Real Africa

Everyone goes on safari to see the amazing animals. And yesterday I showed some of the amazing animals we saw in just one four hour drive. Today, especially this morning, we saw a darker side of Africa. One that is inherent and necessary to the survival of many species.

Our plan when we left not long after our 5:30 am wake up call was to go looking for some leopards. Leopards are hard to see, partly because of their camouflage, partly because they are relatively rare (perhaps less than 11,000 in South Africa), and partly because they hunt at night. Before we could go too far, we got a call over the radio that a pride of lions had made a kill, so we hurried over to see it.

Kills are often thought of as the epitome of safari experiences, as they are not that frequently seen. When we got there, we found a pride of 14 lions feasting on a water buffalo they had killed earlier. It was pretty brutal. We watched for a while,and I took a bunch of great pictures which I won’t publish here. Then we left to continue our search for the leopard.

Along the way we found two lionesses sitting quietly along side the road. It’s pretty amazing how they ignore the trucks and the people in them. After watching them for a couple of minutes, they both got up, obviously alerted to something, and took off through the bush. Mark, our guide, followed them, crashing through brush and over small trees.


Attack, July 2017

They had smelled an injured water buffalo. We got to that site just as they attacked it, and watched as they took it down and ultimately killed it. It made what we saw earlier seem tame. Later, Mark and another guide described this kill as the most disturbing one they had seen.


Elephants coming by, July 2017

After this enlightening morning, we returned to the lodge for a late breakfast. Before we could even sit down, about 30 elephant came strolling down the river right in front of the deck. This was quite a sight, and included a number of young elephants.

We had lunch, then Sally went to look at our sister lodge, Singita Ebony (we’re at Singita Boulders). I stayed behind, cleaned up, did some camera and battery maintenance and generally rested.


African wild dogs and pups, July 2017

At 3:00 we went out for the afternoon drive. The highlight of this was visiting an African wild dog den, where there were a dozen pups along with the adults. Again, we spent quite some time watching them run around, feed the pups, and try to give them a few of the life lessons they’ll need to survive here. While they look cute, especially the pups, they are among the most successful predators in the area – their kill rate is very high, and the pack can take down pretty large animals.


Eagle looking for prey, hyena waiting for scraps, July 2017

Throughout the drive one always sees a multitude of birds. We saw an eagle perched on a tree, some vultures waiting for the lions to finish, and any number of other birds that I cannot identify. And a pack of at least nine hyena waiting in the grass for the lions to leave the carcass.

We all were sad to see the water buffalo die. But if they don’t kill, the lions and other predators – leopards, eagles, wild dogs, etc. – will die. This is life. Tomorrow we’ll again try to find the leopard.

Okay, we’re on safari

I've been boring you all with pictures and writing that has nothing to do with why we (and pretty much everyone else) visit Africa: to see wild animals on safari. After our trip in the 10-seater toy airplane (including two pilots) to Singita Boulders (which is amazing), we didn't even make it the 200 yards from the private airstrip to the lodge before we saw a tree full of baboons. At lunch on the deck we saw an elephant, crocodile, a mongoose family, and some antelope of some sort. I will never keep all the species straight. Monkeys ran around the restaurant stealing people's bread.


Young elephant by the Sand River, July 2017

Then we met our guide and group of two other couples and went for our first (of 18) game drives. You hop into a specially outfitted Land Rover with three rows of stadium seating, plus the diver/guide and a tracker sitting on a bench mounted on the front fender. Then you go off driving around the game preserve looking for stuff. I think we had an exceptionally productive afternoon.


Zebra looking at the sun, July 2017

To some extent, the drives are random: the guides and trackers won't always know where any specific animals are, but they know where they may like to hang out. They also communicate with other guides who are out and about regarding the more difficult animals to locate.


Pretty bird, July 2017

My experience with zebras (in the zoo) is that they always turn their butts towards you. This one didn't. He just looked west towards the sun, low in the sky.


