The Sign-Off

All good things come to an end…

I returned to Halifax almost a week ago: to the cold and the dark, and to the warmth and comfort of my husband’s arms and our new home. It is really nice to be back with a new perspective and appreciation for the little things: the fresh Maritime air, catching the sunrise on my way to work, drinking water from the tap, eating dark chocolate, and using a washing machine… My re-integration has been smooth and I’ve been busying myself with things that I really enjoy while at home – such as cooking, hiking, and visiting the Farmer’s Market!

I was nervous about going back to work, but so far I have been easing back into it with minimal anxiety. Dan and I start each day with a long walk into town and meet up at a coffeeshop at the end of the day for a latte before heading home. Being outdoors is the only way that I can stave off the winter blues and I’m sure it has helped to ward off the post-leave depression that I tend to experience when I’m face-to-face with reality. Perhaps if the absence is lengthy enough, reality is something you begin to crave. It is nice to be home, and I sincerely mean it this time.

And while I could write volumes about everything that I learned in Africa, it all boils down to a few key takeaways. The world is beautiful and inspiring, as it is cruel and unfair, however:

  • There is no greater virtue than patience
  • There is no resource more precious than water
  • Empathy is the best soul food
  • Personal freedom is absolutely priceless
  • The significance of a society without racial discrimination must never be forgotten

Until next time… may the força be with you!

White Water Rafting

I spent my last full day in Africa in the best possible way: white water rafting on the great Zambezi River! The Zambezi is one of Africa’s great waterways, originating in Zambia and emptying into the Indian Ocean via Angola, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.

Our Wild Horizons raft

Our Wild Horizons raft on the Zambezi

I have only ever run the placid class-2 rapids of the Ottawa River. Fortunately I’m in Victoria Falls during the low water period, which is the best time to run the rapids of the Zambezi. We began near Danger Point, below the Falls, and navigated past 19 fierce and violent rapids, of which nearly half are graded at class-5 (we had to walk around the “un-runnable” class-6 rapids).

We started early in the morning and began the steep 400-ft descent into the gorge to get to our rafts. I much prefer hiking up than down… especially while carrying a paddle and not wearing proper shoes…

The thieving goat.

At the top of the gorge: the thieving goat that tried to head butt me in order to steal my mango, a gifted for me from our driver Agrippa (named after the Roman general!).

The view from near the bottom of the gorge

The view from near the bottom of the gorge, below the Victoria Falls railway bridge.

I shared my raft with 6 guys from China and 2 guides from Zimbabwe – and what a great team we were! Loud, boisterous, goofy. We bonded really quickly over the course of the day as we paddled along, tossing each other into the river for fun.

The route along the river was stunning: dramatic, rough-hewn basalt cliffs. Eagles were soaring above us. The sun was so searingly hot and the water so comfortably warm that we jumped in at every possible opportunity (where there weren’t any crocodiles, anyway).

The view from the raft

The view from the raft

We flipped our raft a couple of times when we hit class-5 rapids, one of which drops 8 m over a 10-m span of white water but we were all swiftly collected and hauled back in. I enjoyed it each time – it was a welcome escape from the heat.

Paddling into a class-5 rapid

Paddling into a class-5 rapid: “Stairway to Heaven”

Our raft flips

Our raft flips

We finished our day with a fabulous hike up out of the gorge (I was able to keep up with the impossibly fit, impossibly muscular Zimbabweans, which made me proud) and enjoyed an awesome meal. Best. Day. Ever. I’m going to be soooo sore tomorrow!!

Best rafting team ever

Our amazing rafting team celebrating at the end of the day

Exploring

Today I was up with the birds to do something that I have always wanted to do: ride an elephant! I always assumed them to be sweet and gentle animals (probably because I watched too many cartoons as a child). Though I know better than to underestimate the power of oversized, skittish beasts with poor eyesight.

