We went on safari

This was, without a doubt, one of the best trips we ever took. Sally would say it was the best. We spent nine days in four camps, eight days in three cities (1), and three days traveling to and from Africa.

Final Collage

The cities were pleasant and/or informative. I would say we are both much more knowledgeable about South Africa’s history than we were before the trip, and much more aware of the conditions on the ground. My biggest learning was this: South Africa, under Nelson Mandela’s leadership (2), transitioned from the horrific oppression of apartheid to a functioning though messy democracy inclusive of all people, one which still faces significant issues. And it did so without a civil war, and without a bloodbath.

The camps were something else. While we knew what lions, giraffes and elephants looked like we had no idea of how they lived. We had no idea how they interacted with all the other wildlife in the bush. We had no idea how the ecosystem that is the bush worked, and how the pieces all fit together. It was sad and gruesome to watch the lions catch and kill the water buffalo, but the alternate outcome is clear: if the lions don’t catch and kill their prey, they will die. That is truly the circle of life.

The animals were spectacular. The birds were spectacular. As I mentioned, Africa could turn you into a birder – there’s so much to see.

While the city hotels were, well, hotels, the camps were a completely new experience for us. They are a strange combination of luxury and roughing it.

Luxury: you never touch your luggage, there’s food and drink set out for you throughout the day, the view from your tent/villa is extraordinary (3). Your every whim is catered to, within the limits of what the camp staff can accomplish in the bush. Free laundry. Hot water bottles and blankets in the game drive vehicles as well as your bed (4). Watching the sunset from a private pontoon boat with a G&T in your hand, just the two of you (and your guide). Sitting for an hour and watching an animal live. A free high end camera to use (5). Binoculars to use (5).

Roughing it: no heat in two camps, limited in another. No electricity in one camp. Dim lights at best. You’re not allowed outside after dark. Limited or no wifi in three camps, and no phone service (even to call the front “desk”). Driving around at dawn and after sunset, in the cold and even the rain, in open vehicles. We were cold, a lot.

I’m not sure whether to characterize being flown from camp to camp in your own private plane as “luxury” or “roughing it”.  It was, as the pilots said, “a little rough”.  At the very least it was new for us.

But there was another dimension to the trip, one that made this different than any other trip we’ve taken.

Mind blowing: being close enough to lions to touch them, although you don’t dare reach outside of the vehicle. Watching a male ostrich chase a female across the plain at high speed. Watching a leopard cub annoying it’s mother, just like any toddler. Hearing a pride of lions, which surrounds you, announcing to the world that they’re there with their roars. Seeing hundreds of water buffalo appear out of the brush and cross the meadow in front of, and all around, you. Seeing lions bathed in the golden light after sunrise. Seeing two lions catch the scent of, chase down and kill their prey. Seeing hyenas anxious to get the scraps the lions left, but afraid the lions are still around. Seeing an elephant herd rush to protect their young from a leopard, bellowing all the time. Watching a father baboon caring for and playing with a newborn, and a (slightly) older sibling joining in the fun. Seeing a herd of elephants come down to the river to drink, and to play in the mud.  Sunrise and sunset over the delta.  Rushing through the brush in our open Land Rover as our guide tried to follow some animal’s tracks.  Following a pack of wild dogs as they patrolled their territory, looking for food. 

Did I mention the birds?

And I’m sure I have forgotten maybe one or two (6).

Once we had decided on this trip, I gathered up my camera gear and went to the Bronx Zoo to see if I could actually take pictures of animals. I got some good portraits. But I may never go to a zoo again. The idea of seeing these animals confined to cages (even “big” cages camouflaged as natural areas) is just so unappealing. The animals don’t interact with any others as they normally would; they don’t hunt or forage, but get fed by humans. Life for animals in the bush is unforgiving, but it’s life. It’s not cruel; the concept doesn’t exist.

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Perhaps there’s a lesson there for all of us. Perhaps all of Africa, where we all came from, is a lesson for all of us.


(1) I use the term “city” loosely regarding Vic Falls.

(2) Countries seem to do better when they have good and effective leaders.

(3) Jack’s Camp excepted; there we saw a bush.

(4) An attempt to offset the lack of heat in the tents, or a roof and windows in the vehicles.

(5) A camera in one camp, binoculars in two.

(6) John Sebastian, Younger Generation.

Victoria Falls

Imagine you took Niagra Falls and put it down in the middle of the wilderness, hundreds of miles from anything. Just rugged mountains upstream, with no industry to encourage any commerce and therefore shipping on the river. Hundreds of miles of scrub brush downstream, with rocky and dry land unsuitable for crops.

Then you built a large Victorian style hotel by the Falls, and a railroad to deliver tourists. A small town would grow up around the hotel to support the workers and provide some services to visitors – restaurant, gift shops, art galleries, cheaper hotels and campgrounds.

You would have Victoria Falls.

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Dr. Livingstone, I presume?, August 2017

David Livingstone, the famous English explorer and missionary, was the first European to see the Falls. The Zambeze River, which forms the Falls, is also the local border between Zimbabwe, where we stayed, and Zambia. The town of Livingstone is a few miles away in Zambia.

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Everything you need to know about Victoria Falls, August 2017

After six nights on safari in Botswana, Vic Falls (1) was a good decompression point before our long journey home. While the hotel is large and fairly luxurious, it does show it’s age somewhat, and the service is not as crisp or attentive as the other places we’ve stayed on this trip.  Even the Cape Grace Hotel in CT (2) had much better service than this.

As far as I can tell, there are four things you can do in Vic Falls.

  1. You can visit the Falls.  That’s why you’re here.
  2. You can take a helicopter ride over the Falls.
  3. You can take a boat ride on the Zambeze RIver upstream from the Falls.
  4. You can take a safari ride through the bush near town, either in a motor vehicle or on an elephant.

We opted for (1) and (3).  (2) seemed uneccesarily risky for the 12 or 22 minute view, while (4) seemed uneccesary after nine days in the camps.

