him. As I struggled to finish the thing, we made eye contact a couple of times, and I must have made a face or something that got him giggling. At one point we traded a couple of words about the size of it. So I leaned towards him and said “the thing was too big; I could barely finish him!” He didn’t say much, so I continued. “The thing was as big as you are”, which resulted in him laughing out loud, to strange looks from his parents. Good kid.
It was a great meal, and a good end to the day. I had a drink at a local pub, then wandered back to the hotel and lounged around until I fell asleep. I had a big day planned.
Friday August 1st
Friday was all about fulfilling yet another item on my life’s “To Do” list – cage diving with great white sharks! I love sharks, have had the opportunity to dive with them, and getting in the water with great whites was the ultimate extension of that process. To see these amazing creatures up close has always been a dream, and Friday I made it all come true. I had been looking forward to it since I had arranged the trip a month or so ago, and as we headed out on the bus, my excitement increased with the passing miles.
The “dive” (I’ll explain that more later…) took place in “Shark Alley”, off the southern coast near a town called Gansbaai. Off shore are a couple of islands- Dyer Island and Geyser Island – that house significant fur seal populations, which draw the sharks. It was about a two and half hour drive from Cape Town, along the coast. It was a spectacular drive, but I was dying to get there! I just didn't care too much at that point about the scenery. The group of people was a real mix – age, sex, nationality – and there was a sense of anticipation, along with some nerves. I hit it off a bit with a Dutch woman names Suzanne, whom I ended up hanging out with most of the day. She was a lot of fun; we had a lot of similar interests, and were both really worked up over this dive.
Because the weather had been problematic the past couple of days, they had decided to start late – an 8:30 a.m. pickup instead of 5:30 a.m. That meant we weren’t really on the boat and out to sea until about 1:00 p.m. The ride out to the island was not that long – maybe half an hour – and there were a bunch of other boats out there already when we dropped anchor. Almost immediately, I looked over at another boat to see the big fin come up out of the water along side the boat, and then I saw my first live, real great white breach the surface of the water. It was too cool. While I wanted in the water right away, waiting ended up being the right decision.
Instead, I opted to be close to the end of the rotation – I also wanted some pictures from the boat. Here’s how it worked – there were 15 of us; 13 ended up in the water. The cage could hold 5 people, so we were rotating, with everyone getting about 45 minutes in the water (hopefully) with sharks. The cage was about 7 feet tall (give or take), made of steel. You wore a wet suit and a mask, and basically floated at the surface. When a shark was nearby, the handler would yell the direction the shark was coming from and to “go down”. You’d take a breath, go under the water, hold your breath, and watch as long as you could. It wasn’t great – I’d prefer to be on scuba, but it seems the bubbles scare the sharks away.
We got really lucky – almost immediately, I was looking down at the biggest fish I have ever seen. A four-meter long male showed up within 15 minutes of starting the chumming/baiting process. He was huge – absolutely massive, not just in length, but in girth as well. The “handler” got him right up to the boat, along side the cage. The people in the water must have had a great view! This big male stuck with us for a good hour and half, through a rotation of people in the cage. At one point he even chased off a smaller shark that had come to check out the action.
Over the course of the day we had between 6 and 8 individual sharks, most in the 2-3 meter size – smaller than our original, but a little more aggressive/active, which made them more fun. I got in the water on the third cage rotation, and my god, what an experience. We had at least three unique sharks around. It may have been four. And we had two at one time for a while, circling the cage, checking everything out. It was awesome – the sharks got so close I could have reached out between the bars of the cage to touch them. Of course, I chose not to. But it was tempting. It’s impossible to describe the sensation of seeing this huge predator slowly appear out of the murky water, and have it swim straight at you. There's something primal about the response it elicits in you. Hopefully there will always be steel bards there… At the same time you get the feeling that there’s more to them than just attacking what ever is in the water. Most of the time the sharks didn’t even attack the bait in the water – I’d say 80% of the time they just swam by, even if it was thrown right in front of them. It was almost like they were more curious about what was going on than anything. It was an amazing experience, staring into their eyes as they passed.
As I mentioned, I made a good choice on the timing. After getting out of the cage at the end of my rotation, the last group got it. I noticed that the cage wasn’t full. So I “offered” to go back in. Suzanne did as well, so we both got two full rotations in the water. It was such a great experience, something I’ll never forget.
The drive back was long and for the most part quiet as many people slept, and the rest of us contemplated the experience we had just had. It was something to remember for sure, and one I would repeat in a heartbeat. I wish I could have spent more time in the water.
Saturday August 2nd,
After the exhilaration of the shark dive, everything else was going to be a bit of a let down. I had decided that if the weather was good I was going to do the drive south from Cape Town, and tour the Cape Peninsula. I woke to a clear, sunny day, so I hopped in the rental car around 8:00 a.m. When I booked the car, I had this drive in mind, and knowing it was going to be a winding coastal route, I spent a little extra to get a nicer car. So me and my Mercedes-Benz hit the road, cruising along the beach. The plan was to stick to the western side of the Cape on the way down, then come back up the eastern side. Well, that was the plan anyway.
It started well; the road along the beaches in Cape Town proper is beautiful, with lots of stretches of beach along the way. Before heading out of Cape Town, I made a slight detour, and took the drive up to Signal Hill, which provided spectacular views of Lion’s Head and the Table Mountains, looming over Cape Town. As it was a clear day, the vistas were breathtaking. I would have loved to hike up Lion’s Head, but time was against me. I got back out on the road, continuing out the coast highway through the Cape Riviera, past the beach towns of Banty Bay, Clifton and Camps Bay. They’re really part of Cape Town, but have a real small beach town feel to them. I especially liked Camps Bay. After slowing to enjoy these small “towns”, the road started to climb up the mountains, before descending back down into the town of Hout Bay. And that’s where things went off the rails.
