Friday, April 27, 2007

Some Final Thoughts on South Africa

I arrived back in the UK bright and early this morning. Although the trip was a success it is definitely good to be home.

Some additional tidbits of information:
  • Traffic lights are called robots in South Africa. I asked a couple of people how this term came about but nobody seemed to know.
  • There are 250,000 licensed mini-taxis in greater Johannesburg. Taxis are mini-vans that are primarily used in lieu of a public transportation system. As with most cities taxi drivers don't think they have to adhere to the rules of the road.
  • Under the previous government all citizens were issued identity cards which specified your race - black, white or coloured. Only whites were able to gain access to certain restaurants and hotels. As foreign diplomats started visiting it became apparent that they needed a new categories as the diplomats needed to be allowed to dine and stay at the finest places so a category of "honorary white" was created.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Random Thoughts of the Day

Random Thought #1:
Today on the way to my morning meeting we took the scenic route. For some reason my pick-up was arranged for 7AM and I didn't need to be there until 8:30. Even with the scenic route it only took us 30 minutes to get there. The scenic route took us passed the road that Mandela lives on. While all the houses have big concrete fences around them, the homes in this area have much higher fences so you can barely see the roofs of the houses. Every home also advertises which security system they are using. This strikes me as funny as once thieves figure out how to bypass one system all they have to do is drive around and find other houses that are advertising that security system.

Random Thought #2
The meeting this morning took me into the city center, this area is very different than anything else I have seen to date. No tin houses, no gates and fences around houses, most of the dwellings are high rise apartment buildings. While the city center used to be where all the financial companies were based a few years ago they started moving out to Sandton, while there are still a few big companies in downtown the majority have abandonded the area for "safer" regions. There of course is a debate whether or not the companies moved because it was safer or whether they moved because it reduced the commute for the senior management.

Random Thought #3
I went to dinner at "The Meat Co" this evening - I'm boycotting the hotel after being shafted on the glass of wine earlier this week. It was definitely worth it as I was only charged for 1 of the glasses of wine I ordered - that may be because the waitress was flirting with me. I was surprised when she asked me if I was South African, most people know within a few seconds of speaking with me that I'm American. A little later in the conversation she commented how beautiful I was, at this point I wasn't sure what to say. It's rare that somebody is that forward. I thanked her and ordered another glass of wine (which I wasn't charged for).

Monday, April 23, 2007

Back to Reality

After a couple of days in the jungle/bush/wilderness or whatever you want to call it I am planted firmly back in reality. I had to go to work today and got cheated in the hotel bar - almost like being back in America - however I don't think I would every pay $35 for a glass of wine. I had a glass of shiraz with dinner - only $9 a glass a little high but I was fine with that. A gentleman sitting next to me was drinking pinot and he commented how good it was so I decided for an after dinner drink that I would try a glass. I had no idea that they were charging 240 Rand a glass for it and neither did he!

The guy who originally ordered it wasn't that happy when I mentioned it to him. This is apparently a scam that the hotel puts on. They only offer 1 type of wine by the glass and it is crap! I unfortunately told the man not to order that as it wasn't very good - so they upsold him into this bottle. I guess the bottle was listed for about 600 rand so there was no way that we imagined that a single glass would cost 240 rand. Given that we drank the entire bottle - I had 1 glass and he had the rest. We probably would have been better off just being charged for the bottle rather than individual glasses but by that time they wouldn't change the bill to accommodate this. I will most likely not have drinks or dinner at the hotel bar as a result of this -last night wasn't that much but this was ridiculous.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


On Friday I finished my training class and headed off to the Ivory Tree Lodge at Pilanesberg for a weekend of safaris. The 2 hour drive up passes through some “black heritage” areas. These are sections of land that were given to the various tribal chiefs during the apartheid era. The houses in these sections would most likely be described as “shanty towns.” The majority of the houses are made of tin some don’t even have any roofs. Also along this route are a number of mining villages – there are mines for platinum, copper, gold, and granite.