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Horseshoe Falls section, August 2017

The Falls stretch for over a mile wide and about 250-350′ high.  It’s impossible to see the entire width of the Falls from any vantage point on the ground; that is only possible from the air.  We were wisked over to the Falls, which is surrounded by a National Park, by our guide as soon as we arrived at the hotel around 3:30 in the afternoon.  This is actually the best time to visit, as the late afternoon sun is behind you and you get rainbows in the mist rising from the water.  The falls themselves are mostly in Zambia, but the best viewing points are on the Zimbwabwe side of the river.

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Big rainbow, August 2017

When we visited the US National Parks several years ago, we were impressed  by the apparent stupidity of people who felt they were invincible, and that the parks were just as safe as Disneyland.  That behavior is not limited to the US; we saw people bathing in pools a few feet from the edge of the waterfall.  Craaaaazy.  Or Darwinian …

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Not likely to pass on their DNA, August 2017

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Victoria Falls Bridge, August 2017

Just downstream of the Falls the Victoria Falls Bridge spans the gorge for 650′, and about 420′ above the river.  It was comissioned by Cecil Rhodes, the British mining magnate who gave his name to Rhodesia (the predecessor to Zimbwabwe and Zambia), the Rhodes Scholarship, and was a founder of the De Beers diamond firm.  He was also an unabashed white supremacist.

Victoria Falls Hotel Collage.jpg

Victoria Falls Hotel, August 2017

The next day we hung around the hotel, and went for a walk into town where we found a large market place that seemed to specialize in large stone and wood sculptures. Despite the tempations, we managed to not buy anything.

At 3:30 we went on our last activity, a sunset cruise on the Zambeze River complete with snacks and unlimited drinks.  Our last African sunset …

Zambeze Cruise Collage


(1) Just like Joburg is local slang for Johannesburg, Vic Falls is how Victoria Falls is referred to around here.

(2) “CT” = Cape Town

Zarafa in the Selinda Reserve

The camps are all full of eating and (mainly) drinking traditions. Around 3:30pm, most camps seem to gather for afternoon tea. This consists of tea, of course, but also pastries and sometimes fruit, and other soft drinks such as lemonade. At 4:00 you head out on the afternoon drive. Around 6:00pm, you might stop for a “sundowner”, which is drinks in the bush to watch the sun go down. We often had G&Ts (gin & tonics), and there would again be snacks – chips, some dried beef, maybe something else. All very civilized, all very British.

Sundowner Collage (Singita)

Sundowners – there’s always an excuse for drink and food, August 2017

Zarafa is located in the Selinda Reserve, a 500 square mile private area.  All of our camps were on private reserves.  The big advantage of that over the National Parks (like Kruger in South Africa) is that they are much less crowded.  The second big advantage is that the guides can drive off-road in search of animals.  The disadvantage is the cost – an order of magnitude higher than you would pay if you stayed in one of the parks.  But the wildlife is the same: they can’t read the signs at the boundaries.

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Sally with the big gun, August 2017

On our first drive with our guide Isaac at Zarafa, Sally was fully equipped with binoculars and a big Canon camera with a telephoto zoom. As the camp only had two couples staying there, we had a private car and guide. He asked what we wanted to see, and Sally asked for leopards and giraffes. Isaac drove off and eventually took us to a leopard den, where a mother had her cub stashed. The mother was lying in the grass besides a log, and we waited patiently.

Leopard & Cub Collage (lit)

Golden light, August 2017 (Photos by Sally)

We learned a lot of things on this trip. One was that the wild animals are completely unpredictable, yet also follow patterns of behavior. So once you’re in a situation where the pattern is likely, patience becomes a huge asset. You simply wait for the expected behavior, which will probably but not necessarily occur. In this case, we were waiting for the cub to emerge from the den to see its mother. After a while it did, and Sally got some fabulous pictures in the late afternoon golden light.

Leopard & Cub Collage (Shadow)

Mother and cub leopards, August 2017 (Photos by Sally)

I know I’ve shown pictures of some of the birds we saw in earlier posts, but here are some more.  If you weren’t a birder before you came here, the variety and beauty might turn you into one.

Zarafa Bird Collage

Selinda Reserve birds, August 2017

When Isaac first took us out in the morning, he asked what animals we hadn’t seen yet.  We really had seen pretty much all the animals we knew about, but our giraffe sightings were not very clear (one was in near darkness).  He almost immediately found us some giraffes.

Giraffe Collage (Zarafa)

Adult and young giraffe, August 2017

After the excitement of our first two game drives at Zarafa, Isaac suggested a pontoon boat ride for the late afternoon and sunset.  We did our sundowners on the water.  You get a different view of life there.  For one thing, it’s quiet and smooth, not at all like the noise and bouncing of the Land Rovers we drove around in all day.

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Elephant by the water, August 2017

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Hard to beat this, August 2017

The next and final morning of our safari adventures Sally decided to sleep in (1), while I got up in the dark to go out one more time with Isaac.  We (2) tracked a pride of lions and I got a shot of three of them warming in the morning sun.

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Sunning, August 2017

Then back to camp to finish packing and to say goodby to the safari life.


(1) 7:00 am

(2) Isaac tracked; I sat on my throne and held on tight as he sped through the bush

 

Zarafa Camp

August 10-12 

Our fourth and final safari camp was Zarafa, located in the Selinda Reserve about 30 minutes north of Vumbura by bush plane.  It represented a continuing improvement in modern conveniences from the previous camps:

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Our tent at Zarafa Camp, August 2017

Jack’s – no heat, light by paraffin lantern, mostly canvas walls in the tent with small screened windows (so dim even during daylight), no real storage for clothing etc., electricity in main tent from 8-5 daily.  Did I mention there is no heat anywhere?  No wifi or other connectivity.

Vumbura Plains – much much larger tent, electric lights, fully screened walls for lots of daylight, 24 hour electricity in tent, tons of hanging and storage space.  Still no heat anywhere.  Still no wifi or other connectivity.

Zarafa – large tent with “living room” and “bedroom suite” areas separated by a canvas wall, electric lights, fully screened walls with plastic covers at night, gas heater in bedroom area, 24 hour electricity in tent. Wifi, although pretty limited in speed.

Even in Zarafa, the toilet room was unheated and cold in the morning or at night.  And I had to start the gas heater in the morning, as we were asked to not keep it on all night.

