PictureEven deeper than ankle height!
When my grandson Adrien was riding in the car with us our first day in South Africa, he asked: “How can you tell if someone is driving drunk in the US?” We responded confidently that they wove all over the road. Then he asked “How can you tell if someone is driving drunk in South Africa?” No idea. “They drive in a straight line!” LOL.

Having lived here for a year, I get the joke. There are so many potholes in eMalahleni that you don’t dare drive in a straight line! These are not your garden variety potholes, mind you. People will drive anywhere to avoid them -- up on people’s lawns, for instance – and regularly on the wrong side of the road! But some of the potholes stretch across the entire road, which makes them impossible to miss. Some are so deep that if you drive through them in a Toyota Corolla, the bottom of your car scrapes against the road. (Don’t ask how I know that)

PictureNumber 219 on this street, maybe?
It seems that the local municipality had a corrupt administrator for several years and he didn’t care about maintaining the town. Shortly after we got here, the government of South Africa replaced the bad guy with a good guy who is determined to bring things back up to snuff. He has a lot of obstacles, not the least of which is the fiscal budget. Shortly after Theo van Vuuren came into office as interim administrator, someone came around and numbered the potholes, which gave rise to a great hope that they would be repaired.  I believe number 257 was on Betsie Street, just outside the gate of our community.

And sure enough, some potholes were filled. However, during the rainy season, many repairs were washed away and new potholes were created. And as people drive around them, the edges crumble more and the holes get bigger. And the bigger holes hold more rain, and the overflow from the rain washes more dirt out from under the asphalt, which means when cars drive on that, it crumbles more….Eish!

There is an enterprising group of people who go to the busiest intersections, fill these gaping holes with rocks, broken bricks, sticks and so on, then sweep the dirt back in to keep them close to level with the road. They or one of their friends stand with a tin can, collecting donations from grateful drivers.

PictureCar on sidewalk in classic avoidance technique!
They may soon need to find other employment, however, because it was reported in the newspaper that “A local hardware store, Timbercity/Pennypinchers Witbank, is selling cold asphalt at cost and encouraging the community, businesses and schools to help with the pothole epidemic that is escalating in our city. They have purchased 500 bags and are selling them at R55 (US $5.50) per 25kg (55 lbs) bag.”

In my humble opinion, the best option would be to simply rebuild the streets, one at a time, but I know that’s not even a vague possibility with the budget the municipality is forced to work within. I guess I’ll just keep watching to see how many people make the repairs themselves. And more importantly, keep watching for potholes so my car and I don’t disappear into one!

As soon as you get to South Africa, you’re bombarded with the concept of the “Big 5.” These animals are on the paper currency, they’re on every kind of souvenir you can imagine – postcards, playing cards, puzzles, tee shirts, even ostrich eggs. So far, nothing on black velvet, but there’s still places I haven’t been!

Apparently, since the beginning of time, people have been on the hunt for these animals. And at some point, big game hunters (the guys with the funny hats carrying a blunderbuss) or their guides coined the phrase “Big 5.” You might think this refers to the size of the animals in question, but no, the distinction comes from the fact that these five animals are the most dangerous and difficult to hunt on foot. As time went on, it became a very successful marketing phrase.

A fun and informative website regarding the Big 5 is: big5.southafrica.net

A few people still shoot guns to kill the lion, the rhino, the leopard, the cape buffalo and the elephant for trophies. It’s legal to hunt these animals, and many others, on almost 9000 game ranches and in some provincial game reserves in South Africa. Most people shoot with their cameras, though, and usually nobody gets hurt. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that someone fell out of a game drive vehicle and broke some bone trying to get the perfect shot.

I’m pleased to say that over the course of a year, Steven and I have got our trophy pictures of the Big 5. Some we found on our own, just driving around. Some our rangers pointed out in the wild on a game drive. And in the interest of being completely transparent, some are in big pens, even though the photos don’t show it.
PictureWhite Rhino At Tshukudu
Rhino was the first we saw on our own. There are two types of rhino, white and black. It seems that back in the day, people noticed the wide mouth on one rhino and that word “wide” became muddled into “white.” The black is just different than the white. Rangers have shared a way to tell which is which if you see a rhino with its baby: It’s a black rhino if the baby rhino follows the mother, remembering that black mothers carry their babies on their back. It’s a white rhino if the baby is in front of the mother, remembering that white mothers push their babies in carriages in front of them. They told us other stuff, about how one of them can’t lift its head high, and how wide the mouths are, but the mother/baby story is the one that I remember. I would be remiss (& she'd probably yell at me) if I failed to report that when my daughter Sarah was on a game drive at Kruger, she got to be part of a team that tranquilized a rhino so it could be transported. She often brags that she's touched a rhino.

