Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Steamy Tropical Paradise of Bali

Day 119: Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
My flight to Bali this past Monday went smoothly and quickly. In the Johannesburg airport, I bought my bible for the next few months, Lonely Planet's Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, and I spent most of my flight researching Indonesia. I've never been able to sleep well on planes, so I figured I would make good use of my time. Every once in a while, I glanced at our real-time path on the screen in front of me. We crossed over Madagascar and the vast Indian Ocean, and before I knew it, we were over Sumatra and it was early on Tuesday morning. I had a layover in Kuala Lumpur, where I took advantage of the airport's free wi-fi and caught up on email. When I landed in Bali, I had to get an Indonesian visa. I headed to the payment counter, but they would only accept cash. I had used up the last of my U.S. dollars months ago, and I obviously didn't have any Indonesia rupiah, as my plane had just arrived. It must be a common conundrum, as the woman at the payment counter told me to give my passport to an immigration officer, who would hold onto it while I withdrew money from the ATM. I had to cross back through immigration, where I could finally pay for my visa and get my passport stamped. If this is such a common problem, wouldn't it be easier to put the ATM before immigration?

When I walked out of the air-conditioned airport, the stifling, sticky heat almost took my breath away. Maybe it was a shock because I had just come from the South African winter, but I think it may be the most humid climate I've ever experienced. The temperature wasn't terribly hot, but I was sweating from pores that I don't think have ever sweated before. My task was to find a taxi. I walked past the endless gauntlet of hawkers asking me if I needed transport – taxis directly outside airports are always expensive. I continued past the parking lot and into the street. I haggled with a few taxi drivers, but the price was still too much. I finally chose a minibus packed with school children. It wasn't the most comfortable-looking vehicle, but it was the cheapest ride I could find – about half the price of the taxis in front of the airport terminal. The open windows (and door!) of the minibus let in a breeze, which alleviated the sweltering humidity. As we made stop after stop through Kuta and the main city of Denpasar, children hopped on and off the vehicle, some hanging out of the open door as we rode through the crowded streets. An old woman in a traditional conical hat stepped onto the bus, and she placed a large basket of fruit on the floor. An older boy started a conversation with me, but his English was very basic, and we both ended up repeating the same things over and over, trying to forge a basic human bond by smiling and nodding. I don't think he ever understood my answers to his questions; I felt like we were having two totally different conversations. Still, it was much more interesting to travel with the locals than in an air-conditioned private taxi.

We passed through manic streets lined with narrow canals, ornate Hindu temples, a rainbow of colorful hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and countless small shops. The road was packed with thousands of loud motorbikes, taxis, and schoolgirls on bicycles. Some of the ubiquitous motorbikes were even driven by boys and girls not more than twelve years old. The smell of exhaust, incense, and Indonesian noodle dishes swirled through the air. The passengers departed the minibus one by one, and soon I was the only one left. I was traveling all the way to the town of Ubud, an hour and a half away. The frantic streets of Denpasar slowly thinned out, and I began to see glimpses of rice terraces between the ever-sparser buildings lining the road. Soon, there were larger rice terraces punctuated by patches of jungle.

Stone statue, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
Stone statue, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
We arrived in Ubud, and the driver dropped me off at what he said was my guesthouse (cheap hotel). There was no sign for Jati Home Stay, but he seemed sure that this was the place and even pointed in the direction of reception. I gathered my bags, and he drove off. Unsurprisingly, this was not Jati Home Stay. I asked several people to make sure, and they all consistently pointed in the same direction down the road. I fastened my big pack on my back, threw my daypack over my shoulder, and started walking along the narrow, buckled sidewalk. Ubud is considered the center of Balinese culture, and art galleries, shops, bohemian cafés, and temples lined the road. I finally spotted the sign for Jati Home Stay after half an hour, and I was pouring sweat in an embarrassing amount when I wandered along the narrow walled passage into the compound. Inside was a temple, an artist studio, a laundry facility, and a small canal-like pond surrounding the outdoor reception area. Cued by the flip-flops lining the mat, I slipped off my shoes and stepped onto the covered patio. I received my key and walked up the nearby steps to my basic room. I dropped my bags on the floor and immediately took a long, cold shower. When I was refreshed, I opened the curtains – there was a quaint view of a small rice paddy in the back of the compound.

I relaxed the rest of the afternoon until dinnertime, when I ventured out onto the main street in front of my guesthouse to browse the numerous restaurants. I decided on a restaurant and sat down at a table on the street-front patio. As motorbikes whizzed past, I dined on a generous portion of excellent chicken curry that was only $2. The spicy meal made me sweat even more in the sweltering night, but a banana dessert with honey and ice cream cooled me down. Not having slept for well over 30 hours – since Sunday night in Johannesburg – I crashed for a dreamless 12 hours in my nice, soft bed. The tiny ants that infested the room tickled my arms and legs, but I was so tired that I couldn't care less.

Restaurant in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
A cozy restaurant in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
I spent the next five days in Ubud relaxing and catching up on my blog entries and photos from Africa. I was in dire need of some down time since every single day for the past four months has been packed with activities. I've been enjoying the great Indonesian food at the cheap restaurants here: satay chicken, nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice), mie goreng (fried noodles). I've had some excellent chai tea, and my new favorite dessert is bubur injin, a sweet Balinese black rice pudding. The black sludge may not look very appetizing, but it tastes incredible. I've become immune to the ubiquitous offers of "transport?" that guys with motorbikes constantly shout when I walk down the street. I wake up every morning to the sound of sweeping right outside the thin walls of my room. The Balinese seem quite obsessed with having clean walkways, which certainly isn't a bad thing.