There was also the question of what to do if you needed to leave the tent, or needed assistance, at night.  In no camps are guests allowed to walk unescorted in the dark, as there’s always the chance that a dangerous animal could wander into camp.   Singita, our first camp, had phones in the villas.  The other camps did not.  Jack’s and Zarafa relied upon air horns for you to call for help if needed, while Vumbura added a walkie-talkie radio.

We never needed any of these.

Zarafa Tent Collage.jpg

All the modern conveniences of 1935, August 2017

Zarafa, like Jack’s, was decorated in early 20th century British camp style – lots of trunks, campaign chairs, etc.   But Zarafa also had serious amenities.  Each of the four tents had Swarovski binoculars (1).  The camp has four serious Canon cameras with big zooms lenses available for your use (2).

As I mentioned, Zarafa is small – just four tents for two people each (3).  It’s managed by a couple, Sas and Dave.  Dave is/was a professional photographer and all-around very knowledgeable about many things.  I had several good chats with him.  When I asked him why he had moved from England to Botswana, he replied “Sas”.   She was born in Africa, and has been knocking around the tourism and safari business for a long time.  She was never going to live in a place like England.


(1) She used the binoculars for each drive.
(2) Sally used the Canon 5D with the 100-400/3.5-5.6 lens for one drive, and enjoyed it, but found it way too heavy to use comfortably.  Frankly, I found it too heavy to use comfortably as well.  That’s why I use my lightweight Olympus and Panasonic gear.
(3) Only two tents were occupied, including ours, during our stay.  So it was pretty quiet.

A real time update

Due to the lack of any useable wifi (or any at all) for the last week, I’ve been trying to catch up.  I still have two more stops to go: Zarafa camp, and Victoria Falls.  

Tea, anyone?, August 2017

Right now, Sally and I are in the British Airways lounge in Johannesburg’s airport.  We should be on our flight to London in two hours, and back in the US of A in about 24 hours.  

Did we miss anything?

The Okavango Delta

August 8-10

As I wrote earlier, the Okavango Delta is an area of marsh and grassy plains that is rich in wildlife. After our days at Jack’s in the Desert, it was nice to be in areas that contained more wildlife in our next two camps.

Given our plan of visiting three camps in succession for two days each, our schedule went something like this:

Day 1: travel late morning to early afternoon to a camp. Unpack quickly, then take the afternoon game drive.

Day 2: wake up in the dark, get dressed and have a light breakfast. Leave for the morning drive or activity at first light. Come back late morning, have lunch, perhaps rest or cleanup. Afternoon tea at 3:30, then the afternoon drive or activity until after sunset. Dinner. Try to pack as much as possible for departure the next day.

Day 3: wake up between 5:30 and 6:30 am in the dark, get dressed and have a light breakfast. Leave for the morning drive or activity at first light. Come back, finish packing. Drive to the airstrip for the flight to the next camp.

Rinse and repeat as needed.

Vumbura was the first of two in this climate. It’s at the edge of the Delta, and we were often crossing water in our Land Rover.  The camp was located at the west edge of a wet area, giving us beautiful sunrises each morning.


Sunrise at Vumbura, August 2017

There were an endless number of birds. Our guides at each camp made sure to tell us the name of each one that we saw, and often some interesting facts about them, but all I can remember is how pretty they were. 


An ostrich, an eagle, and a bunch of other birds, August 2017

We tracked a pack of African Wild Dogs through the bush for a while, and they came to a water crossing. They all lined up to think about the best way to cross.


Should we stay or should we go, August 2017

The King of the Jungle made an appearance. Lions sleep most of the day – up to 18 hours. This one was awake but not wasting any energy. When they make a kill, they’ll eat until they’re gorged, then fall into a food coma. They may not find any more food for several days.


Lazing on a sunny afternoon, August 2017

We came across a group of baboons with some youngsters. Chris, our guide at Vumbura, estimated this baby was only a few days old. It’s being cared for by its father.


Father and child reunion, August 2017

Vumbura in the Okavango Delta

August 8-10

Sadly, we were happy to be leaving Jack’s Camp behind. The staff was very friendly and helpful, although our guide Harold, didn’t seem to like talking too much. Not a good trait in a guide. But we were going to Vumbura, a much more luxurious camp at the edge of the Okavango Delta.

The delta is an inland swamp formed when several major rivers got trapped by seismic action. The flood plain originally extended southeast to the Kalahari Desert, where Jack’s is, forming a giant lake. When the plates shifted they formed a barrier that prevented the water from reaching the Kalahari, making it a desert. Since the water flow is highly seasonal, the resulting water dries significantly in the dry winter, leaving a huge fertile area with waterways and plains. That’s where Vumbura lies.


Bush travel, August 2017

Traveling to all of these bush camps is interesting. First you drive from your camp to the airstrip, which is typically 30-40 minutes away, using the same vehicles as the game drives, on the same rutted, dusty roads. Then you climb into a small plane, which carries anywhere from four to ten people. The flights are under an hour, some as short as 25 minutes. And depending on what else the pilot needs to accomplish that day, you may make one or more stops along the way to pickup or drop off other passengers.

I think we made at least ten take-offs and landings to visit our four camps. We were the only passengers on about half of the hops. Every plane was very noisy and “a little rough” (1).


Vumbura in the delta, August 2017

Anyway, Vumbura Plains camp was a significant uptick from Jack’s. The tent was huge and light, with three sides being fully open (2) during the day. And electric lights at night! Normally, we would have been unhappy that the lights were so dim, but after packing by candlelight, this was heaven. The tent also had outlets to charges our batteries, a huge closet area, and a really cool shower. There was a huge deck, where I had a massage.

The only similarity to Jack’s was our long walk from the tent to the main area, and the lack of heat other than bush babies.


Is that an elephant in your backyard?, August 2017

Vumbura also had abundant wildlife. While we were unpacking, an elephant was grazing next to our tent.

———–
(1) Every pilot, before each takeoff, gave a safety briefing (“there’s the door and fire extinguisher”) and apologized that the flight was going to be “a little rough”.

(2) Fully open but screened. There was plenty of natural light during the day. 