Just past Hout Bay is a view point called Chapman’s Peak that provides a view back over the area, and is the starting point of the southbound road through the mountains. Sadly, it was closed due to a rock slide, and I had to back-track all the way to Cape Town, and continue my journey down the eastern road. There’s the problem with having only one road into a place. But once again, this actually worked out in my favour.
After weaving my way back through Cape Town, the road again wove along the coast. The first town I came to was Muizenberg. Apparently a great swimming beach in the summer, it was pretty deserted in the winter. There were people around, but you could tell it was off season. As I worked my way through the town, the change in plan was rewarded with another first – whales! It was amazing; right there, not a few hundred yards off shore, a small pod of Southern Right whales. I saw several animals – the v-shaped blow, tail flukes, the works. All I did was pull over on the side of the road, and I was able to see them without binoculars. It was very cool, and made the change of route suddenly much, much better.
After the whales passed on, I continued on my journey. I stopped for lunch in Simon’s Town, the home of the South African Navy. I enjoyed lunch on a patio, before poking around at the tourist-trap trinkets. There was (not surprisingly) nothing of interest, so I moved on. Just south of Simon’s Town is another small National Park called Boulders, that is home to a large African Penguin colony. They’ve built a series of boardwalks that allow people to walk down near where the colony is, while staying up above them, so as not to bother the birds. It seems to work pretty well. There are supposed to be 3,000 penguins in this colony, but as it was the middle of the day, most were out fishing; only the immature juveniles were still on the beach. Still, there were a fair number of them, and it was fun to watch them for a little while.
Once I was done with the penguins, it was pushing 1:30 p.m., and I still hadn’t even gotten to my ultimate destination – the Cape of Good Hope National Park. The park is situated at the very tip of the peninsula, and covers some spectacular terrain. As you enter the park, you can tell that the area earns its reputation as the “Cape of Storms”, by the vegetation – all of it low, small bushes that can take a pounding from the storms. It’s a stark, yet beautiful landscape, again very different from any other part of South Africa I have seen. There are not a lot of animals in the park, but I was pretty fortunate. Almost immediately I ran into a pair of ostriches, and there were numerous baboon sightings – not all of them good. And I also saw a small herd of bontebok (another new species!), but only from a distance, with the binoculars.
I made my way south through the park, down to the very tip at Cape Point. Here, there’s a funicular that takes you up to the top of the hill, where a lighthouse has sat since the mid 1800s. I chose to walk up instead, and it provided with some amazing views over the surrounding cliffs and the ocean. After enjoying the views for a while, I made my way back down and drove out to the actual Cape of Good Hope. A bit of a rain storm blew in, providing an amazing full rainbow.
On the way back out I drove through a couple of different areas of the park, to take in the scenery. It’s a beautiful place. As I was sitting, looking over the ocean at one point, I saw what happens when people feed baboons, and they become unafraid of people. This family (mom, dad, young son or daughter) were making their way back to their car with a picnic basket. Pretty much out of nowhere, this big male baboon comes out from the scrub. The father had open the car, and was putting things away, but the mother and the daughter were not quite at the car yet. The baboon made a beeline for the family, and the mother picked up the kid and moved away from the car. The father tried to stay between the baboon and the family, so the baboon got right into the car, ripped some things apart, and made off with what looked like a loaf of bread, and a big drink box. It was a bit frightening – it was a big baboon, and it could have hurt someone. I couldn’t believe it just went right into the car, through the open front door.
As it was getting towards the end of the day, and the park was closing, I made my way back towards Cape Town and the hotel. After parking the car, I got cleaned up and headed out for dinner. As it was my last dinner, I decided on another seafood binge. The hotel recommended a place (that turned out to be excellent), and I ordered the seafood platter. It was a ton of seafood, but I was up to the task: rock lobster, 10 prawns, grilled calamari, deep fried calamari, a big piece of fish, mussels and rice. It was amazing, and a great end to my night.
Sunday August 3rd,
Sadly, Sunday I had to head home. My flight was at 7:00 p.m., so I had some time on Sunday to try and cram in some more sights. I decided to go out to Robben Island in the morning, to get the historical perspective.
Robben Island was the on-again-off-again prison colony, made most famous for housing Nelson Mandela during the apartheid era. The tour involved a ferry from the mainland, then an excellent bus tour around the island, and finally a look at the prison including Mandela’s actual cell. The tour guides were the best part of the experience. We had two of them; both had active pasts with the struggle to end apartheid. Our first guide was involved with the PAC; our second guide was an actual political prisoner in the prison, for over five years. They were both quite good, bringing a very personal perspective to the events of the past.
After getting back from Robben Island, I did a bit of last minute shopping, then headed out for one last drive around. As it turned out, I ended up back at the Cape Riviera, and Camps Bay. I had some lunch, then went for a walk on the beach. The water was nice – I would have gone for a swim, if I didn’t have to go get on a plane. Of course, Sunday was the most amazing day, weather-wise, of my whole stay in Cape Town. Twenty degrees, bright blue sky and not a cloud in sight. It was a perfect send-off for what was an amazing trip back to South Africa.
The Big Five, great white sharks, whales – I really couldn’t get much more into a single trip. Of course, I did not see nearly anything in Cape Town – barely scratched the surface there. But I’m finding that to be true of all the places I visit. I could spend a life time exploring each and every place I go to visit. I guess the trick is to make the most of the time you do have, and get in as much as you can. I think I did that, and have a bunch more amazing memories to look back on.