Luckily I arrived at the lodge just in time for the evening Safari which runs from 4:30 – 7:30. I ran to the room dropped off my bags, grabbed my camera and went to meet Mike, my ranger. I was in such a rush I forgot to grab my monopod out of my luggage so I was not able to take many shots as the sun went down.

Day 1 – Evening Safari
You are assigned the same ranger for the duration of your stay which makes it easy to get to know others. Dinner is eaten with the group and your ranger, for those traveling alone I liked this. My group consists of 2 South Africans, 3 Americans (including myself), 2 Brits and 1 Scotsman. Two of the members did not arrive until dinner so the first evening safari there were only 6 of us. I managed to grab one of the seats in the front which gives you an unobstructed view of everything in front and to both sides.

The trip was a huge success and we encountered a number of animals and some little tidbits of information:

Giraffe – The older they are the darker their spots become.
White Rhinoceros- Most numerous of all animals in the park, the black rhinoceros is quite rare and we did not manage to see one.
Kudu – As we were watching the Kudu Mike informed us that during our snack break we would be trying some Kudu meat.
Helmeted Guineafowl
Francolin- AKA “Suicide” birds as they like to run out in front of cars you rarely see these birds flying.
Elephant – Males and females have different shaped heads.
Spotted Eagle Owl

The most memorable encounter for me were the lions. We were running late for our snack as we kept stopping so we didn’t end up getting to the rest area until dark. For me this was better as the stars and the moon were spectacular, it’s rare you get to someplace dark enough to see all the stars. There were no lights around so you could see the milky way and shooting stars. I also saw the Southern Cross for the first time. While eating our snack we could hear a lion nearby it sound like he was only a couple hundred feet away. Mike informed us that the calls he was making were basically a “hello” to other lions. They have different calls when they’re hunting and when they’re just talking. After finishing our snacks we started tracking the lion to try and find him. At night there is a spot light that you can shine to find the animals, we would drive for a little while and then we would stop cut the engine and lights and listen. After a few minutes we turned the lights on and the lion was standing right in front of us about to cross the road. He was huge, probably weighed around 220 kilos according to Mike and he looked to be all muscle. We watched as he strolled through the plains and when we lost sight of him we started driving down the road some more as Mike saw the direction he was heading and knew he would be crossing another road shortly.

As Mike was driving he handed the spotlight to those in the row behind him as we were up higher and could shine the light higher. As I was in the front row I periodically got to track for animals with the spotlight. There’s a lot of pressure with this job as you want to make sure that you don’t miss something good hiding in the bushes or trees (I actually was shining the light when we spotted the owl). We did see the lion a couple of more times and then began heading back to the lodge. While on the way back in the middle of the road we saw the female lion and 2 cubs playing. The cubs were about 5 months old and just playing away. As we followed them I was surprised that the lights didn’t bother them and they seemed to ignore us, other animals are definitely startled by the lights and the car engines.

We ended up getting back to the lodge at 8:15, about 45 minutes late but it was well worth it. I was the first to leave the dinner table at around 9:30 as we were getting a 5:30 wake up call to go out on the morning safari. Mike warned us that we might be disappointed in the morning as we had such a successful evening ride. I was optimistic that it would be just as good.

Day 2 – Morning Safari

As we started out Mike told us that there were reports of wild dogs right past the entrance and all the rangers were excited as they are very rare. We could see all the trucks lined up, after a few minutes waiting the dogs took off and we followed them down the road. Those suckers were fast – it was impossible to get a picture of them. Eventually the other jeeps turned around and left we waited for a little while longer and as we turned around saw the dogs running right back our way. The ran directly in front of our jeep and across the field. Mike got on the radio and informed the others what direction the dogs were headed. The rangers from all the parks and lodges are in constant communication over the radio to share rare and interesting sightings.

