Africa, September 2006
By: William R. Cotton

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After a long but uneventful flight we arrived in Johannesburg. We were supposed to have been met by the safari tour company but we didn’t connect. So we continued to the domestic terminal and flew on to Cape Town arriving about 4PM. After checking in we went out to a pizza place near the hotel and had some exotic and tasty pizza.

We got a call from Zev Levin. We had thought we were in the same hotel but he was in a smaller hotel not far from ours. After breakfast we got together to see if we could rent a car. But the car rental agent in the hotel said he didn’t have any cars. So we went to plan B which was to walk over to the waterfront area where there were restaurants and even a large shopping area. While walking through the area I noticed an AVIS desk and suggested we check it out. It turns out she had cars allocated to her so we scheduled a car and walked to the AVIS car rental agency to pick it up.

We decided to drive south to the Cape of Good Hope with Zev taking the first turn at the wheel.

One thing that surprised me is how clean everything is here. In my previous trips to Africa I found things to be very trashy with roads poorly maintained and poorly lit at night. Not here. It looks quite proper and could be any first world city in the world like Sydney, Australia. Except for the area along the freeway near the airport the houses are quite nice. That area near the airport on both sides of the highway is composed of small thrown together plywood and corrugated metal structures. There are no lighting, or probably water and sewer lines. Housing like that, if you want to call it that, one can find in much of South America, and for that matter most of Africa. I have visited Nairobi, Kenya, Niami, Niger, and Dacar, Senegal and Cape Town looks nothing like those cities. Those cities have very poor streets, stop lights rarely work, street lighting is poor to non-existent, and large numbers of people milling about on street corners and elsewhere. Not so here.

We drove along the southwest coast of the peninsula along a windy road often overlooking the sea below. The original plan was to stop for lunch in Hout Bay but nothing jumped out at us so we continued south and then crossed over to the east side coming out at Simon’s Town. We continued south and found a nice little restaurant overlooking the bay where we sat outside and had a nice lunch. It was cool and we experienced occasional drizzle-showers but the grounds were so nice that we enjoyed it very much. I asked if there were any whales to view along here and were told no, but there are penguins to view. So we backtracked to Simon’s town and stopped at a sanctuary for the penguins. There we saw hundreds of nesting penguins often close to the board walks. As we started south we encountered a baboon along the roadside. This surprised us to no end.

We continued south to Cape Point and also the Cape of Good Hope where we enjoyed the views of the rugged coast line standing in the cool winds and listening to the crashing surf. We returned north along the east coast along the eastern flanks of Table Mountain. We then went out to a restaurant down at the wharf that was like an English pub called Ferryman’s. We had an excellent curry dinner.

Today was my turn to drive and I thought we would head to the town of Worchester where there was a gliderport. I had downloaded information about it including how to get there. I contacted them by e-mail and one of the members had volunteered to pick me up and get me back to the hotel. But instead we drove out there. The drive eastward heads towards some tall rugged mountains and then goes through a very long tunnel that seemed twice the length of the Eisenhower tunnel in Colorado. Just before entering the tunnel in the center medium we saw a group of baboons watching the cars go by. After going through a tunnel we entered a broad valley surrounded by high mountains. Following a few mis-turns we arrived at the gliderport. I was invited to take a flight. But they could not get the tug started. Since I was feeling quite jetlagged and conditions didn’t look that soarable I decided not to wait for them to get the tug going. Following their directions, we headed over a couple of mountain passes to wine country. These mountains deceived us into thinking they are just like Colorado until you go around a bend and run into a family of baboons. Then it strikes you that we are in a different world. Coming down from the pass we entered the beautiful town of Franschhoek. It has a strong French look to it and has many outdoor restaurants. After walking around town enjoying the views, we drove to vineyard called Morison where we were told by the people at the gliderport it is a must to stop at as they have some unique local foods. This was a beautiful place and had a great lunch while tasting some local wines. The weather was perfect too.