Roughing it

August 6-8

Our travel yesterday was far in distance and far in style. We went about 1,300 miles from Cape Town to Jack’s Camp. We also went from state-of-the-art luxury to primitive shabby elegance.

First the trip: Nick picked us up at the hotel at 8:00 am and deposited us at the airport 15 minutes later . Our flight to Maun, Botswana was on time at 10:15. Maun is basically a transit point for safari travelers. Scheduled flights come in from big cities, and small craft go out to the camps. In our case, we somehow got assigned a pilot and plane from a different carrier, and so Johannes flew Sally and me in his single engine plane about 100 miles to Jack’s (4). We were met at the dirt landing strip by Harold, our guide there.

Jack’s is deliberately designed to emulate the safari experience from the early 20th century. You stay in real tents. They have hot and cold water and a flush toilet, but that’s about it. No electricity – light comes from paraffin lanterns or battery powered lamps, both of which are pretty dim. No heat – we found two bush babies (1) under our heavy quilt. No Internet or cell service, of course. Charging is done at the charging station (2) in the meal tent from 8-5 each day.


Little tent in the bush, August 2017

The overall decorating style is what someone imagined an English safari camp would have looked like 100 years ago. Campaign chairs, wooden toilet contraption, big four-poster canopied bed, etc.


Dinner at Jack’s Camp, August 2017

The dinner is eaten family style around a big table, and just like when you feed your family, you get what mamma cooked (3). Sally and I agree that the food is top rated.

The camps in Northern Botswana are much warmer than Singita was. Where Singita was about as far from the equator as Savannah, Jack’s is more like Miami. So it’s pretty warm in the sun during he day. And since we are in the middle of a desert, it rapidly cools down in the evening and at night (hence the bush babies).


Sally heads off on safari, August 2017

We arrived just in time for afternoon tea, so we threw together our safari kit and headed over (7). After tea we went immediately out to look for some brown hyenas; we found one. As this is the desert, one does not come here to see abundant wildlife – and after Singita’s bounty, it was only mildly interesting. Also because this is desert, the dust is pervasive.

As I mentioned, dinner at the big table was tasty. A staff member escorted us to our tent afterwards (5), and then we had to unpack, prepare for the morning and get ready for bed in near darkness. The five paraffin lanterns and four battery lamps along with mini-flashlights just didn’t cut it.

Our wake-up call (6) will be at 6:30 tomorrow, an hour later than Singita.

———————–
(1) Hot water bottles. Big ones.
(2) Lots of power strips on a table.
(3) Not necessarily my family, where there seem to be as many food choices as there are people.
(4) Not to criticize since he got us there safely, but he kept a map balanced on one knee and what looked like the plane’s EZ-Operation Guide on the other.
(5) This is the same as Singita – guests are not allowed outside alone after dark.
(6) A staffer came up to our tent and called us; there’s no phone in the tent, of course.

(7) This needed scheduling, as it was a five minute walk.  

Jack’s Camp

August 6-8

Singita was wildlife paradise; most of our game drives wound up going longer than planned because we kept finding more stuff to look at. Jack’s Camp is in the Kalahari Desert, and we are here during the dry season, so the wildlife is pretty sparse. The first afternoon we spent a couple of hours to find a hyena. It was cute. Over the course of the next two days, we did manage to get a few interesting sightings.


Cheetah, hyena, and Mr. & Mrs. Ostrich, August 2017

The second morning we took a ride into the salt pans, which are large expanses of open land where the water has dried leaving behind salty soil. While they look white from the distance or air, they are just light colored soil. Rather than ride in the game drive vehicles, we took an ATV or quad bike. It was fun. You have to wear these scarves as turban/face masks to protect yourself from the sand and dust, just like a real desert dweller on a motorized bike.


Sally learns geology from Harold, August 2017


Bushmen, August 2017

In the afternoon of the second day, we went for a walk with a group of Bushmen. Bushmen are the original settlers of Southern Africa, and have traditionally been hunter/gatherers. Since Botswana has outlawed all hunting, and because they are gradually moving into fixed villages, their way of life and culture is inevitably changing. Jack’s has hired two dozen of them to live near the camp and give us this walk. It was fairly interesting. About a dozen – men, woman and two babies – led us into the bush. Along the way they explained traditional medications they extract from plants and even elephant dung, firemaking, clothing, etc. They played a game analogous to rock/paper/scissors around a fire they built rubbing two sticks together.

These people were real bushmen. But they are employed by Jack’s to put on a little show for us demonstrating their traditional way of life. They actually live in a village 700 km away, and spend several weeks at the camp as part of a rotation.


Meerkat scout, August 2017

The third morning was probably the highlight of the stop – we rode out to watch the meerkats wake up. Meerkats are members of the mongoose family found in the deserts of Southern Africa. They live in burrows in a group called a “mob” (1). Every morning, the mob sends a lucky scout out to see if there are any lions or hyenas around. If they don’t hear back from him, they suspect bad news. Since we aren’t lions or hyenas, the scout reported back and a dozen or so came out of the burrows and stood in front of Sally looking around for a while.


Sally and the Meerkats, August 2017

From here, it was back to Jack’s, a quick packing and then off to the airstrip to head for Vumbura.

————–
(1) They exhibited no mob-like behavior while we were there.

Bye, for a while

Just a reminder … we leave Cape Town this morning and head up to Botswana for six nights in three different camps. I don’t expect to have any internet connectivity for at least the next four days, so this blog will go silent until then. By that time, I should have a couple of thousand more pictures to go through ūüėČ.

Later …

Cape of Good Hope

Today, our last day in Cape Town, started with a beautiful sunrise reflected in the clouds and the marina outside our hotel room.


Sunrise at Harborside, August

Our plan for the day was a was a drive down south from the city along the Cape Peninsula, which is largely covered by the Table Mountain National Park. There are a number of upscale suburban communities just south of Cape Town, with expensive high-rise apartments lining the Atlantic Coast. It reminded me of the south Florida shoreline.

There are a number of other communities scattered along the peninsula, ranging from off-the-grid towns to slums to former fishing villages.

The Cape of Good Hope is not the southern most point in Africa (as many believe), nor is it the point at which the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet (as many others believe). The former is a fixed point about 100 miles southeast of Good Hope, while the latter drifts with the currents and gets as far west at Cape Point, just half a mile around the bend from Good Hope. But Good Hope is the most southwestern point of Africa.