Hippo in the water, July 2017

It turns out (who knew) that hippos spend much of their time mostly submerged because their thick skin gets sunburned.


Impala herd, July 2017

The only impala I had ever seen were the ones made by Chevrolet. When I was in sixth grade, my BFF's parent bought a 1963 Impala which had the first seat belts I ever saw in a car. I though it was the nicest car I had ever been in. Frankly, these were much more beautiful. And notice that there's one guy and his harem here.


Rhinoceros grazing in the grass, July 2017

We got right up to these rhinos. I mean, I could have spit and hit them. Not that I did. Although they are herbivores, they weigh upwards of 5,000 lbs. and have big horns. And they can move fast. Two of the rules on the games drives are:

1. Don't stand up. The animals seem to ignore the trucks and their passengers, but you can change that equation by creating a new shape by standing.
2. Don't get out of the truck, especially without the guide or tracker with you.

These drives are safe, but the animals are wild.


King of the jungle, July 2017

Mark, our guide got a call over the radio that a group of three lions, all brothers, had been spotted. The other guide gave him directions to where they were, which apparently weren't quite clear. We wound up missing a turn (the "roads" are just dirt tracks, and there are no signposts). We eventually found them, but they were just sleeping in tall grass and not really easy to see. Apparently, lions sleep a good part of each day. We wound up sitting for a good hour, waiting for them to do something. Anything. One of them did stick his head up for a bit and I got a few nice shots..

Dinner was blah, blah, blah. There was entertainment blah blah blah. (1)

But really, today was all about seeing a bunch of animals.

We will get a wake up call at 5:30am tomorrow, and meet in the main building for coffee before heading out on our morning drive.

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(1) Singita and the staff are amazing. More later on that.

Unscheduled Charter

This morning is our first flight on a charter. Actually, an Unscheduled Charter, Federal Airlines. This was also the flight I had the most baggage anxiety about. While the total weight limit per passenger is very sufficient, the cabin luggage limit is 11 lbs. per person. My camera bag clocks in at over 20 lbs., so this was concerning.

We were picked up at the hotel at 8:30 and made the 30 minute ride to the FedAir terminal at O.R. Tambo Airport. We checked in and our duffel bags were taken and weighed; they were about 55 lbs for the two of us, as expected. Then we found out what an Unscheduled Charter is: they take off when they get a slot from air traffic control, which is 11:30 rather than the 10:30 they had told us. So we get to sit here in a comfortable, small lounge for almost two hours.

FedAir lounge, July 2017

They also didn’t bother to weigh our cabin bags. Sally’s was about 13 lbs when we left NY, and might be a pound lighter now. My camera bag is still about 20 lbs. So this is a relief – I won’t have to stuff my pockets with lenses and whatnot.


Flight #2, July 2017

We’re Flight #2.

Joburg

Today was our day seeing Johannesburg, or Joburg in local parlance. The Joburg metro area has about 8.5m people, and the population ranges from the richest people in South Africa to some of the poorest. And that mirrors our day, which started at our hotel in our rich suburb of Sandhurst (1) and proceeded through two of the townships, Alexandra and Soweto. The middle of the day was a visit to the Apartheid Museum, which tells the story of the increasingly formal and institutionalized racism in this country, thru the end of apartheid subsequent to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1994.


South African police prepare to storm an ANC area (photo of photo in Apartheid Museum), July 2017

I will not bore you with this history; it is readily available from Wikipedia and other places if you are interested. However I will make one point: this country passed from an oppressive “democracy” run by the whites, who exploited the black and colored (2) populations from when the first Europeans arrived, to a flawed democracy with an elected government of blacks – and without an endless and devastating civil war. Yes, there were deaths – largely from the oppressive government, and also from the freedom fighters – but somehow the number of deaths in the struggle was measured in 10s of thousands, not millions.