My elephant, Janet

My elephant, Janet

I went to Victoria Falls National Park and met the small group of saddled up elephants who approached and sniffed us with their trunks (I’m told that there’s over 50,000 muscles in an elephant trunk). I picked a smaller female named Janet who was accompanied by her 4-year-old calf, Fumo.

Riding Janet while she waves to the camera

Exploring the trails with Janet, her handler Sampson, her calf Fumo, and Fumo’s handler.

We took the trail to Gorge Nine, carved out by the great Zambezi River, and returned to camp afterward. Sitting high above the ground on Janet’s back was a great spot from which to admire the view of the African bush. I loved watching her use her trunk to rip up handfuls of leaves to eat, sometimes nearly bending a tree in half. Powerful, indeed.

The landscape of Victoria Falls National Park

The landscape of Victoria Falls National Park

After the ride, I got to feed Janet from a bucket of molasses-dipped pellets, which all of the elephants really love (judging by how quickly they ran over to the feeding area). When I approached her, she stuck out her trunk so that I could hand over the pellets for her to stuff into her mouth.

In the afternoon, I walked the 3 km to the Victoria Falls Rainforest. It’s quite amazing that a rainforest sustained entirely by the spray of Victoria Falls sprung up here. Navigating the pathways, all I could hear were the sounds of birds chirping, insects buzzing, monkeys screeching, and the roar of the Falls!

The pathway, Victoria Falls Rainforest

The pathway, Victoria Falls Rainforest

 

It was incredible to see the vast spread of Victoria Falls from the Devil’s Cataract to Danger Point all the way to the railway bridge. Imagine how Dr. David Livingstone felt when he “discovered” it back in the 1800s: an amazing sight to behold.

"The Devil's Cataract". Victoria Falls

“The Devil’s Cataract”. Victoria Falls 

Statue of Dr. David Livingstone

Statue of Dr. David Livingstone. Victoria Falls Rainforest

Around June, the water levels are high and the spray from the Falls obscures the view (though there’s plenty of big rainbows!); In December, with lower water levels I could make out the basalt cliffs, the gorges, the pools, and waterways below the Falls, Livingstone Island, and the daredevils swimming at the top of the Falls in Devil’s Pool (ooh, now that I would LOVE to do!).

The Devil's Pool at the top of Victoria Falls

The Devil’s Pool at the top of Victoria Falls

Even with low water levels, there was a persistent spray that rained down on me and provided some relief from the heat. I spend hours treading the pathways from one end of Victoria Falls to the other in the company of some nice Californians visiting from the Zambian side. To sound like a broken record: I can’t wait to come back here with Dan (and swim in the Devil’s Pool).

Danger Point, Victoria Falls

Danger Point, Victoria Falls

“Sawubona” from Victoria Falls

[Ndebele for “Greetings!”]

I never envisioned that I would ever set foot in the Republic of Zimbabwe, but I guess one should never say never. The prospect of spending four days in Johannesburg wasn’t terribly appealing to me… and Victoria Falls is a short flight away. I read that the best views of the falls are on the Zimbabwean side, which is why I flew here instead of Livingstone, Zambia.

“You’re traveling here alone?” the Victoria Falls airport customs officer asked me, arching his eyebrow. Yes. I’ve come a long way from when I first landed in Maputo, scared of my own shadow and plagued by fear from the mishaps I suffered the last time I was in Africa. But I have felt very safe here so far and I’ve been a lot more careful.

I checked into a lodge in a quiet area at the edge of town. It reminds me a lot of the village in South India where my Dad grew up… or a smaller version of Xai-Xai in Mozambique. It’s extremely hot and humid and the rains have yielded lush greenery for as far as the eye can see. There’s only a couple of main roads running through the bush from the centre of town. There’s no wi-fi, nor air conditioning, so I’ve undergone another round of culture shock since leaving South Africa.

I can walk alone during the day (it’s only about a mile to get to town and another mile to get to Victoria Falls, “The Cloud That Thunders”), though at night it’s best to take a taxi to avoid an encounter with hippos and elephants wandering about in search of food.