I've been updating my blog from a nearby internet café that has cheap wi-fi. One evening, I walked into the place after dinner, and the wi-fi was not working. I asked the girl at the counter if there was another internet café nearby. She smiled and nodded, but she didn't elaborate. I asked her where the other internet café was located, and she just shrugged, smiling politely the entire time. As in Africa, people here in Indonesia don't like to give a negative answer to any question, so they usually reply "yes" even if they don't understand the question.

Macaque monkey in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
A macaque monkey eats a snack in the Mandala Wisata Wenara Wana ("Monkey Forest") in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
Thursday, I walked to the nearby Mandala Wisata Wenara Wana, a jungle with a few temples and other holy places hidden among the trees. The hundreds of cheeky macaque monkeys living there give the place its better-known name of "Monkey Forest". Vendors sell bananas to tourists brave enough to feed the monkeys, but in my opinion this just makes their thieving behavior worse. One tourist walked in, pulled out a banana, and was practically mauled by six monkeys that actually jumped on his back. They will snatch anything shiny or dangling too – earrings, sunglasses, dresses. It puzzles me that many of these tourists want their picture with the monkeys, but yet they are terrified of the creatures and end up looking incredibly awkward and scared in their photos. Some people end up losing jewelry or other things to the monkeys, but they are asking for it if they stand right beside a monkey with their back to the animal.

I had enough of the sneaky monkeys, so I walked out to the main street of Ubud, where I started browsing around a market. It started pouring down rain – as it has been periodically since I've been in Bali – so I ducked underneath a covered portion of the market and was stranded there for a while before the rain let up a bit. It was still raining, though, and luckily I was prepared to walk in the downpour – a lesson I learned the hard way in Africa.

Market in the rain, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia © Matt Prater
A torrential downpour soaks a market in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
I put on my poncho, wrapped a plastic bag around my backpack, and trudged through the soggy streets back to my guesthouse. Unfortunately, ankle-deep muddy water was rushing across the road just outside the market. I walked carefully through the flood, making sure not to slip on the slick tile of the sidewalk underneath the running water. I had a cut on my foot, and I disinfected it as soon as I got back to my room – who knows where that filthy water was coming from?

Friday night, I awoke to a scratching sound about two o'clock in the morning. I scoured the room trying to identify the source of the noise, leery of what I might find. I finally discovered that the sound was coming from behind the rattan wardrobe, so I carefully pulled it away from the wall, stepped back, and waited for something to crawl out. Nothing did, so I pulled it out some more and waited again. Nothing. I leaned my head against the wall to look behind the piece of furniture, and a huge rat poked its head out from a ledge on the back of the wardrobe. All of a sudden, the rodent jumped down and ran towards me along the wall. Startled, I screamed, probably waking my neighbors. By this point, I was wide awake. I turned on all the lights and searched the room for the rat. I saw it scurry along the wall once again, but I couldn't find it under any of the furniture after a thorough search, so I assumed that it must have left the room through a crack. I soon gave up the search and tried to sleep, hoping that the rodent wouldn't find its way onto my bed if it was still in the room.

The next morning, I checked out of Jati Home Stay. Not because of the rat – I think camping in Africa must have hardened me to vermin – but because they were booked solid. I had been extending my stay day-to-day because I didn't know how long I wanted to remain in Ubud. I walked a block down the street, found another guesthouse, and booked a room within 10 minutes – for a cheaper rate than Jati. It's so easy to find a cheap place to stay in Bali that there is really no reason to book ahead. This new place was $12 per night. It had a few geckos crawling on the walls, but they eat mosquitoes and other insects, so I don't mind the cute lizards. There was also some loud construction work right outside the room, but earplugs solved that problem.

Tomorrow, I'm leaving Ubud and heading down to Kuta, Bali's main tourist hub, to see some friends that traveled with me on the Oasis trip in Africa. Although I've enjoyed the tranquil setting of Ubud, I suppose it's time for me to explore another corner of Bali.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Farewell, Africa

Day 113: Johannesburg, South Africa
Friday afternoon, we stopped for a shopping break in the town of Hazyview on our way to Blyde River Canyon. The popular Panorama Route through the canyon features several impressive viewpoints, and what could be more impressive than one called God's Window? We arrived there in the late afternoon after a long and winding drive through mountainous terrain. From the viewpoint, a vast and majestic landscape spread out into the hazy distance. Bright red flowers embellished the sheer rock walls of the cliffs on either side of us. The valley below was flanked by gently curving mountains rising to pink-tinged tips illuminated by the setting sun. We climbed a pathway from the viewpoint and arrived in small patch of rainforest that was a lush collage of dense ferns, tangled vines, and crimson flowers.

Sunset at God's Window, Blyde River Canyon, Drakensberg, South Africa © Matt Prater
Sunset at God's Window along the Panorama Route, Blyde River Canyon, Drakensberg, South Africa

We had a late start leaving Kruger, so we would have to return to the other viewpoints the next day. After sunset, we sped for what seemed like a never-ending two and a half hours along dark, curving roads down from the mountains. At eight o'clock, we finally arrived at Ilkley Game Ranch, where we stayed in the bungalows – with comfortable beds and nice showers! Dinner was provided at the ranch in the form of a traditional dance performance by members of a local Shangaan tribe. These dancers showed amazing endurance as they danced for almost two solid hours while we enjoyed dinner. As an appetizer, we had beef biltong, and this was much nicer than the shrink-wrapped biltong bought in stores. It was more akin to Italian carpaccio. Next, we tried a traditional Shangaan starter. A bucket of chicken heads and feet was passed around; I reached into the bucket and pulled out a chicken foot. I cautiously bit into it, but the meat was almost non-existent, and the claws and bones of course were inedible, at least to me. For the main course, we enjoyed some of the South African dishes we had become accustomed to eating: pap (maize meal porridge) and boerewors (sausage).