Alexandra residents, July 2017

We spent a good part of the morning going though Alexandra, one of the black townships established during apartheid to isolate the black population. This is a place of appalling living conditions and abject poverty. Yet, as the pictures show, people don’t exhibit misery in their everyday lives. Unemployment is 40%; the schools are terrible or worse; drug use and AIDS are rampant. Yet somehow people manage to live each day.


Alexandra streets, July, 2017


Alexandra’s future, July 2017

After the museum, we went to Soweto (3), the largest and most famous of the townships. This was the locus of the struggle to end apartheid. Mandela and the other leaders lived here, when they weren’t in jail, exile or hiding from the authorities. We had a pleasant lunch in a buffet restaurant on the street where Tutu and Mandela “lived” (4).


Historical center of Soweto, July 2017

Soweto is large, with millions of residents. The housing ranges from tin roofed and sided shacks, to small but tidy bricked homes, to dormitories that would compete with any tenement in NYC or Chicago. There is a lot of crime here and in Alexandra. Robin, our guide, hired a crew to wash and watch his car while we had lunch in Soweto. In Alexandra, he hired two bodyguards with a gun to follow us in their car while we drove around (we never got out of the car there).


Robin’s crew, July 2017

The Alexandra crew were all quite friendly, and jostled for the dollar or so he gave each of them: the washer, the watcher, the crew chief, etc.

It was an interesting and tiring day.

Tonight we have dinner out at a nearby restaurant. Tomorrow we get on a small plane for a 90 minute flight to Singita, a camp outside of Kruger National Park. We’ll be touring in a private preserve. I expect there’s some level of Internet service there, but if you don’t hear from us, then I was wrong.
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(1) Think Scarsdale, Short Hills or Saddle River with electric wire on stone walls
(2) “White”, “black” and “colored” have specific meanings in South Africa, different than in the US. Race is really a cultural concept and not a biological one.
(3) Soweto = SOuth WEst TErriTOries. It is southwest of Joburg proper.
(4) Mandela stayed in the house here for a couple of weeks in his life. Tutu did live here, and his family still owns the house. Winnie Mandela had a restaurant which is now empty.

Gear fail

I've written a number of incredibly long and boring posts about my photography gear for this trip. This won't be long. You can decide if it's boring,

One of the key factors in choosing what to bring was redundancy: two cameras, lenses that can partially offset another that has failed, lots of batteries and chargers, backup strategy for the pictures. One thing which doesn't have a backup is my tripod, as it's big and heavy. I almost didn't bring it at all because of the weight.

So of course, it broke. Partially.


Looks healthy, but it's not, July 2017

I had disassembled it into three pieces so that it would pack better into our constrained luggage. As I was trying to put it together this morning, the center shaft jammed in an unusable position. After about a half an hour, and at the cost of a skinned knuckle, I got it to the point where it is useable. But I brought this particular tripod because it converts to a monopod, which I can use in the game drive vehicles. Now I'm not sure I'll be able to disassemble it anymore, or put it back together again if I do.

Arrrrrggggghhhhh!

Inside a wall

We arrived in Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo Airport this morning after a long and uneventful flight. In at least one way, it was a throwback to the old days of air travel: someone met us at the gate.

I vaguely remember those days, before layers upon layers of security were added to air travel. You could walk your friend or family member to the gate, helping them with their hand luggage (there was no wheeled luggage in those days, either) and delaying the inevitable goodby to the last minute. And the reverse was true: people would crowd around the gates, waiting for their someone to walk down the ramp and emerge to smiles and hugs.

In our case, we were met by an escort waiting with our name on a sign – someone we paid for who guided us through the airport, helped us get our luggage at the carousel, and expedited our passage through passport control and customs. After a tip, he handed us off to our driver, also waiting with a sign, who took us to our hotel in the suburbs. Where he got his tip (1).