PictureElephant at Black Rhino
The elephant was second. We were on a game drive near Pilannesberg and Steven had been pestering our ranger all day to find an elephant. Steven was regaling the South Africans in the vehicle with riddles about elephants (How does an elephant hide in a cherry tree? Paints his toenails red) and other such silliness. The sun was going down, and we wanted a really good sunset shot. The driver obliged by turning around and – there was a fantastic elephant! He was about 13 years old, sent away from his herd because he was becoming a threat to the main male. He just ambled up to a tree next to the vehicle! Some people were quite nervous at the close proximity, but Steven just kept snapping photos, barely able to contain his jubilation.

PictureCape Buffalo at Kruger
Our third sighting occurred as we entered Kruger National Park. Driving across a bridge, Steven spied a Cape Buffalo. It was a fine looking specimen with a beautiful boss (that’s what it’s called when the horns grow together across the top of the male’s head). We also saw several buffalo in the water on our most recent safari at Tshukudu Game Reserve. There were females with little horns, babies with nubby horns, and young males who hadn’t grown their boss yet.

Also at Tshukudu we were introduced to leopards (#4)  and a lion (thus concluding the Big 5). They were behind a fence. Not like a zoo, mind you, they had lots of room to wander. But these are nocturnal animals, and it’s difficult to spot them in the wild. We’ve heard them, we’ve seen their kill up in a tree; but we’d never seen one. Our ranger told us the leopards had been taken into someone’s home as babies, but when the owners realized they were still wild animals, they had to be put in a safe place. Once a wild animal becomes comfortable around humans, it’s doubly dangerous, because they don’t bother to turn tail and go in the other direction as they normally would; and they may associate humans with food (and get irritated if they don’t get any!). The lion is very old, about 24 years, I think. He was part of the breeding project when the game reserve began.
Leopard at Tshukudu. Can't see the fence, can you?
Lion at Tshukudu. See the fence on the right?
There are so many beautiful animals here in the wilds of South Africa – don’t tell anyone, but I like giraffes better than the  Big 5! Just because we’ve gotten great shots of the obligatory animals doesn’t mean we’re going to quit taking pictures. As a matter of fact, I’m developing a new obsession: the little 5. Really! There’s the elephant shrew; the buffalo weaver bird (we’ve seen their big sloppy nests); the rhino beetle; the leopard tortoise (we saw a dead one on a game walk); and the antlion. Stay tuned!
I did finally get to take a picture of Jenn in Puerto Vallarta!
It’s great living in South Africa, and since we’ve moved here, we’ve done what we’ve done every other place we’ve moved to – Be Tourists! You can be sure I’ve Googled, gone to Trip Advisor, read Fodor’s and every magazine article I can get my hands on before we even settle into the car to begin our adventure. Of course, the obligatory camera hangs around my neck.

Having been a Creative Memories scrapbooking consultant in a previous life, I totally understand how important it is to have pictures of your adventures. I also appreciate why people want to have their picture taken with identifiable backgrounds. That's why I never hesitate to walk up to people taking pictures of their family and ask if I can take a photo of them all together with their camera. And that’s why my daughter Jennifer & I spent – seriously – thirty minutes taking pictures of people in Puerto Vallarta! People just kept handing us their cameras. Apparently, a cruise ship had just docked.

I also understand why some people DON’T want their picture taken under any circumstances. Can you say “self-conscious”? I see it in their eyes: “I’m too fat; My hair’s a mess; I look awful in this outfit….” When my daughter Sarah used to duck out of photos I was taking I would remind her that one day she would be asking “Where was I when you guys were having so much fun?” The people who love us already know what we look like and their affection for us doesn’t change when we don’t look good in a photo.

By the way, I get just as irritated as everyone else at the people who always look good in photos. How do they do that?

