Saturday, January 17, 2009

Laura and the McDonald clan go on SAFARI - Jan 7-11

Hi! So I (Laura) have made it safely to SA! …10 days ago. Because of a lack of internet in the African bush and an erratic fear of this being too big a project for me to keep up with, I have regretfully not written on this blog. And even now I type this out on Microsoft Word first with an understanding that the internet connection here at the African Elite Properties on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town (henceforth cited at CT) is grasping for its last breath each time I ask facebook to do anything. SO I will attempt to catch you up as quickly and thoroughly as possible and post it when I can. Today is Friday January 16th and we have been in CT for about 4 days now. But let’s start at the beginning…

My family and I flew into Johannesburg on Jan 7th and we stayed in a hotel right near the airport since we went back to the airport the following morning to leave for our safari. Thurs Jan 8th we leave Joburg and fly into Hoedspruit airport, which is made up of one small building, one runway, and baggage check is a small cart.

Mom at Hoedspruit, isnt she gorgey?

For those of you who do not know SA (all of you) Joburg is the main city and is sort of in the center of the country. Most of the safaris take place in the northeast corner near or in Kruger National Park. Contrary to our original beliefs, our safari was not in Kruger but in a section of private game reserves right outside of Hoedspruit, and right next to Kruger. Our little game reserve (little meaning about 100,000 acres) was called Thorneybush – named after the thorny bushes that attack you as you drive by in the safari jeeps. We stayed at a lodge called Chapungu, which is a smaller subset of Thorneybush Main Lodge. Main lodge holds a maximum of 48 people and a spa, which the mcdonald family took over one afternoon. Chapungu houses 16 max guests, all in 2-person “tents.” I thought we were going to be roughing it with the rhinos, but this place was incredible – the tents were like little cottages with huge beds, AC, a big bathroom with a shower leading outdoors, and an outdoor Jacuzzi (which would all be quite romantic if I hadn’t been staying with kin, or if I was from WestVa). I’ll try to post as many pics as possible, but it really was amazing. And to humblize us bushmen, I find out that we’re not even staying in the highest class “tents” which were in another Thorneybush lodge at that point being housed by Elton John and his “people.” So as we were doing our game drives we had to keep a look out for lions and zebras and Elton Johns – oh my!
Unfortunately we missed EJ – even in his bedazzled safari outfits – but we heard that if anyone took a picture of him on route, his driver would be fired (not okay because we LOVED our drivers).

Alex on our romantic porch:

So at Chapungu there were 8 of these bungalow tents. The lodge was managed by Chara, who is a beautiful white SA woman who is just the perfect host – friendly and charming and funny. She was great, cept she named her new baby Jemima so I do question her judgment up to a point. Then within the lodge our two main servers were Daniel and Service (brothers, maybe twin black South Africans who my dad LOVED), and our chef was Whitney. Our meals were included as part of the lodge stay and we therefore ate them all together. At dinner the chef had to “present” our meal by saying what we were about to eat. Whitney had this great accent, but she was all types of awkward during these presentations and Eugene, the driver for the other jeep, explained that the other people in the kitchen were too shy to present so Whitney always did it. I really can’t imagine their attempts after Whitney.

Our jeep was driven during the first 2 days by Ishmael and Ishmael (Ish squared), and then Ish1 went on vacation so Richard took over as driver with Ish2 as tracker. Ish2 were black Africans and grew up in the area so Ish2 has grown up tracking animals with his family, whereas Richard – an English speaking SA (aka white) had to take courses to learn how to track before he could become certified as a ranger.
Side note: SA as a whole is very un-PC about race because race seems to explain a lot of background about people and for now it is their way of being PC to explain people as their race and/or language/tribe – who knows when and if this will change. Also, Afrikaaner and English SAs are different – Afrikaans being the Dutch-based language here. But they are different culturally – Afrikaaners are usually much more stuck up and into flashing their wealth (from the words of our wine-tasting guide, Joe – whom we love, Jeffy and Alex are even golfing with him on Wed). They were also the group of people who led the Apartheid and were and are still the most racist. Of course not all of them are though, so be nice. But it is interesting to note that, esp in Cape Town, almost everyone speaks both Afrikaans and English, though English is the major language. SA has 11 national languages, most of which are tribal languages spoken mostly outside of the cities. Population-wise SA is about 20% White (half of that Afrikaaner, half English), 10% coloured (half black, half white), 10% Indian, and 60% black.