Saturday was the last day of the trip and was an extremely long day. In the morning, we drove to the nearby Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, where we listened to an inspiring talk by one of the guides about the true issues of wildlife conservation. He described how international efforts to "save the elephants" or "save the rhinos" unintentionally cause harm to many lesser-known species. The habitat is what really needs to be saved. Although everyone loves elephants, he explained, the large creatures are also destructive, and too many of them in a confined area destroy the habitat of smaller animals, leading those creatures to become endangered. Conservation groups have protested against culling elephants and other star animals, and as a result, the ecosystems in some parks such as Kruger have become unbalanced. Although leopards are difficult to spot, they are abundant in Kruger. The solitary cats are fiercely territorial, and as more leopards are born, there is less land for each cat to claim for its territory. Some leopards therefore leave Kruger and invade local farmland, where they are shot by farmers because the predators represent a direct threat to their livestock and livelihood. The "circle of life" in Africa can never recover on its own. As we humans have encroached on the habitats of wild animals and set up game reserves to protect them, we must attempt to maintain the balance ourselves within these parks, even if this means culling hundreds of one species to save another.

Honey badger in Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Limpopo Province, South Africa © Matt Prater
Honey badger in Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Limpopo Province, South Africa
After the interesting and eye-opening talk, we toured some of the animals kept in the park. These are mostly wild animals who have been trapped, injured, poisoned, or electrocuted in power lines. Moholoholo rehabilitates some of these animals and releases them back into the wild. But the center also keeps some of the injured animals to use as educational tools to spread the word about issues facing wild animals in Africa. We were able to pet one of the park's cheetahs, hold some of the birds of prey, see some extremely rare wild dogs, and watch the guide hand-feed – through a chain-link fence – a massive lion and a stunningly beautiful leopard. We also visited an enclosure containing honey badgers, possibly the most vicious creatures in Africa. These badgers attack the genitalia of animals, causing them to bleed to death, and they instill fear even in the king of beasts. The guide told us that the badgers recently escaped, and the center's huge male lion was cowering up on a rock, fearing for its life.

Wild dog in Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Limpopo Province, South Africa © Matt Prater
Wild dog in Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Limpopo Province, South Africa
Leopard in Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Limpopo Province, South Africa © Matt Prater
Leopard in Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Limpopo Province, South Africa

From the rehabilitation center, it was an hour and a half back to Blyde River Canyon, where we had been the evening before. This time, we visited two viewpoints. The first is known as the Three Rondavels, and it features an incredible view of a river gorge and some strange round rock formations adorning the crest of the canyon. We ate lunch here and then visited Bourke's Luck Potholes, a series of cascades.

The Three Rondavels, Blyde River Canyon, Drakensberg, South Africa © Matt Prater
The Three Rondavels along the Panorama Route, Blyde River Canyon, Drakensberg, South Africa

From Blyde River Canyon, it was an agonizing six hours further to Johannesburg, and we arrived about 9 p.m. The truck dropped passengers off at several hotels and the airport, and it was sad saying farewell to so many people in such a short timespan. I stayed on the truck until the last stop, Mufasa Backpackers, where the Nomad crew also stays. Like many people, I have heard the horror stories about the rampant violent crime in Johannesburg, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Even out in the middle of nowhere, in the suburb of Benoni, there are abundant precautions against robberies. All the houses on the street, including the hostel, look like they were lifted straight out of Baghdad's Green Zone. These fortresses are surrounded by high prison-like walls and iron gates topped by large coils of barbed wire. In addition, angled electric fencing runs along the tops of the walls, and when the gate to the hostel opened to let the truck in, I felt like I was entering Jurassic Park.

Housing in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa © Matt Prater
Housing in the township of Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa
Yesterday, my last full day in Africa, I toured the infamous urban area of Soweto, the largest township in South Africa. The name refers to South Western Townships, and several million people call Soweto home. It took well over an hour to get halfway across the city, where I met my guide at the Apartheid Museum; from there, it was a short drive into the township. There are actually upper and middle-class sections of Soweto, and the large houses in the richer section look more inviting than the fortresses in the Johannesburg suburbs. The people of the township live like a family, and crime here is relatively low compared to the rest of Johannesburg. We drove past Desmond Tutu's modest house, as well as the house in which Nelson Mandela lived when he was arrested. We also visited the Hector Pieterson Museum, which vividly describes the history behind the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976 – one of the pivotal events of the apartheid resistance movement. Students, some only elementary school children, marched against the requirement imposed by the apartheid government that Afrikaans replace English as the language of instruction in schools. Hector Pieterson was a 12-year-old boy who was killed by a stray bullet shot by over-zealous police; he was only one of over five hundred who died during the riots. The next stop was Regina Mundi Catholic Church, where students sought refuge from unrestrained police during the uprising. Bullet holes can still be seen in the ceiling and the stained glass windows.

Depiction of Madonna and Child in Regina Mundi Catholic Church, Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa © Matt Prater
A depiction of Madonna and Child in Regina Mundi Catholic Church in the township of Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa
Stained glass window depicting Nelson Mandela in Regina Mundi Catholic Church, Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa © Matt Prater
A stained glass window depicting Nelson Mandela in Regina Mundi Catholic Church in the township of Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa

Our final stop was the informal settlement of Motsoaledi, consisting of a dirt road lined with barbed wire fencing and corrugated metal shacks. Many of the residents in the poorer sections of Soweto do not have electricity, and they use communal toilets and water taps.