We returned to Cape Town and tried to register at the meeting but were too late. We weren’t too late for a cocktail hour however. After that we went to dinner at the pizza place with Zev, Itzag Meier and wife, and another Israeli.

Monday the meeting began. It is called Atmospheric Chemistry at the Interfaces and for the most part is hard-core atmospheric chemistry. Only a few sessions later in the week deal with aerosols and clouds.I attended lectures in the morning and then in the afternoon Vollie and I took a taxi to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. The gardens are on the eastern flanks of Table Mountain. There were many paths to explore and we enjoyed the unique ecology of the region and the many flowers in bloom. There was also a building in which local artists displayed their paintings. Some of them were very nice. The weather was cool and overcast and later in the afternoon the winds picked up and it became rather uncomfortable.

I attended the morning session at the conference. Most of the talks were hard-core chemistry so not something I am particularly interested in. In the afternoon Vollie and I decided to walk up to the cable car that goes to the top of Table Mountain. It is about a 3.5mi walk with about 1000’ of elevation gain. The cable car ride to the top was interesting in that the floor of the car turned so that everyone could get a view at some time or other. At the top it was windy and temperatures were in the middle 40’s. We had lunch in a restaurant up there and then hiked along the trails that followed the rim of the mountain. The views were impressive and looking down off the top with several thousand feet of drove was great. We then walked back to the hotel returning quite tired from the experience.

I again attended the morning sessions at the meeting. Afterward we walked into the main downtown area where we had lunch. We then walked through the Company Gardens first created by the Dutch East India company to provide food for their employees. We then went to a museum that I found very boring.

That evening we were bused out to a large winery called Steir and a restaurant called Moyo. There we had a buffet style dinner including many African dishes and were entertained by drummers and dancers and a small African pop band. Vollie and I even danced!

I gave my talk this morning and it went well. I had several questions and afterward had several people come up and congratulate me on it. After the morning session Vollie and I had lunch outdoors at the Ferryman’s while enjoying the nice weather. After that we walked along the coast viewing and feeling the sea crashing against the concrete retaining walls. After a few wrong turns we made it back to the hotel where I crashed for 30min or so. Then we had dinner at a nearby Asian Fusion restaurant.

Overall the town does not seem very threatening. But it is deceiving as I know of at least three muggings experienced by conference members including one today at an ATM right outside the conference. Two of the muggings were woman walking alone after dark. You can never let your guard down here. To me it seems less threatening than many US large cities but it clearly is not. Conference organizers and hotel employees tell you to be careful and not walk around, especially alone, after dark. As I said earlier, it is obvious one should not do that in many other African cities but here it is not so apparent until it is too late. I never carried a wallet in my back pocket or carried a case that obviously contained a computer.

I received an e-mail from Steve Nelson of NSF informing me he was declining my proposal to make measurements and modeling studies to investigate if air pollution is altering cloud precipitation processes along the Front Range. This is very disappointing to me and moreover, that was the project I intended to support my new graduate student, Chad Christensen on for his MS.

Vollie and I rented a car today and drove to the town of Hermanus which is east along the coast. Sue van den Heever recommended it as a place to view whales right from the shore. The drive took us over a pass with the usual baboon sightinging along the road. Coastal stratus was evident over the higher peaks. We then dropped into a valley and finally along the coast to Hermanus. We first drove through town which was quite congested with tourists. We pulled off east of town into a beautiful beach area with few people on it. The setting is this white sand beach for miles with mountains a few miles inland of the coast. We actually sighted a couple of whales just seaward of the surf zone. I was told that the best whale viewing was on the other side of town where one could walk along cliffs overlooking the sea below. So after walking the beach we found our way through town and Vollie directed me along a narrow road where we found a parking spot. We then walked along a path that overlooked the rocky shore. There were pretty flowers and nice bushes. At several spots there were benches we could sit on and look out to the sea. It was nice and we only encountered a few tourists walking the trails. We spotted some whales but they were quite far out into the bay. So we drove along to where they would be closer to the shore. Naturally as we got closer to the location of the whales the number of tourists increased. We found a parking spot and walked along the sidewalks and trails. We sat on some rocks and viewed the whales perhaps a half-mile off shore.