Generally, Zimbabweans are polite and very friendly. Some people have approached me out of curiosity but they usually just want to say hello and wish me a good holiday. I have gotten unnerved by the occasional baboon and the younger men who keep urging me to forget who I left back home and “try me… it’s your vacation! Where are you staying?”… but fleeing into a taxi has gotten me away from both situations.

The local language here is Ndebele, which sounds a lot like Zulu, though everyone speaks English. The other official language is Shona.

I spent my first day exploring the town and raiding the supermarket, which I found thanks to the help of a couple of South African backpackers. The main industry is tourism and the town is full of souvenir shops, restaurants, and lodges, mostly geared toward adventurous backpackers. After enjoying the benefits of a strong Canadian dollar (against the South African Rand), I’m back to paying inflated prices. The local currency is the US dollar.

This morning I woke up early to explore the trails of Victoria Falls National Park on the back of an elephant (sooooo awesome!!!), and then walked through town toward the Zambian border to explore Victoria Falls. Both experiences were terrific – photos are soon to come!

Kruger National Park

Burchell's Zebra

Burchell’s Zebra

I am somewhat of a safari junkie; I have just returned from my sixth safari in Africa and my second in Kruger National Park. My fascination with exotic animals harkens back to my childhood National Geographic-coloured dreams; decades later, it hasn’t lost its lustre. Each encounter has been exciting in its own right, especially because this time I was with my family and I was experiencing everything anew through their eyes.

A creek running through the lowveld

A creek running through the lowveld

We spent 2 nights in the Masungulo River Camp in Marloth Park, adjacent to Kruger. The tents were large and cosy, and the facilities were great. There’s nothing like showering in the African bush, under a setting sun, with a tarp separating you from the zebras, giraffes, impalas, and warthogs foraging nearby. I also sleep so well when I’m camping. It was heaven!

Our tents at the Masungulo River Camp

Our tents at the Masungulo River Camp

We were up at 4 AM every day to begin our lengthy game drives with the rising sun. Every day we were rewarded for it by some new and breathtaking sighting. Our guide, Adrian, drove an open-vehicle safari Jeep and took us into Kruger via the Crocodile Bridge Gate.

Us, our guide, and the safari vehicle

Us, our guide, and the safari vehicle

View from the Crocodile Bridge

View from the Crocodile Bridge

A crocodile in the river

A crocodile in the river

Kruger’s “Big 5” game animals are elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, and rhinos (my favourite!). I saw four of them in abundance this time (I saw the elusive fifth, a leopard, a few weeks ago sleeping in a Marula tree).

White rhinos

White rhinos

The highlights for me were the close encounters with lions. Coming within one metre of these beautiful creatures in an open vehicle was both terrifying and exhilarating! Staring lions in the face, at a distance that would easily allow them to bite my head off was probably the greatest adrenaline rush I’ve experienced recently.

A male lion, up close

A lone male lion, up close

Lioness and her cubs

A lioness and her cubs relax on the pavement.

We also got thisclose to elephants. Most of them ignored us, but a baby elephant stopped to wave his little trunk at us (SO CUTE!), a large male stared us down in a most intimidating way, and another whirled around, hissed and flapped his ears before running off. They’re quite spry given their size.

Elephants

Female elephants and a curious baby elephant.

It was a memorable experience for all, especially those of us with a deep appreciation for wildlife and for the beauty of the African lowveld. It was a privilege to get so close to the animals, some of which are critically endangered or severely threatened.

A yawning hippo

A yawning hippo

I am now alone in Nelspruit, having said goodbye to Mom, Natasha and Matt who flew back to Cape Town today and will soon return to Canada. I hope that they enjoyed their first trip to Africa. I’m pleased that everyone survived the bush camp (seems as though I was the only one who was excited for it!) and that my mom handled her first backpacking trip gracefully.

Giraffe crossing

Giraffe crossing

Tomorrow I head back to Joburg before making my way to my final destination in Africa: Victoria Falls!

All Aboard!