Woman and fence, Motsoaledi, Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa © Matt Prater
A woman stands near a barbed wire fence in Motsoaledi in the township of Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa.

After a freezing cold night in the hostel, I walked from Mufasa Backpackers to the nearby post office to ship some souvenirs home, and I left my sleeping bag, blanket, gloves, and other items with the hostel to give to charity. I headed to the airport, leaving Johannesburg and South Africa just as anticipation for the upcoming World Cup reaches fever pitch.

On this, my one hundredth day in Africa, I bid farewell to this stunning continent of timeless landscapes, abundant wildlife, and fascinating cultures – indeed, the birthplace of mankind – and look ahead to new adventures in Asia. Africa, you will be deeply missed.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Kruger: A Grand Finale of African Wildlife

Day 110: Kruger National Park, South Africa
Wednesday, we left Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in the morning and drove past the Swazi capital of Mbabane on the way to Pigg's Peak in the north of the country. We had a last chance to buy some Swazi crafts, and then we drove half an hour to the border, where we said farewell to Swaziland and entered South Africa yet again. From the border, it was a short drive to Malelane at the edge of South Africa's star attraction, the world-class Kruger National Park. We stocked up on food and drinks at the supermarket and crossed the gate into the park, where we would spend the next two nights. We arrived at the Berg en Dal Rest Camp in the early afternoon, where we guarded our lunch from the cheeky vervet monkeys who like to sneak off with anything they can get their thieving hands on. We kept a close eye on them as they sat like vultures on top of the truck.

We split up into two groups for our activities in Kruger. That first night at Berg en Dal, I went on a sunset game drive. The vehicle was one of the nicest safari trucks I've been on, and it was equipped with spotlights that passengers could shine into the bush to look for animals hiding in the darkness. We did not stop for the park's ubiquitous impala, but before the sun had even set, we made our first major sighting: a huge male lion lounging by the side of the road. We photographed him as darkness crept closer, and then we drove off to look for more wildlife, spotting several scrub hares bounding through the grass and across the road. It was soon pitch black, and I switched on the spotlight that sat next to my seat, looking for any reflecting glint of eyes in the darkness. One of the passengers yelled at the driver to stop. He had spotted the reflection of a single eye high above the ground: it was an elephant silently walking through the forest. It was difficult to photograph animals only by the illumination of the spotlights, but it was a rare and fascinating experience to be able to view wildlife at night.

What happened next was a quickly fading dream of mine since I arrived in Africa over three months ago. With only two days of game drives left, I had almost given up all hope of seeing a leopard, the most elusive of Africa's "Big Five". The Big Five is traditionally defined as the most dangerous game to hunt on foot, although nowadays most people photograph these animals rather than kill them. These five dangerous animals are the elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, lion, and leopard. For a fleeting moment, the vehicle's headlights illuminated the hind end of a leopard as it crossed the road and stealthily vanished into the dense trees on the other side. I had finally seen the last member of the Big Five, that beautiful and ever reclusive spotted cat.

Our game drive was not over yet, however. As we drove on, we stumbled upon an impressive group of six lionesses and three absolutely adorable cubs on the side of the road. The cubs played, tumbling over one another just like domestic housecats. Minutes after we left the group of lions, we spotted yet another member of the Big Five: a rhinoceros. We had now seen four of the Big Five in the course of two hours!

Lionesses and cub in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Lionesses and cub at night near Berg en Dal in Kruger National Park, South Africa

The next morning, we went on a game walk similar to the one I had done in Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe. The guides were incredibly knowledgeable and informative, and they described the behavior of rhinos in detail as we tracked a group of them. We stumbled upon a large pile of dung that marks the territory of a dominant male. If another male rhino walks into this area and leaves a pile of dung away from the edge of the big pile, he is showing respect to the dominant male. If the outsider instead leaves his dung directly in the large pile, this is a direct challenge to the dominant male rhino, and the two will fight when they meet. We did not find any rhinos before breakfast, so we scrambled to the top of a koppe (rocky hill) to eat and survey the area. We spotted four white rhinos in the distance, so we climbed down and headed towards them. We eventually found them, but they stayed further away from us than the rhinos in Matobo.

We headed back to the campsite at Berg en Dal, where we met the Nomad truck and departed for Skukuza, a major center in the park. On the way, we saw an elephant, numerous types of antelope, and a red-throated Southern ground-hornbill. Then we came to a jam of vehicles stopped in the road: two cheetahs were reclining by a nearby watering hole. It is even rarer to spot cheetahs in the wild than leopards, so we couldn't believe our luck!

Southern ground-hornbill in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Southern ground-hornbill in Kruger National Park, South Africa
Cheetah in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Cheetah in Kruger National Park, South Africa

We ate lunch in Skukuza and then continued on to Satara, our campsite for the night. We had already seen quite a few rare animals in Kruger, but our lucky streak continued, and we were actually treated to a "dancing" baby elephant! The calf was disturbed by our truck and was trying to act big; it actually charged us and lifted its trunk straight into the air, sounding a deafening trumpet that was quite impressive for such a small elephant. It retreated to the comfort of its mother, who was standing further back from the road among the trees, but on the way, the cute elephant became tangled in some low brush and "moon-walked" backwards to try to free itself. After clumsily crossing its legs and stumbling around for a while, the calf finally danced itself free from the tangle and stood next to its mother. If elephants can look embarrassed, this one surely did.