Finally we got hungry and walked further along the shore to where the road was shut off because of the Whale Festival. Talk about luck this was the peak of the whale viewing season! We found an outdoor café where we could look across the road and perhaps spot some whales while eating. Indeed while eating a very nice vege sandwich, we spotted not only several whales but a large pod of dolphins passed by. It was a great experience and the weather was nice and sunny besides. After eating we walked a bit further along the shore where we could see a cow whale and its calf not more than 300m from the rocky shore. There was a band playing something like reggae and we even danced a bit. Further out to sea we could see another cow and calf. They stay in the bay until the calf is strong enough to go off shore to their summer feeding grounds.

We then drove along the windy coastal road which resembles Big Sur for a long stretch. At Gordon’s bay we headed inland to pick up the N2 highway back to our hotel. It was a great day. We ended the day with a pizza and wine at the pizza place near the hotel.

We got up at 0530 and packed and had breakfast. We then got into our rental car and found our way to the airport and the AVIS drop-off. Our flight was with British Air to Jo’burg where we were to transfer to a SA flight to Hordspruit. Unfortunately British Air refused to check our baggage through so it meant we had to pick up baggage and check in at the SA counter and then go to the gate in a little over an hour. Fortunately SA agreed to give us our boarding passes so that part of the process was taken care of. We arrived in Jo’burg a few minutes ahead of schedule but then it took over 30min to get our luggage and then rush to the ticket counter where we were put in a high speed check in line and got our baggage checked. We then rushed to the gate area and got there at the designated time for boarding. But that wasn’t to be and we waited a good 30min to board so there was not the great need to rush after all.

Our flight to Hordpruit went over a large escarpment and then we descended in smokey air. The airfield is just that with a small check in area and a tractor bringing our baggage around. We were loaded up in a van and driven to Honganyi which was about a 45min drive from the airfield. The roads were paved accept for the last 5 miles which became a narrow windy track. Honganyi is a nice place with very nice rooms including a huge bathroom with shower and tub. The buildings are all thatched roofed. There is a common area open-sided building with a viewing deck to the rear. Quite a number of wild animals can be viewed from the deck as they pass through. After barely getting packed we had “tea” which consisted of juice and cookies and then were loaded into a large Land Rover for a 3h game drive. This is a large private came reserve surrounded by electrified fences as many of these private reserves are in the area. One can see quite a range of wildlife including Impalas, Gnus, giraffes, zebras, and a number of types of deer or antelope family critters too numerous to list. They also put up a receiver antenna to track two radio collared cheetahs. There is a neighboring Cheetah project in which they breed and release them in the area. Honganyi is an experimental area in which the cheetahs were recently introduced into the reserve to see how well they will do in a smaller(1500acre) reserve. The area has a lot of tree and bush coverage that is not ideal habitat for cheetahs who like to be able to speed across the open savanna. The cheetahs are checked on twice a day including the game drive. Using a radio tracker, as they had radio collars on them, we located them lounging in the shade of a tree after much back and forth driving and crashing driving through the bush.. The cheetahs are doing quite well and are healthy looking as they are making regular kills.

The tour then took us to a small lake where we had snacks while viewing the sunset. A large male giraffe was quite curious and followed us across a dam and then observed us fairly close for some time.

The drive ended with a light-spotting part of the drive in which we didn’t see much more than in the broad daylight.

The evening ended with dinner at 0830 in an open topped enclosure with a firepit in the middle. The food was great and it was enjoyable. Very tired we went to bed as we had arranged a 0600 walk.

