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SOUTHERN AFRICA ADVENTURE

Our October 2004 holiday

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Country Profiles
  • Johannesburg & Pretoria
  • Blyde River Canyon
  • Kruger National Park
  • Swaziland
  • Zululand
  • Durban
  • Knysna Area
  • Oudtshoorn Area
  • On To The Cape
  • Cape Town
  • Victoria Falls
  • Botswana
  • Conclusion

  • INTRODUCTION

    "No doubt Africa's renaissance is at hand - and our challenge is to steer the continent through the tide of history".

    Former political prisoner and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela

    In recent years, Roger & Vee have become quite adventurous in their travelling and this was our fourth 'big' trip, the previous ones being to China [click here], South America [click here] and India & Nepal [click here]. It was our third visit to Africa, following earlier trips to the northern nations of Egypt [click here] and Morocco [click here].

    Essentially the holiday was a tour of South Africa with an extension to Victoria Falls in Zambia but, while on the grand tour, we spent a day passing through Swaziland and, while we were in Zambia, we took a day trip to Botswana, so in all we saw something of four countries in southern Africa. This took Roger's tally of countries visited worldwide to 40.

    We booked the holiday through Kuoni [click here], with whom we travelled to China and India, but all the arrangements in South Africa were made by Thompsons [click here].

    COUNTRY PROFILES

    Our holiday took us to four different countries:

    South Africa

    This is a huge country of 1,221,040 sq km, making it five times the size of the UK. The first white inhabitants landed at the Cape in 1652 and the British took over the country from the Boers in 1877. The Union of South Africa was created in 1910, but the country was scarred by the brutal injustices of apartheid instituted by the Afrikaan governments of 1948-1994. Following the release of Nelson Mandela from 27 years in prison, the first multi-racial elections of this 'rainbow nation' were held in 1994, so we visited in the year marking the first decade of liberation and democracy. The African National Congress (ANC) - now under the leadership of Thabo Mbeki - has now been in power for 10 years with only weak opposition in the Parliament. Although real economic progress is being made, one in four South Africans is officially out of work and the rate of HIV among the adult population is around 20%. The population is now around 45 million. There are 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, South Sotho, North Sotho, Swati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.

    Link: South Africa info click here

    Swaziland

    This is a tiny country of just 17,200 sq km (about the size of Wales), surrounded mostly by South Africa (with a border with Mozambique to the north-east). Indeed, with the exception of Gambia, it is the smallest state on the continent. The country is named after King Mswati II who became king in 1839 and expanded the kingdom to almost twice its current size. It was officially controlled by the British until 1968. The current ruler is King Mswati III who became king in 1986 and has ten wives. By custom, he is entitled to choose a new wife at each annual reed festival. Whereas South Africa is the most democratic country in Africa, Swaziland is one of the most autocratic. Political parties are illegal and the authoritarian monarch acts with increasingly despotic tendencies. The population is only about one million people. The two official languages are English and Swazi. There is a very high rate of HIV/AIDS with more than a third of the adult poulation infected.

    Zambia

    This is a very large country of 743,390 sq km, around three times the size of the UK, but it is an oddly shaped nation whose borders do not correspond to any tribal or linguistic area. There are a total of no less than 73 tribes, although there are five main ones. Formerly known as Northern Rhodesia (after the British explorer Cecil Rhodes), it gained its independence in 1964. It is a stable multi-party democracy with the governing party being the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) led by President Mwanawasa. It has a population of over 10 million. The official language is English, but additionally there are seven official 'special languages'.

    Botswana

    This is another large country of 566,730 sq km, over twice the size of the UK. As a British colony, it was known as Bechuanaland and it gained its independence in 1966. A single political party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), has dominated politics since independence, reflecting a record of relatively good governance and the ethnic dominance of the Bamangwato people. The population is only 1.6 million. The two official languages are English and Setswana. The country is one of the worst hit in the world by HIV/AIDS with almost 40% of the adult population infected.