Guard at the gate to the Saxon, July 2017

The Saxon Hotel is quite lovely. It is also a fortress, completely surrounded by a high concrete wall. As are all of the other properties in this wealthy suburb. Many of the walls are topped with electrified wires.


Saxon Hotel, 2017

The staff here seems extremely attentive to the guests and are quite pleasant. When we approach one of them in the halls, they invariably stand to one side and wait there until we pass; this is a bit disconcerting to us, accustomed as we are to a less formal and more egalitarian relationship with people.

We kind of stumbled around the room for a bit, then stumbled around the hotel a bit looking for a place to eat, then decided on room service for lunch. A nap, some showers, and we felt better. We have dinner reservations in the hotel restaurant.

Tomorrow we leave at 9:00 for our full day "Soweto and Apartheid Tour with Robin Binckes as a guide". Hope it's interesting. It's a full day.

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(1) We received detailed instructions on tipping from our travel company: drivers, porters, guides, trackers, etc. Each has a price and a currency. In South Africa, where we are for nine nights, it's the South African Rand, or ZAR.

Lounging around

Despite getting out of JFK late, we got into Heathrow about 30 minutes early. Which did nothing for our sleep. We stumbled off the plane and found our way to Terminal 1, where BA operates two Club lounges. And this has been our home for the last six hours, with another hour or so to go – assuming our flight remains on schedule.


Lots of loungers, lots of drinks, July 2017

Unlike the JFK lounge, which definitely needed a refresh, this lounge is both quite nice and quite busy. There’s lots of snacks around all day, including beverages, and they put out a buffet lunch which we skipped for all kind of reasons. They also have robust wifi, which I’m using right now.


Feeling fidgety? Have a bite, July 2017

We took a walk outside of our gated community to the terminal concourse. It’s really a shopping mall surrounded by security and airplanes. You can buy pretty much everything you might need for a trip here – clothing, toiletries, luggage, cameras, fidgets, etc. We just had lunch in a place called, fittingly, Giraffes.

On our way!

Well, we got everything packed. As far as I can tell, we weigh about 88 lbs. together, so we should be able to bring all of our stuff on some of the more restrictive flights that are coming later. In the meantime, we've checked in with British Airways at JFK. Uber was nearby and made a quick pickup, traffic was a bit lighter than usual, and there were about five people ahead of us at TSA. Our flight, scheduled for 10:55pm, is delayed about 25 mins. I checked it's track record, and it seems to be delayed up to an hour and a half every night. And it seems to get into London Heathrow about on time, at 11:00am local time.

We have a very long layover in Heathrow – 8 hours. While that's Sally's longest, I've had longer ones in the past. And she actually had an overnight layover in San Francisco a couple of years ago, when she flew out to meet me there and we continued on to Hawaii.

A PRIORITY for a TRANSFER LONG, July 2017

Our bags are checked straight through to JNB (Johannesburg). In the past, when we've had a short-ish connection time, I've seen the bags tagged "short transfer" or some such thing to encourage the baggage crew to get them to the next flight. This time they were tagged "Transfer Long" to reflect our 8 hour scheduled layover. But because they're also "Priority" because we're flying Business Class, I guess the crew gives them priority to wait a long time.


You could shoot a shotgun and not hit anyone, July 2017

In any event, we're in the BA lounge, which is capacious, has lots of food and snacks, and is pretty run down. And pretty empty. But it's only for an hour or so.

We leave tomorrow

So today we tried packing absolutely everything. Since I’ve been obsessing over this for months, including a spreadsheet with every item I am taking and it’s weight, this should have been an academic exercise that proved how valuable planning is.

Wrong.

I was over-weight and Sally was over-volume. While it’s not actually a problem tomorrow (British Air gives us lots of capacity for luggage), it will be a problem on Sunday when we fly Federal Air on a scheduled charter (1). FedAir restricts your carry-on to 11 lbs. Sally’s carry-on is only a little overweight, but her checked bag is stuffed and she doesn’t have room to fit what she planned, let alone more stuff. My carry-on (aka my camera bag) is way overweight, and the gear in that bag can’t be checked in a hard sided suitcase, let alone our soft duffle bags. And later we will be on several flights where everything must be 44 lbs or less.