Young elephant in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Young elephant in Kruger National Park, South Africa

As we made our way towards Satara, we saw a zoo's worth of animals, including impala, kudu, wildebeest, giraffes, baboons, vultures, lions, and – finally – buffalo. This buffalo sighting finished off our Big Five within one day of being in Kruger, quite a rare feat, and one that I had not accomplished in over three months of game viewing in Africa.

At Satara, I left with half the group at 8 p.m. to go on a night game drive. We saw some unique animals that I had not seen before, including a porcupine and a small cat called a gennet. We also spent some time with a clan of spotted hyenas, including an adorable cub. One of the hyenas was chewing on a bone: hyenas crush and eat bones and horns with powerful jaws and specialized teeth, and their dung is white from all the bone they consume.

Lioness in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Lioness in Kruger National Park, South Africa
We finished our drive at ten o'clock, ate a quick dinner back at the campsite, and were in bed by 11:30. We had to rise at four o'clock this morning to meet our vehicle at 4:45 for another game drive. As dawn broke, we came across three lionesses who were hungrily eyeing a group of nearby impala. One of the lionesses even stood up slowly and assumed a stealthy stalking position, but she would not attack because it was daylight. Lions rely on the element of surprise in tackling prey, and these impala were definitely aware of the danger nearby. They crossed the road near the lions methodically in small groups. Before each group crossed, an impala would give a loud barking sound as a warning reminder. As long as there were no stragglers, the impala were safe.

Vulture in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Vulture in Kruger National Park, South Africa
We returned to the campsite to meet the truck and make our way out of Kruger. But our luck had not run out yet. On the way out of the park, we saw impala, waterbuck, wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, warthogs, giraffes, baboons, elephants, ostriches, an African fish eagle, and an African Scops owl. We also saw a large group of imposing vultures feasting on a carcass. These huge birds have a wingspan of almost eight feet and are at their most impressive when swooping overhead. Then, the grand finale: our driver slammed on the brakes and pointed out a rare sight on the side of the road. A massive Mozambique spitting cobra was reared up in an alert position with its hood flared out. When the snake relaxed, its hood flattened imperceptibly against its sleek body, and the serpent slithered gracefully into the long grass. To make the sighting even more entertaining, a mongoose that had been watching the cobra crawled into the grass after the snake, sheepishly looking around as if it didn't want to share such a huge meal.

African Scops owl at Skukuza in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
African Scops owl at Skukuza in Kruger National Park, South Africa
Mozambique spitting cobra in Kruger National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Mozambique spitting cobra in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Tiny Country of Swaziland

Day 107: Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, Swaziland
Yesterday we awoke at 4:00 AM and sleepily rode an hour in an open jeep with the freezing cold wind blasting us from all sides. Blankets were provided for the drive, but it was still very uncomfortable. We arrived at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve when it was just getting light, and we had a brief toilet break at the visitor center before our game drive. There was a covered patio area in front of the doors to the toilets, and bats were darting throughout the space. They were lightning fast, and I just ducked and ran to the door. When I was finished, I opened the door to leave and a bat almost flew in my face. I darted back out again and walked over to the jeep. The first animal we saw on the game drive was a white rhinoceros, the first one I've seen since Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe over six weeks ago. As the morning sun thawed us out, we saw giraffes, warthogs, impala, wildebeest, nyala, kudu, and quite a few zebras.

Two zebras nuzzling, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, South Africa © Matt Prater
Two zebras nuzzling, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, South Africa
Zebras, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, South Africa © Matt Prater
Zebras, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve, South Africa

After the game drive in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, we met the Nomad truck in the town of Mtubatuba and proceeded to a traditional Zulu village called DumaZulu. It was really touristy, and the villagers were obviously just actors, but it was still an educational facsimile of a real village. We learned about the language, crafts, and social system of the Zulu. Married women cover themselves with a beaded black garment and wear a red hat, while unmarried girls wear only beads to cover themselves. We met the fortune teller, who identifies herself by covering her face in red clay. She reads fortunes by throwing bones on the ground and interpreting the patterns. After walking through the village, we ended up in an outdoor theater area where we watched a Zulu dance, similar to the one we saw the night before in St. Lucia.

Married Zulu woman in DumaZulu Traditional Village in Hluhluwe, South Africa © Matt Prater
Married Zulu woman in DumaZulu Traditional Village in Hluhluwe, South Africa
Fortune teller in DumaZulu Traditional Village in Hluhluwe, South Africa © Matt Prater
Fortune teller in DumaZulu Traditional Village in Hluhluwe, South Africa

Nyala, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, Swaziland © Matt Prater
Nyala, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, Swaziland
From the village, it was slightly over an hour to the Swaziland border, and the crossing was quick. Swaziland is a tiny country enclosed on three sides by South Africa and bordered by Mozambique in the east. The entire country is about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Three hours after crossing the border, we arrived at our campsite in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. There are no predators in the park, and nyala and impala wander freely into the campsite. When I went to the bathroom block from my tent that night, I walked right through a group of eleven impala.

This morning, we went on a game walk through the park. We saw a few zebra and the various common types of antelope we've seen a thousand times, such as impala, blesbok, and wildebeest. We came to some mud pits near the large lake, and we had to cross via slippery logs that had been laid across the sludge. At the lake, we saw a hippo and a few crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks.