    Link: Ian and Wendy's site click here

    JOHANNESBURG & PRETORIA

    We started our holiday on a Saturday by flying from London to Johannesburg with South African Airways [click here]. This is a long flight - around 10 hours - but it is easier to handle than most flights of this duration, partially because we flew through the night and were able to sleep a little and partially because there was only an hour's time difference between Britain and South Africa so there was no jet lag. Our accommodation in the city was the adequate but undistinguished Rosebank Hotel in a fashionable (and safe) district [click here].

    Johannesburg - or Jo'burg or Jozi - is situated on a plateau at an altitude of 1,763 metres (5,783 feet). Following the discovery of a huge nugget of gold by one George Harrison in 1886, there was the greatest gold rush of all time which resulted in the founding of the town by the Boer republic of Transvaal. Harrison sold his claim for £10 and then simply disappeared (on one account, to form a group called the Beatles). Today the city has a population of over 5 million or, if one includes the township of Soweto and the nearby Pretoria, almost 9 million.

    Johannesburg was not officially on our tour of South Africa, but simply a starting point for it. Nevertheless we wanted to see something of the place and took the opportunity that afternoon to go on an optional three-hour city tour led by a local guide called Kaynan. The city is a real contrast of the very rich and the very poor and we saw both sides of this social divide in the two districts beginning with the letter H.

    Houghton is full of palatial homes protected by fences, barbed wire and electrified wire with armed response units on call. One of the homes is that of the former President Nelson Mandela who lives in a protected house on the corner of Fourth Street and 12th Avenue. The streets are lined with many trees including colourful bourgeanvillea, but there are very few people to be seen. In total contrast, there is Hillbow, an area of dilapidated tenament buildings and cheap stores. There are people everywhere, sitting on steps, lying on the pavements, and running illegal vending operations and trading drugs. Even the hospital has barbed wire around it and staff are accused of stealing the drugs.

    Of course, Johannesburg has a fearsome reputation for street and house crime, but our guide was keen to emphasize that things are not as bad as they are portrayed and that they are slowly improving as the police crack down. However, this reassurance was somewhat undermined when we drew up to a vantage point overlooking the city and found a black man lying full stretch in the road, totally still except for the blood oozing from his head. We learned that he had been attempting to burglar a house and the police had shot him dead.

    Johannesburg is the commercial and financial centre of South Africa, with places like ABSA Square and Gandhi Square surrounded by banks and offices, but crime has driven tourists and residents from the downtown area and on this Sunday it was very quiet. However, we visited the Carlton Centre and took a lift up 220 metres (722 feet) for splendid views of the tall office blocks and different social districts that make up this bustling metropolis. Our final stop was Museum Africa [click here]. This is housed in an interesting building that was originally constructed in 1913 as a fruit and vegetable market and converted into a museum in 1994. It contains many fascinating political exhibits about life under apartheid, including a special display on the treason trial of 1956 when 156 (including Nelson Mandela) were accused [click here].

    Early Monday morning (7.30 am) marked the official start of our tour of South Africa. The group consisted of 28 individuals but we were divided equally between two minibuses - each pulling a trailer for our suitcases - with a guide in each bus. Our guide was Keith Marallich (the other guide was Warwick Baker) and our driver was Sthembiso Nkomo. All of us got on well together, but we found ourselves drawn especially to two Dutch couples - Adriaan and Danielle den Braber (middle-aged like us) and Carlo de Best & Josée Janssen (late 20s) - with whom we had lots of laughs. Another non-British couple were good fun too: Ezra Laurent, an American working in Qatar, and Reshmi Singh, a South African working in the United Arab Emirates. Another young couple on the bus was Simon (worker at BT) and Julia May. Next there were mother and daughter Sheila and Louise Walter. Then there were Hugh and Sue Whitbread - Hugh used to work for BT and took lots of photographs, while Sue made comprehensive notes on our travels (see link to Hugh's pictures at the end of this text).

    It is a short journey of 50 km (31 miles) north up the N1 road to Pretoria, the first destination on our long tour. The city is named after Andries Pretorius, leader of the Boer forces at the 1838 battle of the Blood River and it has been South Africa's administrative capital since 1910. Today Parliament alternates between Pretoria and Cape Town.