Cape of Good Hope from the lighthouse (Sally in purple jacket), August 2017

Nonetheless, the Cape of Good Hope is a well known landmark and quite impressive. There is a lighthouse on the hill above both Good Hope and Cape Point, which is cute but actually no longer used.


Unused light at Cape Point, August 2017

We took the cable-driven funicular from the parking lot and I walked the remaining way to the lighthouse itself.


Penguins in Simon’s Town, August 2017

On the way back north, we made three stops. The first was a penguin colony at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town. They are cute. The most interesting fact about this colony is that it’s only existed here for 30 years, and no one seems to know why they came or where they came from.

We had lunch nearby, and then stopped at the Kirstenbosch Gardens, a large arboretum in the CapeTown suburbs. While the Gardens were nice, it’s still winter here and nothing will be in bloom for a month or more.

Now we’re packing for our trip to Botswana tomorrow. First stop: Jack’s Camp.

Cape Town City

Today was our “city tour” of Cape Town, which was either a half day or full day tour depending on which document you believed. The truth was we got picked up at 9:30, deposited for lunch at 1:00, and our guide hung around until we finished around 2:45 to take us back to the hotel.

Table Mountain and Victoria & Alfred Harbourside, August 2017

In between we saw the sights of the city. Not terribly exciting, but interesting. And you learn a bit every day. For instance, we learned that South Africa has two capitals, Pretoria (the administrative seat) and Cape Town (the legislative seat). The President’s residence, a White House, is located here.


Muslim section, August 2017

We learned that there is a colorful Muslim section that has been intact for a couple of hundred years. The Muslim community, people whose ancestry was Indonesia and Malaysia, were brought to South Africa starting in the mid-17th century as slaves by the Dutch settlers. Slavery was ultimately abolished in the first half of the 19th century, before our Civil War. This group is known as “colored”, a term used to describe people who are neither white (of European decent) or black (of African decent). Under apartheid, colored people had a higher standing than blacks, but were still subject to oppressive rule.


The cannoneir and his cannon, August 2017

We learned that a canon has been fired every day at noon for hundreds of years as a navigation aid to sailors off the Cape, and heard it fired. It is loud. In fact, I never got the picture I was trying to take of the actual shot – smoke and recoil etc. – because the noise knocked my finger off the shutter button.


The Cape Wheel and Ferrymans Tavern at night, August 2017

We learned that, contrary to common wisdom in our country and what we had been told, there are areas in South Africa and specifically in and around Cape Town where it’s perfectly safe to walk around by yourself. Sally and I had long conversations about this before we left, mostly around how much, if any, jewelry she should wear, and whether I should wear a good watch or a Timex. We compromised on good watches, wedding bands and nothing else. But the Victoria & Alfred Harborside area is full of shops, shoppers, restaurants, a big Ferris wheel, and lots of people walking around. In fact, there is a huge shopping mall which has jewelry stores, proving the point that people here wear jewelry.

Security is maintained by private security guards employed by businesses who are both visible everywhere, and in plain clothes as well. I walked over for dinner tonight, and it was perfectly fine. Sally and I had already walked over there from the hotel two nights ago, and we walked back from the mall this afternoon.

Tomorrow will be our last day here, and our guide, Nic, is picking us up to drive down the coast towards the Cape of Good Hope. I don’t think we’ll actually go that far, but we shall see.

Sideways

Ed. Note:  this was supposed to be posted yesterday, but I forgot.  

Well, not really sideways. But a very relaxing day and completely different from the last four – the biggest animal we saw was a duck. We woke up late (7:00am), showered and had breakfast in the dining room in our hotel, the Cape Grace here by the waterfront in Cape Town. Our guide Nic picked us up at 9:00am and we headed north to Cape Town’s wine country.

We spent the entire day – excepting 20 minutes or so getting out of, and into, town – in beautiful scenery. Vineyards surrounded by majestic mountains. What could be better?


Tourist stuff we didn’t buy, August 2017

We stopped a bit in a small and pretty town just to walk a bit. Nice shops, and some tourist shops, but also a fair amount of street art.


Art gallery, August 2017

After that, it was winery, winery, winery, fancy lunch, winery.


Sally ready to taste wine, August 2017


Landscaped garden at a winery, August 2017


Vineyard with mountains, August 2017


Lines, August 2017


View from our lunch stop, August 2017

After the action packed and adventure filled safari days, this was quite a change. And while there was no shortage of opportunities for wine or other beverages at Singita, four wine tastings – each with a selection of wines, and with nice portions – certainly led to a different outlook.

Dinner tonight at the restaurant in the hotel. I expect it to be nice.

Lion playground

This was our last day at Singita, and so our morning drive needed to be shorter than usual so we could leave to catch our 11:30 FedAir flight. While we flew right into Singita’s own airstrip a few yards from the lodge, it was undergoing repaving when we left and so we had to drive about 40 minutes to another airstrip to catch the flight to Nelspruit Kruger Airport, and then a scheduled South African Airways flight to Cape Town. So Mark arranged to be back by 9:00 to give us time to eat and finish packing.


Hippos relaxing in the Sand River, August, 2017

We really only had one animal sighting on the drive, but it was a doozy. The large lion pride was spotted along the river, and one group was watching them from the close side. Mark and Masa (our tracker) decided to cross to the river (we did see the hippos in the river while crossing) and watch from the other side. This was on a short drive from the lodge, especially as Mark rushed the Land Rover at top speed – maybe 20 mph – on the dirt tracks.

We crossed the river and we’re pulling down a track to a lookout point when some young adult lions ran across right in front of us, bringing us to a stop.

Pretty soon most of the pride had walked up to the track we were on, and were laying about, playing in a tree, or down on the dry river bed ahead of us.


We didn’t expect to see you here, August 2017

We sat for an hour and a half amidst the lions, with them walking around the vehicle close enough to touch, nuzzling and grooming each other and themselves, play fighting, and just sunning themselves.