I am saddened by the photo takers, though, when I can tell that they’re so wrapped up in getting “the shot” that they don’t truly experience the moment. People who walk up to the Lincoln Memorial having given their companion explicit instructions on the angle, the background, the lighting; have their picture taken; then walk back so their companion can have that same great shot. But neither of them took the time to comprehend the greatness of the man, the wisdom of his words, or the beauty of the monument. They’re going to tell their friends they were there, but they can’t honestly say they experienced it.
PictureOh, did someone take my picture kissing a hippo?
The same thing happened when we went to see Jessica the Hippo. In a nutshell, you’ve got a hippo that was raised by humans but lives in the Blyde River as a wild animal. She comes to a dock at her humans’ home to be fed and she allows women to kiss her snout as she drinks sweetened rooibos tea. Can you imagine! You can touch – kiss, even – a wild animal. You can watch as her eyelids and nostrils open and close, feel the wiry bristles on her snout, feel her breath as she opens wide her mouth to receive the sliced sweet potatoes. I forgot all about photos while I was having this incredible experience!

But I saw people not even looking at the hippo, only looking at the camera, while they were feeding her. Firstly, do not stick your hand near a hippo’s mouth without watching said hippo! Secondly, what are you going to tell your friends when they ask what her skin felt like, what color her tongue was, how big her tusks were?

PictureJill is totally in the moment
On the other hand, I saw a couple from Lincoln NE last week totally wrapped up in what they were experiencing in South Africa. They were in the moment. They looked into the leopard’s eyes, and rubbed his fur, and listened to his purr. They weren’t talking about the next place they were going, they were enjoying where they were NOW. They listened to the lions call and the birds chatter and the hippos snort. Truthfully, I was afraid they didn’t even bring a camera – that would have made me sad! Then I realized that they did indeed have a camera and they were using it wisely; somehow, they had hit a wonderful balance of snapping a few pictures that would bring back the memory of their experience.

May we all do the same.

PictureDeon stops driving & stands up to talk
FACT: People go to game reserves to see game. The smart ones also absorb the knowledge and wisdom that is doled out on a game drive.

To the best of my knowledge, game drives in South Africa must be conducted by certified professionals called park rangers or guides. This ensures that the facts they share regarding the animals and environment are true and that the visitors, the wildlife and the land remain safe. The rangers are also responsible for keeping tabs on all the animals’ health and whereabouts.

Game reserves differ from the national parks in that they are run to make a profit for the owners. Many game reserves started out as cattle farms and have gradually been developed into a reserve. The game are purchased, from the national parks or other reserves. The owners have strict guidelines regarding their animals and national veterinarians come to check on their health and well-being. Whenever babies are born, they have to be reported to the officials, who come to examine them. Although I prefer to believe that owners have a more altruistic motive (they love the animals), the fact is that they must care for their animals or their business will die.

It’s not like a zoo. Occasionally the animals are in pens, large pens (over a hectare). That seems to happen when the animal is unable to live in the wild because it’s injured or too comfortable around humans. Sometimes it’s done for breeding purposes. But most often the animals live as they would in the wild, if there was more wild for them to live in. They live in herds, they mate and have babies, they hunt and get hunted. In other words, they live their lives the way God intended.

And it’s amazing to be riding along and see a journey of giraffe walking across the road. Or to watch zebra in a herd and understand completely their defense of disruptive coloration – with those stripes going every whichaway, it’s hard to focus on just one. And just when you think you’ve seen all the impala you’ll ever want to see, the whole herd starts running and leaping and you can’t take your eyes off them.

These two were leading the parade across the road
This lion is 24 years old. He was part of the breeding project when the reserve started. Most lions live to about 12 years.
Disruptive coloration at its best. BTW, which side of the zebra has the most stripes? Ready? The OUTSIDE, of course! Rangers also have a fun sense of humor
Deon explaining all about elephant dung
PictureOut of the vehicle for a photo at Black Rhino Reserve near Pilanesberg
The rangers are an incredible resource. They’re constantly trying to get everyone to wrap their heads around the idea that the WHOLE environment is amazing, not just the big five animals everyone hopes to see. They’ll stop beside the shepherd’s tree to explain how it got its name – the inside hollows out and holds fresh water that shepherds can drink, the roots can be ground up and eaten as a porridge, the leaves provide shelter from the sun, and on and on. A ranger will see a community spider web, and even the squeamish folks are intrigued at the concept of teeny-tiny spiders that work together to ensure that every member gets fed. These guides don’t hesitate to pick up scat/dung/poop and make it interesting – elephants only get about 60% (or is it 40%?) of the nutrients out of the grass they eat, they poop the rest out. In the dry season, when herbivores have a hard time finding food to graze on, they can eat the elephant dung for nourishment. How cool is that?