In the afternoon, we went on a tour of a nearby village. The girls from our group had to wear sarong-like garments featuring an image of the Swazi king to show respect. The older woman who was the village's chief told us, through a translator, about their way of life. She showed us how they weave baskets using gourds as molds, balance large jugs on their heads, and crush maize into flour using a grindstone. The girls from our group joined the girls from the village in a dance, and then us guys had to join the boys in a dance. Before we left, some of the women sold us curios handcrafted in the village. At the end of our visit, all the children performed a farewell dance for us. This Swazi village is an authentic, functioning place and therefore much more fascinating than the Zulu village near St. Lucia that was developed for tourists.

Girl holding gourds in a village in Swaziland © Matt Prater
A girl holds gourds in a village in Swaziland.
Children dancing in a village in Swaziland © Matt Prater
Children dance in a village in Swaziland.

Back at Mlilwane, I spent the rest of the afternoon photographing some of the colorful spiders that could be found throughout the campsite. After dinner, we watched a series of Swazi dance performances by some local dance troupes. These dancers had a greater variety of moves than the Zulu dancers in South Africa, who seemed to just stomp as hard as possible. Afterward, we sat in a trance around the fire, which has become the camping equivalent of a television.

Spiny orb-weaver spider, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, Swaziland © Matt Prater
Spiny orb-weaver spider, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, Swaziland

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Drakensberg and Zululand

Day 105: iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa
Thursday we drove two hours from Malealea to the border crossing at Lesotho's capital city of Maseru. Two hours into south Africa, we stopped for lunch in the scenic Golden Gate National Park and enjoyed a picturesque view of the mountains. We continued to drive past ever-heightening mountains until we arrived at the campsite lodge in the Drakensberg. In the distance rose the imposing silhouette of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre, a curving sheer rock wall three miles long and up to 4,000 feet high. The bar and lounge in this campsite was probably the best I've seen in Africa. There was a jacuzzi in the bar, a rock climbing wall next to it, and a sauna in the adjacent room. The upstairs had a TV lounge and library. We spent the evening trying to tackle the difficult route from one side of the U-shaped climbing wall to the other.

Bushmen paintings in Royal Natal National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Bushmen paintings in Royal Natal National Park, uKhahlamba / Drakensberg Park, South Africa
The next day, we drove into the nearby Royal Natal National Park, part of the uKhahlamba / Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site, where we did a series of hikes throughout the day. The first hike was an hour long: we climbed a hillside to an overhanging cliff that protected a group of 800-year-old Bushmen paintings. The Bushmen civilization has existed in the Drakensberg for at least 40,000 years. High up in the sedimentary rock that formed the cliff were some starfish fossils, indicating that this high elevation was under the sea millions of years ago.

The Drakensberg Amphitheatre in Royal Natal National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
The Drakensberg Amphitheatre in Royal Natal National Park, uKhahlamba / Drakensberg Park, South Africa

The Cascades in Royal Natal National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
The Cascades in Royal Natal National Park, uKhahlamba / Drakensberg Park, South Africa
The destination of the second hike was the Cascades, and the easy trail had a view of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre to one side. Hidden somewhere in the shadows of this towering bluff was Tugela Falls, the second highest waterfall on Earth after Venezuela's Angel Falls. The sheer cliffs on either side of Tugela drop 3,000 feet to the ground. Unfortunately, we would not see the waterfall because it requires an eight-hour hike to get there. It only took half an hour to get to the Cascades, a beautiful series of drops ending in a deep pool in the middle of the forest. As we sat on the rocks with our feet in the cold water, some baboons appeared at the top of the falls and started making their way down towards us. I didn't even have time to put on my shoes before we retreated to safety – baboons have no fear of people and can be quite dangerous if you have food. I didn't have food in my pack, but some of the others did. The baboons stayed away from us, but they cornered two older women who were picnicking on the rocks. Eventually they scattered and left the women alone.

We got back to the truck after a short hike through the forest, and lunch was ready and waiting for us. After eating our sandwiches, we embarked on a long afternoon hike to Sunday Falls. We crossed vast fields of tall grass that blanketed the hilly landscape and had scenic views of the majestic mountains in the distance. We saw a few antelopes in the distance, and one woman saw a small snake slithering into the grass as we passed. After an hour, we reached the waterfall, which flowed into a lush forested gorge cutting between two grassy hills. It was impossible to get to the bottom of the gorge to see the falls from below, and the view from the top was uninspiring. We took a break by the stream at the top of the waterfall and then commenced the hour-long hike back to the truck.

Yesterday, it was three and a half hours to Durban, South Africa's third largest city and the busiest port in all of Africa. Durban sits on the Indian Ocean and is normally a great beach location, but it was pouring down rain when we arrived. Most of us spent the afternoon relaxing around the hostel – there is not much to do in the city anyway. The rain let up by dinnertime, and we went out to a seafood restaurant as a farewell dinner for the two passengers who were ending their trip in Durban.

This morning, we picked up eight new passengers, which increased our group size to fifteen. There are seven of us who have been on the trip since Cape Town. The new passengers also diversified the make-up of our mostly Dutch group: we gained an American girl, a British guy, a Canadian guy, a German girl, a Kiwi couple, and two more Dutch guys. We drove three hours to St. Lucia, also on the coast, where we embarked on a game cruise after lunch at the campsite. The cruise was on Lake St. Lucia within the World Heritage Site of iSimangaliso Wetland Park. We saw quite a few Nile crocodiles, a variety of birds, and tons of hippos.