Cats up a tree, August 2017

One highlight – which Sally and I had never experienced – was hearing the pride start roaring as a group, letting everyone and everything for miles around know they were there and they were strong. I managed to get video clips of this spectacle, which I haven’t been able to review yet.


I am lion, hear me roar, August 2017


Peering thru the leaves, August 2017


Brothers in the Sand, August 2017


Isn’t that what brothers do?, August 2017

Finally it was time to leave. We dashed back across the river to the lodge, where we packed up and ate breakfast in our room. Then a different guide and tracker drove us to our flight. Our luck held during this drive; we saw a leopard by the side of a pond. Unbelievable!


Masa, The Bassman, Sally and Mark

Breakfast in the room, then a 30 minute drive to an airstrip for a 30 minute, 1-stop flight to catch a scheduled flight to Cape Town.


FedAir, August 2017

Another great safari day at Singita

Today was our second full day of game drives. Unlike yesterday, which was chilly and rainy at times, today started just overcast and much warmer. By mid-morning the Sun started to break through the clouds, although we still did not really see a sunrise.

We saw a lot of our old friends again today. At this point, after a couple of days of following the same animals around, you start to get a sense of their life and daily activities. We started by heading back to the first kill site we had seen early yesterday. On our way, we passed the pride of lions heading away from the site. That meant they had gorged themselves, and there was likely just bones and scraps left.


Lioness & Lion, August 2017

When we got there, the hyenas and vultures were scrapping over the bones, each taking a turn. The vultures sat in trees, then swooped down to pick at the remains. The hyenas were very cautious, as they knew the lions had just been there. Sixteen lions against nine hyenas is not a fair fight; the hyenas would be decimated. So they kept sniffing and looking to where the lions had gone, and finally started to chase off the vultures.


Vultures working the site, August 2017


Cautious hyenas, August 2017

After leaving that site, we went looking for the leopard (again). Along the way, we passed the elephant herd and Mark guessed they were headed for a water hole where Singita had an observation blind. So we went there and were rewarded by more than a dozen elephants stopping to drink and play a bit.


Drinking and playing, August 2017


The family that drinks together, August 2017

Somewhere along the way, we saw this large bull elephant. Not sure when.


No bull, August 2017

We also passed any number of other animals along the road during our drive. Here are three water buffalo resting in the grass.


The Three Amigos, August 2017

We did finally find the female leopard and her cub resting along the Sand River.


Mother leopard and cub, August 2017

We heard over the radio that the male leopard was walking further up the river, so we headed over there to see if we could catch a glimpse. When we got there, another truck was already there, and that guide told us that the leopard was deep in the brush and not visible. We parked and waited, and he came up from the river banks and posed for us. Then he tried to attack one of the baby elephants – our favorite herd had moved up here – which resulted in a lot of bellowing and stamping as the elephants gathered all the babies inside a defensive circle that the adults made. The leopard wisely gave up; while he might have injured one of the elephants, they probably would have killed him.


Leopard pose, August 2017


Trying to find an opening, August 2017

Much later, after seeing more elephants, hippos, rhinos, lions, endless impala, and who can remember what else, we ended the day with a traditional sundowner – drinks and snacks in the bush served by our guide and tracker.

We get up at 5:30 am again tomorrow for our last abbreviated game drive here in Singita. We need to leave the lodge to drive to a small runway about 40 minutes away, where we will catch a FedAir Unscheduled Charter to Mpumalanga, and then we’ll board a South African Airways flight to Cape Town.

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.

20170723 untitled shoot SGA10027

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.

20170723 untitled shoot SGA10024

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.

Connectivity

Years ago, in the pre-mobile phone era, or even in the roaming-is-so-expensive-you-don’t-dare era, I used to do a lot of business travel. ¬†And Sally and I used to take vacations. ¬†For each of these, I would prepare a list of travel information and contacts for those left behind – Sally if I was on business, our kids or their babysitters if we were on vacation without them. ¬†This would include flights, hotels and phone numbers, contacts at my offices if I was on business and their contacts, etc. ¬†This would enable someone to get in touch with me / us in the event of an emergency.

20170716 Where are we? 20170716 Where are we? Where are-2

Where are we?, July 2017

With the dawn of mobile communications, global email and texting, this became a much less intensive and critical exercise. ¬†Now when we travel for pleasure, we usually let the kids know what our flights are, and generally where we’ll be. ¬†And of course, since I’ve been blogging our major trips, all of you are kept up to date with our location as we go along.

This all changes for Africa. ¬†For one thing, we probably won’t have cell service most of the time. ¬† When we’ve traveled to Europe recently, we were able to (one way or another) tap into the local cell networks either with a wifi hot spot or directly with our mobile phones, as AT&T (and Verizon) have made roaming affordable. ¬†Neither one has any local partners in South Africa or Botswana that I can see. ¬†We will have wifi in our city hotels, so we’ll be able to communicate when we are there. ¬†But while out and about, we’ll be mostly non-communicating.

I will look into getting a local SIM card for my allegedly unlocked iPhone while we’re in Johannesberg and Capetown, but I’m skeptical that it will work.

In addition to the cities (Johannesberg, Cape Town and Victoria Falls) we’ll be in four different camps on this trip. ¬†Two of them have no Internet connectivity whatsoever. ¬†So for the first time in many years, we will be completely off the grid. ¬†If I remember correctly, the most recent time we were even close to this was in Anguila about 12 years ago. There was no cell service, no wifi, and no phone in our room. ¬†There was a phone near the front desk that you could use, and I recall having to make some business-related calls while we were there.

In addition to the two camps that are explicit about having no wifi, I’m expecting wifi to be limited at the other two camps. ¬†While texts and emails might get through, I’m doubtful that I’ll be able to upload any pictures. ¬†And we have been in many city hotels where the wifi was barely useful in recent years. ¬†But maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

In any event, I have created a two page schedule of our flights and accomodations which I’ll leave with our kids before we go. ¬†Not that I expect them to need it. ¬†Unlike years past, this list doesn’t have phone numbers or addresses for our accomodations, nor the scheduled times for our flights. ¬†Rather, I just give the web link for each and expect anyone who wants to get more information – and up-to-date information – will just hit the link.