We got a call that a leopard was spotted and we were near the area so we headed off in that direction. There were about 5 other safari vehicles and 3 personal cars in the area trying to catch a glimpse of this rare animal. We waited patiently for it to stick its head up as it was lying in the grass and then all of a sudden a warthog started walking by and we thought we would be lucky enough to be treated to a hunt. At this point the leopard took interest and popped his head up and at the same time a guy in the car in front of us stood up out of his sun roof and completely blocked my view. Now he could have seen just fine from the car like everybody else but he wanted a better view. When I told him he was blocking the view of everybody behind him he turned around and said he wanted to see he stayed standing there until the leopard lost interest in the wart hog and lied down again. At this point a number of cars drove off but we stuck around for a little while and our luck paid off. The leopard decided to find a place to sleep in the shade so he stood up and walked off. At this point the other people in the car joked that we should go and find the guy that blocked our view and tell him what he missed – karma will get you every time.

After the leopard moved on we continued on the road as we had gotten a report of elephants playing in the water. It was amazing to watch them play, squiring water on each other, dunking one another under and swimming around. A few hundred feet behind the 6 playing in the water were about 20 more elephants having a bite to eat.

Since we had spent so much time waiting for the leopard and watching the elephants swim we did not have a chance to have a tea break and stretch our legs. You don’t realize how long you’ve been sitting until you try and stand up and walk down the steps of the jeep.

New animals sighted:
Wildebeest – This looks like a combination of a number of animals – it has the tail of a giraffe, the stripes of a zebra and the legs of a hyena.
Water Monitor

Day 2 – Evening Safari

The evening safari started out normally enough we saw a little of this, a little of that. Nothing that we hadn’t seen before. We were headed up to the top of one of the mountains to try and catch the sunset from up there. Unfortunately we got a little side tracked and missed the sunset, Mike spent about 5 minutes at a termite mound explaining all about termites – I would have rather sent the sunset but others were very interested.

After a couple of drinks we headed back down the mountain along a very windy road. All of a sudden we made a turn and there was a male elephant standing in the middle of the road. He started approaching us forcing us to back up this narrow windy road. The number of feelings rushing through me at this time were numerous – shock, fear, amazement – the knot in my stomach was huge. I had never been this close to elephant before, it is definitely a humbling experience to view an animal like that up close as he’s chasing you – ok it wasn’t really chasing but if felt that way. Mike kept backing up as the elephant approached us trying to find a spot where we could pull over to one side and the elephant could pass us. He tried to assure us that this elephant was very calm and once we got off the road we would be able to get by, after going around 2 turns we were able to pull over and the elephant headed off the road and we were able to pass. Relief set in, unfortunately it was very short lived as we rounded the first corner another elephant was in the road, following the elder male.

As we started to back up we had to keep an eye on the elephant behind us to make sure he continued heading into the grass and did not turn around and head back into the road leaving us nowhere to go – he cooperated nicely and continued on into the woods. As we learned elephants follow one another so all we had to do was back up to the same spot and hope that elephant number 2 would indeed follow the older elephant up the hill – as luck would have it he followed and we were able to pass. As we continued down the road we wondered if we were going to encounter yet another elephant – there were 3 elephants hanging out when we headed up the hill for our snack break. The third elephant had either gone off on his own or was a little slow in following the others and we were able to make it down the mountain.

The rest of the drive home was very uneventful, no other significant sightings on the way back to the lodge which was good as it gave me time to relax after that unbelievable experience.

New Animals Sighted:

Day 3 – Morning Safari
Woke up to a light sprinkle and a slight chill to the air, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be good or bad for the animals. Mike said that the cheetahs are more apt to come out in the rain and the large cats will be more active in the cooler weather. Everybody was in agreement that we wanted to see some big cats. I for one had enough of elephants the night before and didn’t care if we saw any today. There was word from other rangers that a pride of 7 had been spotted so we headed off in that direction. After about an hour of driving we gave up on that area and headed off to see what else we could find. There was word of a cheetah in the area so we tried to find that – again no luck. I was starting to get rather disappointed and realized how lucky I had been on the previous excursions and this is probably more typical as I had heard from others that it was rather hit or miss.