Okay enough history – go google it if you’re so interested. Our safari was amazing, despite the lack of Elton sitings, because we saw every animal we wanted to see and more even though the summer months are supposedly the hardest viewing months since the grass is so high. The tour guide books said we probably wouldn’t see anything, but 5 minutes into the first ride we see a pride of lions (the Northern Pride of Thorneybush) which consisted of 1 male and 4 female, all of whom were HUGE, leading to a few heart palpitations on my part. 10 minutes later we find a cheetah and her three 4.5-month-old cubs sleeping. And the story continues. Our ranger/tracker teams, especially Ish2, were amazing. I owe them all of the credit. I’ll attempt to post the best pics of each animal once I have a few more bars of internet life and some videos, which all include creepy narration by yours truly, usually in a British/SA accent. This is not to say the accents are the same, but that my interpretation of both is rather similar. But yes, reviewing the videos we either have Jeffy repeating facts he’s heard earlier, Jude asking 294 questions, and/or Alex and I breathing heavily and sounding like Harry Potter.

Being that our lodge only housed 16 people we did become quite close with the other lodgers, and I really believe the setting and environment were perfect – cousins Paul and Steven would have loved all of the schmoozing. What was most amazing (and Paul, be jealous) is that every group we met was from a different country. Mike and Marie, who we only met briefly, were an unmarried couple. Mike was an ex-marine or something from the UK and Marie was this crazy, funny woman from SA, but they currently live in England. Next comes Vince, father to Sean, who are from Virginia outside DC (boring, I know), but they had their own stories to tell. Vince worked to train and find jobs for groups of oppressed people and he traveled all around the world every year doing so, this trip actually marked his retirement and the end of a 2-month travel around Africa with Sean. Sean is currently at Georgetown Law and was funny and nice, but not boyfriend material – sorry Aunt Ricki. Next come Phillip and Michelle, married couple from Ireland. If anyone is going to Ireland any time soon, this couple owns a 5-star hotel in a redone castle in Ireland and the two of them (people not hotels) are hilarious. Phillip is a serious Irish drinker – brandy and rum are his drinks of choice, and he can even put Jeffy under the table – not a liver-conscious life decision. He also kind of looks like Shrek, minus the green hue. Michelle is actually really pretty (Princess Fiona?) and seems to laugh at everything, maybe because Phillip was so funny, but she was great – you could imagine her being equally good at Chara’s job.. since she does the same thing. They were the other 2 in our jeep on the game drives so it was tons of fun to have them. Next are the 4 swedes. They were in their late 20s, early 30s, but you really couldn’t tell since they all looked so Swedish and they had been on holiday for 4 weeks so their blond hair was lighter than their tan/burnt skin. Two of them were named Andreas, and Alex claims the other two were Frederic and Johann, but I really couldn’t tell you. I loved them though. Two especially were hilarious and charming, and I want to say one of those two was the cutest, but they all looked the same. They were also great guides since they had spent so much time traveling SA. The last couple was Martin and Susanne. They were from the Netherlands and I really liked them too. They came later than everyone else (Mike and Marie had already left) and we thought they were going to stick to themselves, but they were actually my parents’ favorites. Keep in mind that my parents and Vince were the oldest people there and the other couples were in their early 30s. Martin and Susanne were great though. They had been dating for 7 years and JUST got engaged two days before they came to Chapungu. Susanne was really pretty, but looked like the aforementioned Swedes, and Martin was a hottie patottie. Too bad about le engagement. So that rounded out the crew.

We talked a lot while we were there about how great the setting was for bonding us as one group since there were max 16 guests, but Chara said that most groups do not bond as we did since some older couples stick to themselves and sometimes not all of the guests speak English. So we were lucky, and between all of the factors I really think we had the most amazing experience we could have had on a safari and it certainly exceeded all expectations while fulfilling a dream of mine and pops. So all in all, amazing. Go to chapungu. And stuff me in your suitcase. And say hi to Jemima.

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