Photographic gear for safari

Tuesday, July 11, T-15

Our upcoming trip to Africa was a birthday present to Sally from me: pick any place in the world you want to go, including a place that I’ve resisted in the past, and we will go there.   And I promise not to whine or complain.  After a bit of thought, she settled on an African Safari.   And I began planning for the photography gear I’d need to shoot (1) wild animals in the bush.

Here’s the thing about wild animal photography: the animals usually don’t cooperate.  They’re often far away, they move around unexpectedly, they hide in grass and brush, and they’re most active when the light is dim (dawn and dusk).  This drives you to want to have big heavy cameras that shoot fast and work well in low light, and big heavy lenses that have high magnification and work well in low light.  Every equipment decision therefore becomes a balancing act between how much weight you can bring and how much flexibility you want in the field.  Add to that the special requirements for an African safari: you travel on small airplanes with severe weight restrictions, you have limited (i.e. no) ability to repair or replace equipment that fails, and the dusty conditions mean you don’t want to be switching lenses while out and about.

I’ve never even owned the biggest and baddest cameras or lenses.   The most demanding thing I usually shoot from an equipment perspective is kids’ sports and shows.  I used to use medium sized equipment from Nikon (so-called “crop sensor”), but switched a few years ago to a class of camera called “micro 43” or m43, which uses a smaller sensor and therefore smaller lenses.  This enables one to save a lot of weight and space.   I estimate that my m43 kit, for similar capabilities, is about half the weight of my old Nikon kit.  And given the progress in digital camera technology, my current gear out-performs my old Nikon gear in most ways.   And the old stuff performed better than the photographer working the controls and was never the constraint on the quality of my images.

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Cruise cameras and lenses: 4.25 lbs., May 2017

For our trip to Europe this year, I took four lenses that weighed about 2.5 lbs. and encompassed an 11x zoom range from pretty wide (9mm) to moderately long (100mm) (2).  That maximum magnification is woefully inadequate for safari.   Serious wildlife photographers like a magnification ratio at least 2 or 3 times greater, or 300mm.  And sadly, the weight of a lens grows faster than the focal length.   So where the 35-100mm zoom I took to Europe weighs 12 oz., the 40-150mm zoom I’m taking to Africa weighs 31 oz.   And the 100-400mm zoom I’m taking weighs 35 oz (3).

I mentioned that replace or repair is also not an option, so one needs to think about what you would do if some piece of equipment fails.  This stuff is pretty reliable, but it does fail.   I had an old lens actually fall apart in my hand last winter.   I also had the shutter on one of my cameras fail last winter.  The camera has been repaired, while the lens was not repairable.  So I have a strategy for what I would do if any piece of gear I’m bringing fails while we’re in the bush.

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Safari cameras and lenses: 8.2 lbs, July 2017

I’m taking four zoom lenses which have some overlap in range: 9-18, 12-35, 40-150 (convertible to 56-210), and 100-400. I’ll also take a fixed 25mm lens.  So:

– if the 9-18 fails, I use the 12-35 and loose the 9-11 range

– if the 12-35 fails, I use the 9-18 anf the 25mm, and loose the 19-24 and 26-35 ranges

– if the 40-150 fails, I use the 100-400 and loose the 40-99 range

– if the 100-400 fails, I put the adaptor on the 40-150 so I can have 56-210, and loose everything over 210.

In the cities, loosing the 12-35 would be the worst case, as I typically take about 2/3 of my “keeper” pictures with that lens.  On safari, loosing either of the long lenses would be a problem.  In any case, the solution would be to use the next shorter lens and crop the resulting pictures as needed.  Or to take different pictures more suitable to the lenses I have.  But hopefully, I won’t have any problems.

The camera backup is simpler: I’m taking two similar cameras, an Olympus OM-D E-M1 and an OM-D E-M1 Mark 2 (3).  Assuming both are working, I’ll use them both with different magnification lenses on each one while we’re driving around in the bush looking for animals, which solves another problem: changing lenses while driving is risky because it’s extremely dusty, and you don’t want to let dust get into the camera or lens.  But if one fails, I’ll have the other.

But other critical gear needs backup as well.  Cameras without batteries are paperweights, and one might use more than one battery in a day. So I will take four batteries for each camera (of course, they use different batteries).  And two chargers for each camera, as they could fail as well.

Finally, I need to plan for how to backup the most important thing, namely all the pictures I shoot (5).  They’re stored on little chips called SD cards, which are pretty reliable, but can fail.  Many serious photographers carry a laptop with them and copy the images into it each day as they travel, and review the images as they go.  I don’t own a laptop, and don’t want to deal with the weight of one, and don’t want to spend my valuable time on the trip reviewing thousands of pictures.  So I have a special device that will simply copy the contents of an SD card onto its own storage, and weighs only 12 oz. It also replaces the USB battery pack I usually travel with, so the net weight increase is only a few ounces.  And as with the other gear, I won’t be able to buy more SD cards in the bush if I fill them up.

And remember, the fact that the kit itself is so much larger and heavier means that the bag is much larger and heavier.  After counting all the stuff I need to bring – what’s listed above, batteries, chargers, tripod, etc. – the safari kit totals about 24 lbs. while the cruise kit was only about 7 lbs. (6)  I can only hope the pictures are 3.4 times as interesting …

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(1) “Shoot” is the easiest term to use when you’re talking about making a photographic image of something.  Unfortunately, it’s also what you do with a gun.  Rest assured that we will not be using any guns on this trip – the only shooting that takes place will be with a camera.

(2) Focal lengths determine magnification, but differently for different classes of cameras.  Compared to old-school 35mm film cameras, an m43 camera requires half the length for equivalent magnification.  So my 35-100mm zoom on an m43 would need to be 70-200mm long on a film or “full frame” digital camera.   For comparison, most phone cameras are equivalent to about 15mm on my m43 cameras, but are actually 2.65mm on the iPhone 6S.

(3) The 100-400mm only weighs a bit more that the 40-150mm because is is the same physical diameter, and therefore works less well in low light situations.  A 400mm lens that had the same light-gathering capability as my 40-150 would probably weigh over 8 lbs.; Nikon’s version, which doesn’t even zoom, weighs 8.4 lbs. and costs $11,000.