The manager, Dez, guided us on an informative walk where he described the various plants and trees, and of course any birds or animals we encountered. Then we had a large breakfast at 0830. Aside from a small lunch at noon, the remainder of the day was free time until the 1600 game drive. So I showered and spent most of the time sitting in the shade on the viewing deck watching whatever animals passed by. At the pond at the far side of an open meadow that can be seen from the viewing deck we saw a group of 30 or so baboons. This included some large males and of course a bunch of kids frolicking at the water side. Then several Elands which are the biggest of the antelope family grazed quite close to us. There were also several groups of warthogs including one family that camed through the open gate and grazed on the lawn.

The 1600h game drive was much like the first night’s except we saw a couple of jackals. We also tracked down the cheetahs again. Even the big male giraffe which Vollie named gorgeous Gordan came by to view the tourists while we viewed the sunset. After sunset Dez drove us down into a narrow windy dark valley where we saw a hyena. We saw another one not far from the lodge. Moreover, very close to the lodge we encountered two white rhinos. I couldn’t get a picture of them because they were just far enough into the bush that my flash didn’t cover them.

After another excellent large meal we headed to bed.

We began the day with another 0600 walk followed by breakfast. We had no idea when we would be picked up to be taken to our next destination which is the Ngala walking safari, tented camp. Unfortunately our driver arrived while we had breakfast and so had to rush to pack and get into the van. The drive to Ngala took about an hour. Our pickup point was at a wilderness college operated with the assistance of the World Wildlife Federation. We had a bit of a mixup and almost got taken to the airport. But finally got into another Land Rover and bounced our way to the tent camp. There we unloaded and met out hosts and were set up in our large tent.

The tent has twin beds, a toilet enclosure and a shower room. At 3:00 we assembled for high tea in which a lunch was served. We then began a guided and guarded walk with a ranger(Derrek) leading the way and the tracker(Jonas) taking up the rear. We hiked in single-file through the grass lands with shrubs and low trees. It is all very dry here. After an hour or so the ranger spotted a rhino and we proceeded to take a loop around it so that we could approach it downwind. Just after sunset we saw a mother rhino with calf. Due to the dim lighting and distance we were not able to take a picture. After that we walked in the dimming light and were picked up by a Land Rover which they had radioed in.

We returned to camp whereupon they had set up hot water in the shower units. They are gravity feed devices with a faucet handle to control the flow. This felt refreshing since the temperatures had been in the low 90’s. We then blew a whistle so that we would be guided to the main tent area where there was a fire in a central ring and were treated to a delicious dinner including red wine.

We retired to our tents which had battery-operated lights but they did not hold charge well. I fell asleep after reading with my headlight almost immediately only to be awakened by the sounds of jackels barking, the low moan of hyenas, and the strange sounds of baboons. Vollie didn’t sleep well with all the noise in the bush and also heard the loud noises coming from me snoring.

About 0500 we were awakened to the crashing in the bushes. It sounded like the critters were 10’ from the tent where in fact they were elephants across and in the dry stream bed some 50m or so away. It was great fun to view several elephants including a big bull that close. We then proceeded to morning tea consisting of bisquits and tea. There we found more elephants very close to the camp. In fact one camper had blown his air horn thinking the camp was being invaded by lions. I gather he heard the moaning of the elephants stomachs which he confused with lion sounds. I was told that if close the lion roars are so loud you can feel them rather than just hear the sounds. I got some good camera shots of the elephants in the dry creek bed only 30m or so below us.

We then began our morning hike. We traipsed up and down through the country side. Eventually we spotted a large herd of elephants across the valley. After viewing them and crossing a dry stream bed we came a little closer than we intended to. So we were instructed to quietly and slowly back up. We walked to a high point where we could view 4 rhinos not that far from where we had come from. So,we back-tracked and circled around downwind of them to get a closer view. Unfortunately by that time they had bedded down for a nap so all I could see was this gray blob that could have been a rock! We then returned to camp spying some impalas and warthogs along the way.

We returned for a large breakfast at 1000 consisting of what the cook called Mexican eggs, fruits, cereals, juices, and plenty of meat for those that could eat them.