    On the outskirts of Pretoria on Proclamation Hill stands the Voortrekker Monument which pays tribute to the 20,000 Voortrekker pioneers who left the Cape Colony in 1834-1835. It was designed by Gerard Moerdyk and constructed from 1938-1949 as an iconic reminder of the Boer spirit of determination and sacrifice. Whereas in Central & Eastern Europe, the new democratic governments have systematically wiped out all the symbols of the Communist era, the multiracial government of South Africa has accepted that apartheid creations like the Voortrekker Monument should continue as a part of the country's history. On our visit, we found the monument a dour edifice from the exterior, but politically interesting in its interior displays.


    Entrance to the Voortrekker Monument

    We were only given a brief glimp of the centre of Pretoria itself, but it was abundantly clear that the city stands in total contrast to its nearby 'twin' Johannesburg. Generally, the buildings are older and everywhere is cleaner and safer. Dominating Pretoria are the Union Buildings designed by Sir Herbert Baker, housing all the government departments, which are located on the Meintjeskop hill in the Arcadia district. We were seeing the city at the very best time of the year because, in October, 80,000 jacaranda trees burst into bloom creating wonderful splashes of purple and lilac.


    Jacaranda trees in bloom in Pretoria

    Historically, much of the wealth of South Africa has been built on gold and diamonds, so it was appropriate that, before we left the Johannesburg/Pretoria area, we travelled eastwards to visit the the oldest operational diamond mine in the world, the Premier Diamond Mine [click here] at the small town of Cullinan. Cullinan - founded in 1903 - takes its name from the businessman Thomas Cullinan and the town has in turn given its name to the Cullinan diamond which was an amazing 3,106 carats. As a long-time trade union official, Roger could not help but note that, whereas most South African trade unions are now multiracial, the mining industry still has white and black unions. Our company guide Fran showed us a video, gave us a talk, and took us on a tour of the ground-level features of the mine, but regretted that it was not possible to issue us with samples. Lunch was at the mine, sitting outside the "Whispering Oaks Garden Café" in very sunny weather.

    BLYDE RIVER CANYON

    At 2 pm, we left Cullinan and set off eastwards for the second stage of our tour: an exploration of the Blyde River Canyon. First, we sped down the major N4 road through lowveld countryside. Our guide Keith decided to put on a tape featuring an expert narration on the Zulu Wars - this was utterly fascinating and totally soperific and Roger & Vee soon joined others in failing to stay awake. We had a comfort stop just outside a place called Belfast - lots of British place names feature on the South African map - and then turned north-east up the minor R540 through Dullstroom and on to Lydenburg.

    Here we turned east again, to climb through the highveld of Robbers' Pass to our accommodation for the night at Pilgrim's Rest, having covered some 450 km (279 miles) in the day. This small town was built in 1873 by the first gold rush pioneers, following the discovery of gold in Pilgrims Creek by the pioneering Scottish miner Alex 'Wheelbarrow' Patterson. It was South Africa's first mining town and the gold lasted until 1972. Today the town is a national monument with restored buildings and five small museums.

    Here we stayed the night at Royal Hotel [click here]. This was built in 1894 and has a charming Victorian atmosphere with a stately lounge. Actual accommodation is spread around and Roger & Vee were housed in a separate house up a short hill. It was called "The Welcome Inn" and it was a single-level building with an old-fashioned porch at the front. The room itself was very atmospheric, with draped curtains, beds with brass fittings, and an old cast iron, roll top bath. Food was in the "Digger's Den", next to the main hotel building, and the evening concluded in fine form when the kitchen staff came out in their work clothes and joined the waiters and waitresses to sing us several songs in the traditional acapella style of contrasting voice parts and no instruments.

    On Tuesday morning in Pilgrims Rest, Roger & Vee went for a pre-breakfast stroll through the little old town and up a steep path behind the Methodist church to the local graveyeard. This was a fascinating place, revealing that many of the one-time residents had come from Wales, bringing their skills of mining coal to the local gold rush. One anonymous grave, marked only with the words "Robber's grave", is set at right angles to all the others, obviously as spiritual punishment to the deceased thief.