Nile crocodile, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Nile crocodile, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa

Hippos, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Hippos, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa

After the cruise, we returned to the campsite and watched a Zulu dance around the fire. The moves were extremely powerful – the dancers lifted their legs high into the air and then slammed their feet onto the ground as hard as they could. I could feel the vibrations through the hard earth from twenty feet away. After the dance, we ate dinner and went straight to bed; we have to rise very early tomorrow morning for a game drive.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Remote Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho

Day 101: Malealea, Lesotho
Yesterday, we drove six hours to the border of Lesotho (pronounced li-soo-too), an independent kingdom the size of Belgium completely surrounded by South Africa. In the early nineteenth century, the king Moshoeshoe was successful at repeatedly defending his mountaintop villages from the forces of Shaka Zulu, the Dutch, and the British. Ultimately, Lesotho ended up becoming a sovereign nation. When we crossed the border, the contrast with South Africa was obvious: the level of development reminded me of Rwanda. Shabby shops constructed of corrugated metal lined the road as we drove through Mafeteng, one of the largest cities in Lesotho. We climbed through the picturesque mountains for about an hour before coming to the Gates of Paradise Pass, which features a commanding view of the scenic countryside. These peaks are part of the Drakensberg, the highest mountain range in Southern Africa. In fact, Lesotho is the highest country in the world – the entire kingdom lies above 1,400 meters (4,593 feet). The lonely shepherds leading their flocks through the rugged terrain wore patterned blankets to guard against the cold. Between the crisp air, the undulating landscape, and Lesotho's history of fiercely guarding its unique culture against South Africa, the mountain kingdom seemed like an African version of Tibet.

Sheep crossing road, Gates of Paradise Pass, Lesotho © Matt Prater
A herd of sheep cross a dirt road on the Gates of Paradise Pass in Lesotho.

It was only twenty minutes down from the pass to the tiny town of Malealea, where we would stay for two nights. The campsite had closed down the camping area for the winter, so we were able to stay in their bungalows for free. I dropped my bags off in the room and walked over to the nearby lounge while Chad cooked dinner in the adjacent kitchen. Many of the places we have stayed on the Nomad tour have nice indoor lounges with fireplaces, cushy couches and chairs, and electrical outlets for charging laptops and camera batteries. Although Lesotho wasn't as cold as we were expecting, it was still nice to warm up by the fire.

In the morning, I opened the door to the small bungalow I shared with Wesley, and sunlight illuminated the dark room. There on the corner of my bed crawled a gigantic caterpillar with long, feathery, stinging hairs. Luckily it never made it up to the bare skin around my face or neck during the night. A girl on the Oasis trip was stung by a caterpillar on her neck while she slept in her tent, and it caused a painful, swollen rash.

After breakfast, we went on a tour of the village of Malealea. We visited the small local general store to buy some candy to give to children at the school we were visiting later. We learned about home-made beer-brewing techniques, tried the local tea, and visited a sheep kraal (corral).

Farmland at sunset, Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
Farmland at sunset, Malealea, Lesotho

Shepherd in Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
A shepherd walks along a dirt path in Malealea, Lesotho.
Huts in Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
Huts in Malealea, Lesotho

After two hours, we arrived at the school. All the houses and other buildings in the village are spread out, and there are few roads – we walked through crop terraces to get to the school. We met some of the teachers and students, and the school administrator told us about the hardships faced by the school. Some of the students wore uniforms. Many did not. Uniforms are a major expense for families in this poor region. Students become bilingual at an early age because classes are taught in both English and Sesotho, the language of Lesotho. In fact, Lesotho has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa. We left just as the children began to eat their lunch of maize meal porridge provided by the school. Our last stop on the way back was at a preschool, where the children performed a dance for us, and the teachers joined in. The people of Lesotho are called Basotho, and they are among the friendliest I have encountered in Africa.

Preschool teacher in Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
A teacher stands outside a preschool in Malealea, Lesotho.
Female student in Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
A female student smiles in a classroom in Malealea, Lesotho.
Male student in Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
A male student stands outside a school in Malealea, Lesotho.

Classroom in Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
A classroom in Malealea, Lesotho

After lunch, I set out on a long hike through the surrounding landscape. Most of the group chose to do the trek on horseback, but I rode a horse in Zimbabwe, and I also wanted to focus on taking photographs. We walked for ages from the hilltop where Malealea sits down into a river valley. The river at the bottom is unique – in certain areas, it runs completely through a channel of solid rock that has been worn into smooth, wave-like shapes by the flowing water. We had to cross the river numerous times as it snaked back and forth through the steep walls of the mountains, and each crossing was more treacherous than the last. We balanced on slippery rocks, jumping from one to another across the fast-flowing water. The river was not deep, but none of us wanted to get wet. It probably would have been easier to just wade barefoot to the other side. We finally made it to the waterfall, where we met the others who came on horseback. We admired the sheltered pool and the mossy rock walls while we refueled on cereal bars, and then we trekked back along the river and up the hillside to Malealea.

Waterfall near Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
A waterfall near Malealea, Lesotho

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tsitsikamma / An Enchanting Mountain Town

Day 99: Hogsback, South Africa
Friday we drove from our campsite in Stormsrivier into nearby Tsitsikamma National Park, which stretches along the scenic and rugged coastline. We started hiking along the rocky shore, where massive, powerful waves thundered with huge explosions of spray and foam. The surf was among the most intense I've ever seen, and the breakers crashed into the rocky outcroppings with such force that sprays of water shot far into the air and the water near the shore turned into a churning cauldron of sand and foam. We continued walking through coastal forest trails, spotting a small antelope hiding among the trees. The forest opened up into another stretch of rugged coastline. The landscape here consists of shards of jagged rock jutting into the air at a 45 degree angle. There were no flat footholds: walking here required balancing on the angled edge of these rocks. After a couple of hours, we reached a waterfall cascading into a sheltered pool that empties into the sea.

Coastline of Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Waves crash along the rocky coastline of Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa.