Following breakfast we took showers and had free time until after 1500. This is nice and relaxing but we are kind of imprisoned as we are not permitted to go far from the tents. Of course this was also true at Honganyi. It was good we did Honganyi first since the animals were much more concentrated in the smaller private reserve than here. Moreover, our hosts were more instructive on trees, flowers, and birds than here. Of course the fact that the manger was a biologist(marine) by training helped.

Ngala is located in an appendage to Krueger National Park. The lands and animals are managed by the park and the tent camp has a permit to operate in the area as long as they do not construct any permanent facilities. There are no fences between here and the main part of Krueger so the animals are free to migrate in and out as they please. There is a fence along the highway to keep domesticated animals from coming in and wild ones from making their way into villages.

After a 1500h high tea, we took off on a game drive. Now you must remember I chose this place because it is a walking safari camp and not one of these game drive outfits. Nonetheless that was part of the program. We charged along the roads bounding up and down and saw not that far from camp a few giraffes and then a couple of elephant. Derrek, the ranger, backed up to get closer and must of got within their comfort range as the bull trumpeted and made a fake charge. We then proceeded on passing impala and other antelope. Just about sunset we encountered a lone white rhino. Derrek drove very close to it and it seemed to ignore us. It lumbered on into the push and off we went through the bush to get ahead of it so that it would lumber up close to us. I did not like the way we were pestering it and moreover driving through the bush. But it admittedly did not seem to pay much attention to us. At one point it was situated with the setting sun to its back and darn my camera gave up the ghost. I thought at the time the battery level was too low. Moreover, my backup batteries were too low or there was another problem getting the lenses to come out. I suspected they were all low on charge since I had not been able to charge them since leaving Cape Town. As it turned out there is a more serious problem with the camera.

We continued on the back roads until we arrived at some ponds at a former stone quarry. There was quite a group of elephants that we viewed for some time. On the other side of the pond was a large group of baboons. Derrek didn’t pay any attention to them at all. He seems to be fixated with elephants.

We then charged off in search of a pride of lions. Derrek was in radio contact with other drivers I think were from other tent camps operated by the same company in the area. We met up with the other party who were crashing through the bush following two female lions. Again in disregard to the countryside or the privacy of the lions we took turns driving ahead to be in close position for the lions to pass. I gathered they were hoping to follow them to the remainder of the pride dining on a kill. We drove a bit to have a water break when we got a call that the kill was located. Remember this is after dark and we are in this open Land Rover. We took off crashing through the bush knocking down small trees and bushes and finally got to the kill area. They turned on a red spot light as did the other group where we viewed 5 to 6 lions eating a small zebra carcass. We were close enough to hear them purr and to smell the carcass. The lions didn’t seem put out by our presence as they were concentrating on their meal and not looking for more food sitting in the Land Rovers. Shortly a third Land Rover group arrived so that three groups were triangulated about the pride. The whole business was disgusting to me. Finally we moved off and crashed through the bush until we got on one of the roadways.

We returned to have a great dinner.

The night was very quiet with no noticeable noises, elephants running into camp or anything. We did hear a bit of rain dripping on the tent and got up to light drizzle and overcast skies. After morning tea we took off walking in the wet bush getting our pants quite wet. Aside from getting mud on the bottom of our boots the walking was pleasant as the temperatures were on the cool side. Eventually we sighted a cow white rhino and calf and circled around downwind where we could view it quite close. I don’t think it ever detected our presence. We then walked further on where we could see an elephant or two ahead. We again worked out way down wind. The winds were quite brisk and changed directions erratically. Eventually we got close enough to be able to see not only the elephants but a couple of buffalo. For some reason Derrek did not pay much attention to them and didn’t say a word about them. This was the first close encounter with buffaloes and knowing their reputation I was rather concerned about their proximity. As we viewed the elephants I motioned to Derrek that one was moving our way. So we walked briskly down wind. We came to a termite mound and looked back and a big bull elephant was walking towards us following our tracks. We continued on and every so often we would look back only to see the bull and then a second bull still following our tracks. So we took off on a fast pace to out distance the bulls who were obviously tracking us!