I have a little over a week left in Africa and I knew I was in the home stretch when we left Cape Town on Saturday. Nearly a month ago, I set out toward the Western Cape and now I’ve made my way back toward the place where my adventure began.

Mom and Natasha enjoying the train

Mom and Natasha enjoying the train

We took the Shosholoza Meyl Premier Classe tourist train for the 26-hour journey to Johannesburg. We were enticed by the creature comforts and “personalized service of a bygone era” available on this train at a bargain-basement price. For under $300, we were set to make the 1000-km trip in style.

Our train compartment

Our train compartment

The lounge car

The lounge car

We were dreading the thought of spending 26 hours in transit, but the time flew by quickly. The service was indeed attentive and exceptional, the compartments very comfortable, and the food plentiful (maybe too plentiful). It was a relaxing and enjoyable way to travel – especially because I could get up and move around, stretch out, and sleep comfortably. As a bonus, the scenery was amazing and our lengthy stretch through the Karoo brought back so many great memories of the time I spent there hiking, relaxing, and watching falling stars in the rich tapestry of the Southern constellations.

Stretching my legs out in West Beaufort

Stretching my legs out in West Beaufort

After being spoiled by the beauty of Cape Town, nobody was too thrilled to be in Johannesburg. The heightened security measures in each neighbourhood (razor wire, electric fences, tall gates, guard dogs) only added to the discomfort, as did the seediness of the station and surrounding areas.

This morning, we caught a bus to Nelspruit, which is close to the Mozambican border and about 200 km from Maputo… There’s nothing like the crazy heat and the spoken Portuguese to remind me of Mozambique! I’ve nearly come full circle; this chapter is nearly complete. I’m sad to be leaving, yet very much ready to go home.

These are the last couple of days I have with my family before we part ways. Until then, we will be enjoying a safari in Kruger National Park!

Diving with the Great Whites

While South Africa offers countless fun and interesting experiences, there is none as quintessentially “South African” as a cage dive with great white sharks! Where else in the world is it possible to spot the most vicious ocean predators year-round? Where else can you float next to them without losing your life or limbs?

A great white shark glides by

A great white shark glides by, close enough to touch!

Mom understandably sat this one out; the prospect of seeing her only children jump into shark-infested waters (even within the safety of a cage) was not her cup of tea (she grabbed a friend at the hostel and went to Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden).

Natasha, Matt and I were up at the break of dawn to board a bus to Gansbaai, located about 2 hours away from Cape Town. In the summer season, the sharks prefer to lurk around the Dyer Island seal colony – perhaps waiting for the new batch of baby seals to fatten up for the kill. This is where we went looking for them.

The seas were choppy, the breezes chilly, and the visibility poor, but within 5 minutes of dropping anchor by Dyer Island, the great whites came gliding toward the boat, lured by the 60 kg of chum being flung into the water.

Natasha and I enter the cage

Natasha and I enter the cage

Seagulls hungrily eyeing the shark bait

Seagulls hungrily eyeing the shark bait

A great white shark begins to surface

A great white shark begins to surface

We could spot the surface-feeding sharks easily with their tell-tale dorsal fin breaking the surface of the water above their distinctive dark shadows. By the time Nat and I were in the cage, a few playful sharks were chasing the bait so close to us that we could look them in the eye and see rows of sharp teeth (I think I heard Natasha shriek underwater). We mostly saw younger sharks, about 2 – 3 metres in length as well as a cute little houndshark resembling a miniature replica of a great white.

This was such an amazing experience – I can’t recommend it enough!!! We felt perfectly safe in the cage and in the hands of our very experienced boat crew… and of course, very privileged to get close to these awesome creatures.

Once back in Cape Town, we headed to the busy, bustling Gourmet Boerie for dinner to sample the famous lamb sausages and celebrate our last night in this spectacular city.

Delicious gourmet boerewors

Delicious gourmet boerewors from Gourmet Boerie

Tomorrow, we pack up and board a train to Johannesburg. Farewell, Cape Town – I cannot wait to return!