(4) I don’t make up these names, I only report them.  The Mark 2 camera is a new improved version of the other.

(5) My professional career in IT started as a database administrator, which instilled in me a lifelong need to make backups of anything digital.  Of course, back in the film days, no one worried about backup – just how many rolls of film they could carry, and how to get them through airport security without being x-rayed. I’m carrying the equivalent of more than 400 rolls of film, not counting the backup copies.

(6) 7 lbs. for just the core kit – it totaled somewhat more than that.

Okay, I’ve been remiss

Monday, July 10, T-16

Sally pointed out this evening that I’ve haven’t been keeping you all up to date on my/our planning and packing adventures for our upcoming trip to Africa.  To recap the ground rules, which represent the most restrictive policies of the three scheduled and several charter airlines we are traveling with:

1. We are allowed a total of 44 lbs. of luggage for both cabin luggage and checked luggage.

2. Our luggage must be softsided and without wheels.  Maximum size is 24″ x 16″ x 12″ (Federal Airways).

3. We are allowed a single piece of cabin luggage not to exceed 8kg or 17.6 lbs., plus “1 small handbag or small laptop” (South African Airways), or a single piece up to 5kg or 11 lbs. (Federal Airways).

FedAir Baggage Policy, July 2017

4. We can carry no more than four spare lithium batteries in cabin baggage (British Airways), and (of course) cannot pack any in checked luggage.

5. The unscheduled charters are apparently both more and less flexible.  They do insist on soft luggage with no wheels, but apparently will accept whatever they can shove into the luggage compartment of the plane.

These restrictions pose a challenge to many travelers, but especially those carrying a fair amount of sensitive electronic equipment.  Like my camera kit.

Let’s start with the overall weight restrictions.  On our last trip, the cruise with Matteo and Zelda, my checked bag checked in at 38 lbs.  I had a carry-on backpack with my camera gear and other essentials, like meds, iPad/iPhone, etc. that weighed about 15 lbs.  for that trip, as the camera kit was very modest – some lenses, a backup (and small) backup body, and a bunch of batteries.  No tripod.  I did have a suit and dress shoes, etc.   So about 9 lbs. overweight (38 + 15 = 53 vs. 44) in total when compared to the safari, and also 4 lbs. over for the carry-on.

This Africa trip will require clothing for two environments: we’ll be in the city for eight days, and in camps/lodges in the bush for nine days.   The city clothing is normal sightseeing stuff: very casual during the day for sightseeing, and some nicer casual stuff for dinners in the evening.   The bush clothing is basically hiking clothes: neutral or earthtones so as to not scare the animals (1), warm layers as it’s winter in Southern Africa, hats to block the sun, sturdy hiking shoes or boots, etc.  Unlike the cruise, no need for a suit and tie, fancy dresses, high heels, etc.   We will have complimentary laundry during our time in the camps, but also need to deal with four days in a hotel in Cape Town.  So it’s a balancing act: bring enough stuff to last the one long city stay, or stuff that can be hand-washed in the room (2).

Then there’s the big elephant in the room, so to speak: my camera gear.  The kit for the cruise totaled 12 lbs., and more than 3 lbs. went in my checked bag.  But that trip, while interesting photographically, was not focused on photography, was with three other non-photographers, and was mostly to places I’d been recently.  So I knew in advance that the photography I did would be opportunistic and not involve a lot of setup for any shot.   In particular, no tripod and a minimal set of lenses.  Some days I didn’t even bring a camera bag out, just a camera, an extra lens, and an extra battery.

For this trip, the current estimate for the camera kit is 24 lbs. – a full 12 lbs. more than last time.  I’ll talk some more about this in a future post.  But this leaves me needing to find 23 lbs. to take out of the other stuff I brought on the cruise.  I already have the suit and it’s accessories, which is about 5 lbs.  The other big save is the checked bag itself.   As we’re required to use a soft bag for our checked luggage on this trip, we don’t need our lightweight Tumi rolling luggage at 12.5 lbs.  instead, we’ll each be using a duffle bag supplied by our travel agent which weighs about 2.2 lbs.  Those two alone save me 15 lbs.

Duffle and camera bag, July 2017

The usual way that travel experts say to save weight is to bring easy to wash clothing, and wash it each night.  For the items that I’m bringing multiples ofs (socks, underwear, t-shirts, etc.) I already do this.   It’s been years since I’ve traveled with more than about four days worth of clothing; instead, I drive Sally crazy by always leaving wet clothes hanging around our room (3).  This strategy is constrained by two factors:

– travel days, when your wet laundry may not have time to dry (I’ve never liked to pack wet clothes, plus they just weigh more wet and I already have a weight problem)

– the need for different stuff for different situations.

– The inability to obtain new stuff for most of the trip.

On this trip, we’re in cosmopolitan cities and the bush; we’re in warm weather (high of 82F and bright sun) and cold (low 40s pre-dawn while on a game drive in an open vehicle).  So we need everything from t-shirts to long underwear, insulated jackets, gloves and warm hats.

We’re also in safari camps/lodges for as much as 6 consecutive days, followed by two days in the small town of Victoria, Zimbabwe.  We really can’t count on being able to buy anything that we might have forgotten, lost or broken.  This includes, of course, meds and toiletries.  Given this, we’re both carrying at least a four weeks supply of all of these critical consumables.  While this may not sound like much, my daily meds in the weekly cases add up to about a pound for four weeks.

Anyway, I’ve gotten my non-photography/electronics gear including the duffle bag down to about 18 lbs. or so.  With the camera kit at around 24 lbs., I’m currently just two pounds under my limit assuming I haven’t forgotten anything, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten something(s).

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(1) One is universally advised to wear khaki-colored or other neutral colors while on game drives.   Yet I’ve been given to understand that many of the animals, including lions, are colorblind.  But maybe some can see colors.   In any event, we both have appropriately bland stuff.

(2) One could also pay for hotel laundry, but you’d spend less money discarding the soiled items and buying new ones.  I’m not particularly adverse to hand-washing myself, but Sally is less fond of it.

(3) It was no issue when I traveled alone for business, of course; then I didn’t care if I had wet stuff all over, and I was rarely in my hotel and awake.