After some time and distance we arrived at the water holes at the same place we viewed elephants and baboons last night. Derrek had arranged for the Land Rover to pick us up as we were probably 5 miles from camp. On the drive back we passed two elephants next to the road and watched them a while eating foliage with the engine off. One bull got a bit upset with our closeness and made a fake charge and bellowed at us. We returned to have breakfast and I had a hot shower.

We walked over to the main tent area to say goodbye to a German couple that was departing. Their departure time was delayed so Vollie decided to go back to the tent and take a shower. But as she approached the tent she heard this persistent barking. She came back and Justin said that he’d check it out as it was a vervet monkey and it barks if it sees an animal that would attack it like a snake, leopard, bird-of-prey. But he didn’t find anything to be concerned about.

After afternoon tea we were taken on another game drive. Derrek asked us what we wanted to see and I said somewhat jokingly, a leopard, knowing full well they are one of the most difficult animals to view. Well he immediately did a 180 and headed back toward the camp and dropped off Jonas, the tracker in the streambed only a little ways from our camp. We then headed on leaving Jonas to fend for himself.. Apparently Derrek thought the barking monkeys could indicate a leopard. We proceeded back in the direction we were originally headed and drove down into a wide dry streambed. It felt like we were in a ship as the Rover wallowed through the sand. Along the way we encountered quite a few antelope including impalas and Hoodoos. After a while we encountered a road crossing the wash and we turned onto it heading above the streambed. We came to an open field where there was a female lion taking a nap. I gather some of the other camps had a tracker out who located her and her male mate. In fact, we looked back and there was the male also lounging not more than 25’ from where we turned to view the female. The male was stretched out on the sand and just yawned when we got close.

We got a call from Jonas who had located the leopard. In fact it had growled at him. Remember he did not have a gun or anything. He just stood his ground when the leopard confronted him. Well when Derreck got the word that Jonas had located the leopard off we went lickedy-split bouncing over water runoff diversions. Then we took off-road and through very rough ground going around rocks and trees, sometimes running over smaller trees. Eventually I spotted Jonas so we picked him up. It was a relief because we didn’t like the idea of his being out there alone after dark and the sun had set. We continued driving around the bush trying to locate the leopard. At one point a thorny bush caught my jacket which was next to me on the seat but on the side facing out. I asked them to stop and got out to extricate my jacket from the bush. This was not easy as it was attached to several of the thorns. After 30min or so driving around in the dark crossing dry streambeds, bouncing over rocks and trees we gave up.

We returned to camp to have another great dinner.

Last evening one of the crew named “Doctor” had been recognized for his contributions to the camp at a dinner put on by the parent company. He is a very tall man and was clearly overwhelmed by this honor. He told about the fancy hotel they put he and his wife in, the dinner, and the drinks they were provided. I gather he normally doesn’t drink but this time he made and exception.

This was our day to fly back to the U.S. But first we took a two hour bush walk. We sighted some elephants, giraffes, various antelopes, some young warthogs and then a couple of older ones and returned to camp without any major confrontations. After a scrumptious breakfast, Vollie and I returned to our tent to take a bucket shower and pack. At 1130 we said goodbye to everyone and were taken to the college to meet our ride to the airport. There a woman driving a new Toyota picked us up and delivered us to the airport. Check-in took about 5 minutes so we then relaxed in a courtyard where there were beautiful flowers and shrubs, colorful birds in the trees, and even a monkey to watch. This was just a little different than a typical U.S. airport. We then flew to Jo’burg , transferred to our flight to Dulles and am writing this on our final leg back to Denver. It seems like it was this morning(it is now Friday morning) that we took our last morning bushwalk. We are both tired and in need of a shower and I, a shave.

This has certainly been quite the adventure.