This stuff didn’t make the cut, July 2017

So today we both started pulling stuff out of our bags. I don’t really need those shorts, or the extra t-shirt. I won’t bring a small case for my camera cleaning supplies, they’ll go into a baggie. Same with a filter bag and a belt carrier for a monopod. Detachable shoulder straps for both our duffles and a fleece beanie got jettisoned. A bunch of stuff that had accumulated in my toiletry bag all disappeared, as did miscellaneous small cables and adaptors in my electronics bag. Sally took out some shirts, a sweater, half her mouth wash, a dress, and some underwear. As a result she was also able to eliminate two pack-it bags as well.

I already know that my 11 lb. carry-on was only going to happen by using my photographer’s vest and filling its capacious pockets with 8 lbs of fragile consumer electronics.

We both think we haven’t quite cracked the code here, yet. We’ll try again tomorrow to fit into the weight and space constraints for all the different flights.

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(1) What exactly is a “scheduled charter”? It’s not a scheduled flight, as it has no flight number. But it flies a regular route at a regular time. I’m confused.

Strange stuff to pack

Years ago Sally and I would travel with suitcases filled with clothing and books.  If we were going to a resort or traveling by air, the books would cosume both a big part of my suitcase and my carry-on.  Technology and age have changed these priorities, especially for me.

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Keith and Kindle, July 2017

I haven’t actually carried a real physical book on an airplane in years.  The first practical e-reader, the Kindle, was released in late 2007, and I believe I purchase one shortly thereafter.  Since then, I’ve purchased and downloaded almost every book I’ve gotten as a Kindle book (1).  In 2011, I bought my first iPad (an iPad 2), and installed the Kindle app.  I never replaced my original Kindle device, and it is now long gone.  So my reading library – especially while traveling – is now my iPad or even my iPhone.  Since I carry those whenever I travel anyway, this is a 100% weight and space savings.

The iPad and iPhone are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to electronics, of course.  Sally does use a real Kindle device, which requires it’s own micro-USB cable.  All of these devices will charge using the same USB wall plug.  And I have my cameras, which use two different batteries, and thus require two different chargers.  The newest addition on this trip is the backup disk drive I bought, but this also charges using a USB wall plug, although again with a unique cable (USB 3).  Any I always take two of everything critical that could fail.

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Meds, eyeglasses and a lens, July 2017

Another class of item that’s been growing for us over the years is our medications.  The good news is that we’ve actually lived as long as we have, and that there are pills to help us feel better every day.  They also help us try to preserve our general health and fitness for the future.  In my case, I have a slew of pills I take everyday to treat my arthritis.  I put the pills into these daily organizer strips that help me ensure that I take all of them everyday.  And I need almost three weeks supply for the trip, plus extras in the event we’re delayed returning or I lose or damage some.  So I’m taking four weeks worth.

Related to the meds are eyeglasses.  Sally and I both wear eyeglasses, of course.  She uses progressives, while I have bifocals.  We each will take a backup pair, as it will be hard to see if we lose or break our primary ones.  We both will take presription sunglasses, as we hope to be in the bright sun a good part of every day, looking for wild animals.  We also both are taking sunglass clips, that attach to the frame of our primary glasses for casual or city use.

The image above shows most (but not all) of my meds and packed eyeglasses. All of this stuff has to be in my carry-on.  I’ve put my largest lens there for size comparison.  I’d rather be able to take another lens.

 

 


(1) The only hard cover text I’ve bought in years was Keith Richards’ memoir, “Life”.   I’ve also acquired a number of photography books in paper form, as it’s pretty hard to appreciate the photos in a Kindle book.