Plant life in Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
Lush plant life thrives in Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa.
On the return hike, we ended up splitting into a few smaller groups. I walked with two of the Dutch women, and we decided to take a pathway leading up and over a hill, avoiding the treacherous sharp rocks. After ascending an endless series of logs that served as steps up the mountain, we began to wonder if we would ever descend again. We had been hiking for too long to turn back, so we trudged along into the thickening woods. As we neared the top, sunbeams illuminated the forest floor, and the ubiquitous chirping of frogs and insects surrounded us in all directions. Unseen creatures scurried into the underbrush as we passed. Luckily, we did not encounter any snakes or other dangerous animals – leopards live in this area – but one of the other groups did run across a deadly puff adder basking on the rocks near the shore. We finally came to a paved road that eventually led back to the truck after a serpentine route down the mountain. I hungrily devoured the sliced meat, cucumber, and tomato sandwiches that have become our staple lunch. After lunch, we set off for another hike, this one much easier and shorter. We walked along a paved pathway, descending to a suspension bridge that crosses the mouth of the Storms River where it empties into the ocean.

The temperature plummeted into the evening, and that second night at the campsite in Stormsrivier was the coldest yet. I cinched my hoodie around my face and crawled deep into my sleeping bag. I stuffed my pillow inside, drew the sleeping bag over my head, and curled up in a fetal position, shivering from the cold. Eventually, my body heat warmed the inside of the sleeping bag, and I was able to rest for a little while, only to be woken up again by dogs barking incessantly throughout the night. In the morning, I could see my breath inside the tent, and I dreaded crawling out of my sleeping bag. A corner of my pillow that was left outside my warm cocoon felt like it had been in a freezer. I unzipped the tent and stepped out into the bracing cold. Wesley and I wanted to collapse our tent as soon as possible so we could warm up with some tea, but the metal tent poles were like ice. We had to warm our numb fingers by the gas stove before we could disassemble the poles.

As we rode toward Jeffreys Bay, the sun shone through the windows of the truck and thawed us out. Jeffreys Bay, affectionately called J-Bay, is one of the top surfing destinations in the world, and surf shops crowded the main street. As Chad had warned us that the temperatures would be even colder in the high elevations in Lesotho and the Drakensberg, we spent our time in Jeffreys Bay buying blankets, gloves, and hot water bottles at the mall.

Kudu, Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa © Matt Prater
A kudu in Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa
It was another two hours to Addo Elephant National Park, where we proceeded straight into a game drive in the Nomad truck. We saw the usual wildlife – kudu, warthogs, ostriches, an elephant in the distance – but we also saw eland, a large and graceful antelope, for the first time. One of the stranger animals that is fiercely protected in Addo is the flightless dung beetle. We saw a few of these insects rolling balls of dung in the middle of the road, and signs warn vehicles to watch for them to avoid running them over.

We camped for the night in Addo – yet another cold one – and then proceeded to Port Elizabeth yesterday morning. As we approached the city, the bay appeared as a calm turquoise sliver on the horizon. We dropped three people off in Port Elizabeth, decreasing our group to an intimate nine passengers. We continued another two hours and took a short break in the quaint university town of Grahamstown, where I enjoyed a lime shake at a fast-food restaurant. We had lunch at the side of the road by the Great Fish River and then drove the two-hour home stretch to Hogsback. As we climbed in elevation toward our destination, dry brush and thorny acacia trees gave way to lush, dark forests blanketing the hillsides of the Amatole Mountains. There was a majestic view of the surrounding countryside as we made the final ascent to the town.

Café sign, Hogsback, South Africa © Matt Prater
A café sign in Hogsback, South Africa
Hogsback markets itself as a fairy tale forest setting, and artists who base themselves in the small community produce handiwork such as statues of fairies and gnomes. J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, was born in nearby Bloemfontein, and the ancient forest is credited as inspiration for some of the iconic settings of Middle Earth. In fact, many of the locations in Hogsback reference The Lord of the Rings, such as Rivendell Camp Site, The Ring Liquor Store, and an outdoor education center called Hobbiton. Our campsite, Away with the Fairies, features buildings labeled Bag End, Bilbo's Rest, and The Wizard's Sleeve Inn. We set up our tents in a clearing surrounded by trees, and fireflies twinkled throughout the forest as dusk fell, adding to the magical ambiance of Hogsback.

Cottage at Away with the Fairies Backpackers, Hogsback, South Africa © Matt Prater
A cottage at Away with the Fairies Backpackers in Hogsback, South Africa
View from Away with the Fairies Backpackers, Hogsback, South Africa © Matt Prater
View of the Amatole Mountains from Away with the Fairies Backpackers in Hogsback, South Africa

Despite the higher elevation, the climate in Hogsback was more temperate than down at the chilly coast, and I enjoyed a comfortable night's sleep in the tent. We spent most of today hiking in the Tyume indigenous forest, passing streams and waterfalls, dense patches of emerald green ferns, colorful mushrooms, and a massive 800-year-old tree. The forest reminded me of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, except for the monkeys leaping through the trees overhead. In the afternoon, we walked around the town, visiting the historic Hogsback Inn and an esoteric garden of fairy statues created by a local artist.

Fern, Tyume indigenous forest, Hogsback, South Africa © Matt Prater
A fern in the Tyume indigenous forest near Hogsback, South Africa
Berries, Hogsback, South Africa © Matt Prater
Berries in Hogsback, South Africa

Hogsback Inn, Hogsback, South Africa © Matt Prater
The historic 19th-century Hogsback Inn in Hogsback, South Africa

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