The best rangers explain everything. They don’t sugarcoat animal behavior, but they delight in the cycle of life. They understand how to track game and they point out the footprints, the scat, the broken limbs, the flat grass, even the scent of urine wafting in the wind. They hold up their hands for silence so everyone can hear the animals calling to each other.

In short, if you want to experience an incredible game drive get an incredible guide. Here’s to you, Deon, at Tshukudu! And Matthew, too, at Black Rhino!

PictureDrakensberg Mountains with baobab tree in forefront.
We’re back from a weekend safari to Tshukudu Bush Camp (http://www.tshukudubushcamp.co.za) near Hoedspruit, in the province of Limpopo. The game reserve was separated from Kruger National Park – the place everyone goes to see the Big 5 – by a fence. We went on a tour arranged by Big Tau Safaris (http://www.bigtausafaris.co.za) with co-workers of my husband, and it was SO easy!

Louis owns Big Tau Safaris and he is certified to guide in every province in South Africa. Very knowledgeable as to wildlife and African life in general, he really kept us entertained from the moment he picked us up. It’s about a three hour drive from eMalahleni to Hoedspruit, but Louis drove us through Dullstrom (Emnotweni) and a few other fun places along the way, all the while sharing information about the countryside we were traveling. We went up and down the Drakensberg Mountains – the Ndebele people live at the top. We passed two rivers, the Oliphants and the Blyde, that were flooding over their banks because officials had opened the sluice gates on the local dams.

PictureSteven & I by the baobab tree in the orange grove
We’ve had a lot of rain and it was even raining when we left eMalahleni. But we urged Louis to drive toward the patch of blue sky we could see through the clouds, and ever obliging, he got us to the sunshine! We stopped to see a Baobab tree, which are HUGE trees that were brought to South Africa by elephants, who ate the fruit elsewhere and pooped the seeds in Limpopo. Louis told us the trees are 80% water. One of the trees we stopped to see was in the middle of an orange grove – quite a difference in size!

After lunch at the Baobab restaurant and a quick stop at the PicNPay in Hoedspruit for meal supplies, Louis drove us to the Tshukudu (which means rhino in the Sotho language) Game Reserve. The Tshukudu Bush Camp is self-catering, which means you’re responsible for your own food and refreshments. It is not the most luxurious game reserve accommodations we’ve enjoyed. There were no warm cloths to wipe the journey’s dust off your face or tiny shampoos and lotions in the bathroom; no wi-fi or TV. But the thatched cottages are clean, the beds are comfortable, there’s hot water AND air-conditioning. There are two other accommodations, the lodge and the tent camp in the reserve, which undoubtedly create a different (not necessarily better) experience.

There’s a pool, an indoor dining room with a satellite TV, a community outdoor dining area, a community kitchen, and a boma. A boma is an enclosure; in this case just outside the kitchen, with tables and chairs around a big fire pit. The staff keep the fire going, and use a shovel to bring coals from the fire to the braai (grill) for cooking the food. There is also a dormitory area where learners stay on educational field trips. Behind the boma there are two sets of stairs. One leads to an elevated observation deck. The other leads to a suspension bridge that takes you to a blind overlooking the dam.

When we got there we were greeted by Deon, the park ranger and man in charge of the bush camp; his miniature dachshund Flinters (Afrikaans for tatters); and his favorite cheetah, Ntombi (Zulu for little girl). We had a few minutes to carry our luggage to our cottage before we went on our first game drive. When we came out to join the group, everyone was getting their photo taken with Ntombi. Of course we wanted our turn, too!
Deon getting loved by Ntombi
Nothing like a cup of coffee with a cheetah!
Something caught her attention just as the shutter snapped