Continuing down the road we got word that the pride of lions had just been spotted and they were just up the road from us. Even better they were guarding a kill that they had made the night before. The lions were about 500 meters from the road so we couldn’t see much details however we were able to clearly see them – pictures are slightly fuzzy but you can tell that it’s a lion. We were satisfied that we had seen our big cats so we headed back to the lodge for breakfast.

New animals spotted:
Red Hartebeest
Lilac-breasted Roller

Overall the safaris were spectacular and an experience I will never forget. I probably saw close to 1000 animals, at least 26 different species - much more than this but we didn’t get the names of all the birds that we saw flying around. And don’t forget 1 very close encounter with some elephants.

Oh and on the way back from the resort I saw monkeys and an ostrich.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Last night for dinner I went to an African restaurant across the street from the hotel, Moyo. They had a large outdoor seating section and since the weather was slightly chilly there were large blankets on the back of the chairs to put over your legs or shoulders to keep warm. The ostrich fillet came highly recommended so I had to try it. The spices on the fillet were great, it was slightly undercooked for my liking but I enjoyed it nonetheless. While eating the starch all I could taste were peanuts so I asked what it was - turns out it was pumpkin mash with peanut butter.

While driving home from work yesterday I was surprised by the number of people approaching the cars trying to sell things everything from newspapers to umbrellas to plastic hangers to garbage bags. The funniest was the man selling umbrellas to the people in cars during the rain - they might have had more luck selling them to the people walking in the rain. The reason he was most likely targeting the cars is the people that own cars have more money than the people walking. There is a huge discrepency between the middle class and the lower class. While more people are buying cars there is still a huge unemployment rate. Please note these facts I'm about to give have not been checked for accuracy - I am taking the word of my driver. There is a 24% unemployment rate and that only includes the people that are actively looking for work. If you include those that are no longer looking for work. If you include those the unemployment rate goes up to 40%.

On the subject of cars and unemployment, I noticed that none of the gas stations had signs indicating the price of gas so of course I had to ask my driver about it this morning. Gas is 6 rand/litre and is controlled by the government. The first Wednesday of every month the government sets the price of gas. Stations can not offer any specials or promotions to attract more customers. None of the stations are self service they are all full service (helping to reduce unemployment or at least not increase it).

Tomorrow after work I take off for my safari - and don't worry I won't try to pet any of the little animals I encounter in the wild. Not sure if I'll have Internet access there but if I do I'll be sure to post.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Another Continent Checked Off

I arrived safely in Jo-burg this morning after a quick 10.5 hour flight. Luckily the flight was fairly empty and I could stretch out and sleep. Of course they came around at 5 am, 2.5 hours before we were supposed to land to serve breakfast - I probably could have used a few more hours sleep but what can you do. I'll sleep well tonight.

My driver was quite informative this morning and I learned that:

  • When leaving the airport car park the guards come over to make sure there are keys in the ignition as car theft is high.
  • Johannesburg is 6000 ft above sea level.
  • There are no indigenous trees in Jo-burg everything is "man-made" and was transplanted from other countries.

I know the pound to dollar ratio just passed $2 this week. It's been flirting at the 1.9x range for a number of months but is now officially over 2, however don't feel bad the pound to rand rate is 14 to 1. My salad at lunch was only 22 rand which I found incredibly cheap. I'll keep you posted on the prices of other things.

So far on my list of things to bring back for people include:

  • A hat
  • Amarula
  • An elephant

Any other special requests let me know and I will try and accommodate your desires.

Sunday, April 8, 2007


Last week was a busy week while I was trying to get things finished beofre going on Vacation. The UK has a 4 day weekend with Easter so I figured I would take advantage of the time and jet on down to the Virgin Islands. 2 Taxis, 2 planes, a boat and 18 hours and I arrived on St John - actually the trip wasn't all that bad. The worst part was the waiting on Tortola for the ferry it was an hour late. It's horrible standing on the docks being able to see your final destination but having to stand around and wait.

I'm here for the week and then back to London for 2 days before I take off for South Africa. I'll be spending 10 days training partners and visiting customers with a visit to a game reserve for safaris over the weekend. I'm sure I'll have lots to blog about while I'm there.