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.

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
The animals are free to roam
I’m so glad South African conservationists think far ahead of their time. The government, recognizing that tourism can be used to generate funds for conservation, works hard and spends a lot of money to ensure that this incredible country and its flora, fauna and wildlife remain available for everyone’s enjoyment. The South African National Parks (www.sanparks.org) manages 19 or 20 parks, depending on which guidebook or website you’re reading.

More than three percent of the land in South Africa is occupied by national parks, nature reserves and game reserves. The most famous, Kruger National Park, is also the oldest, having been established in 1898. We’re going to tour Kruger, which is in our province of Mpumalanga, but there are plenty of close reserves worthy of a visit.

One is Rietvlei (Reed Marsh) Nature Reserve, established around the Rietvlei Dam, which provides 15% of the water for Tshwane (Pretoria). When they acquired the dam in 1929, the City Council of Pretoria didn’t open the property to the public, but still had the foresight to  bring animals in.

zebras hang out with the herds
We drove about an hour to get there, all dual highway until the last 5 minutes. There’s a nice bathroom, educational center and office where you pay your R40 ($4.50) per person to go in. They give you a plastic card with a number on it, so I’m assuming that’s how they keep track of how many cars go in and come out.

There are blacktop roads and dirt roads, encompassing huge fields of grass with the occasional tree sticking up. The animals are free to move wherever they like, and you can see paths they’ve created. There’s no walking allowed except in designated areas, and even there you have to watch your step. Some of the piles these animals drop are pretty big! There are four bird blinds and at least one panoramic platform where you can stop and sit to see what you can see. There’s a beautiful braai area with restrooms and braais and picnic tables. There’s a restaurant that also has a picnic area.  They offer guided hikes, guided horseback rides, guided tours of the lion reserve.

We haven’t done it yet, but our neighbor recommended taking the horseback rides. She said the wild animals don’t recognize you as separate from the horse, and they don’t mind the horses, so you get some up-close and personal encounters.

I believe these are the easiest animals to spot!
When we got online to plan our day, my eyes glazed over from all the information. But it’s important to know what you’re getting into: First & foremost, do they have bathrooms? Is there a restaurant or are there picnic grounds? Can you drive a regular car or do you need a 4x4 vehicle? Rietvlei seemed like the perfect place to dip our toes into adventure, and indeed it was.
see the ostrich?
Charles is about four years old
no horns!
Four of the Big Five can be seen on the reserve, namely: rhino, lion, buffalo, and leopard/cheetah. The term “Big Five” originated as a hunting term for the five deadliest animals to encounter on a walking safari back in the early 20th century, when Hemingway and Roosevelt were among the big game hunters. Now the Big Five are icons for South Africa.
We took the guided tour to see and hear about the lions. They have an adult male and two adult females who came from a zoo that didn’t have the ability to care for them any longer. In a separate enclosure, they have a young male and two young females who came from an attraction here that allows people to handle and feed the cubs. Once that happens, they can’t be released into the wild. Not only do they not know how to catch their meals, they associate people with food and that makes them too dangerous to be loose on a reserve. The males have had vasectomies because they’re related to the females. They don’t castrate them because, among other things, they need their hormones to grow their manes. To train the lions not to jump on the tour bakkies (trucks), the rangers would ride in the bakkie with water guns and squirt water in the lions’ faces when they came near. The lions don’t jump on the trucks any more, but they sure don’t like them!

We saw white rhino, too. Poaching is such a terrible scourge on the rhinos here, black and white. People kill the animal simply for its horns. They’re trying all kinds of ways to bring the number of kills down: they prosecute poachers with a vengeance, there have been great conferences to educate and try to get the countries where people buy rhino horn to make the purchase illegal. They even cut the horns off at the reserves, so people have no reason to kill them. Neither the number of rhino, black and white, nor their location, is made public in an effort to prevent poaching.

270 species of bird have been identified on the reserve (I recognized the ostrich right away!). There are over 1600 head of game, including blesbuck, black wildebeest, red hartebeest, eland, Burchell's zebra, waterbuck, reedbuck, springbuck, mountain reedbuck, steenbuck and grey duiker. All those “bucks” are antelope or deer, and my untrained eye can’t tell the difference. I think it’s mostly the size and shape of their horns that distinguish one from the other. We saw huge herds slowly moving across the veld (field), and there were usually zebras with them. I expect that I’ll have a better understanding of what’s what by the time we leave.

Steven is the one who always sees animals in the wild first. “Look for what doesn’t belong,” he always tells me. We drove quite slowly and used binoculars to find animals. Then we used the zoom lens on the camera to get the pictures. We took hundreds, and were only really impressed with a few. I opened a picture folder on my laptop that is reserved for five star pictures only! There’s only a couple in there now. The good news is, we’ll have lots of opportunities for photos. I trust that we’ll get better and better pictures.

Rest assured, I’ll share them with you!