    Vee at Pilgrim's Rest

    At 9 am, we all set off for the day's exploration of Blyde River Canyon. Roger & Vee had never heard of this location until they booked the holiday but, in fact, this is the third largest canyon in the world, after Grand Canyon in the USA (which Roger has seen [click here]) and Fish River Canyon in Namibia, and it is soon to become a national park. The canyon is 26 km (16 miles) long with sheer cliffs of red and yellow sandstone rising up to 800 metres (2,600 feet). It runs north-south and was carved by the River Blyde with a second stream south of the reserve being called Treur. It was the Boers who gave these rivers the contrasting names of Blyde ('Joy') and Treur ('Sorrow').

    There are 32 waterfalls in the canyon and our first stop was Lisbon Falls. Since the water level was at its lowest for the year, we did not see these falls at anything like full flood, but they were still lovely to observe and quite atmospheric in the misty weather. Next stop was a location called the Three Rondavels. A 'rondavel' is a kind of round hut and three huge cylinders of rocks with 'pointy' roofs rise up over the canyon with its shining aquatic basement. The weather had become bright and sunny, so the views were stunning. The chacma monkeys running around the place only added to the fun.


    Roger & Vee at the Three Rondavels

    Finally we went to see the Bourke's Luck Potholes at the confluence of the Blyde and Treur rivers. The junction of the two water flows creates whirlpools which carve the rock into circular holes and, since the water level was so low, we could see these strange and impressive formations very clearly at the base of the rivers. Clambering over a rock at eye level, a type of lizard called a gheko was spotted by Roger & Vee - it had beautiful colouring: a blue body and an orange tail.


    Potholes at Bourke's Luck


    Gheko at Bourke's Luck

    After an enjoyable morning, we drove to the nearby town of Graskop for lunch in "Harrie's Pancake Bar" where the food was simply delicious. Roger started with a savoury pancake of Dutch bacon with grated cheddar cheese, served with Cape sour fig and apple sambal, but then he had to share a cinnamon and sugar pancake with Adriaan. The plan had been to visit another feature of the Blyde River Canyon called God's Window, but apparently He had shut it because it was reported as 'whited out' and it was decided to give it a miss and set off a bit earlier for Kruger National Park.

    KRUGER NATIONAL PARK

    So we drove east from Graskop through the Kowyn Pass to the lowveld and on to Kruger National Park. The park was created in 1926 and named after South Africa's president Paul Kruger. Today it is South Africa's premier game viewing destination: the oldest, largest and most famous national park covering over 19,000 sq km (7,335 sq miles) - making it almost as big as Wales - with in excess of 2,500 km (1,560 miles) of well-maintained roads. It is around 350 km (217 miles) long and up to 60 km (37 miles) wide. It is home to a total of 147 mammal species plus over 500 bird species and more than 100 types of reptile. The 'big five' animals are elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino.

    If Kruger is a huge project, it is set to become part of a gigantic one, as a result of agreement between South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe to create the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. This will bring together South Africa's Kruger National Park, Mozambique's Coutada National Park and Zimbabwe's Gonarezhou's National Park into a vast animal kingdom of 35,000 sq km (13,460 sq miles).

    Neither Roger nor Vee had ever been to a national park or nature reserve before and any newcomer to such a location needs to appreciate just how variable the experience can be. One can spend hours in a park and see very few animals or one can see a whole variety of wild life in a matter of moments. There are four main variables. First, the time of year - the dry winter months (April-October) are the best for animal sightings because the reduced water supply means that the game congregate at watering holes and rivers and because then the animals have less vegetation behind which to hide. Second, the time of day - the best times to see the animals are between sunrise and 10 am and from 4 pm to sunset, as during the day the animals vanish into the shade of the bushes. Third, the calibre of the guide - most animals in the wild have natural camouflage and it takes an experienced guide to spot them when driving through a reserve. Fourth, sheer luck - sometimes one just gets really fortunate and sees a particularly rare animal (like a wild dog) or rare event (like a killing). Of course, whatever the situation, binoculars help and Roger and Vee each had a pair.

    Kruger has 11 gates and 13 camps. At 2.40 pm, we entered the park by the newest gate called Phabeni and then drove on to our camp which is the second oldest and called Pretoriouskop. This gate is not the nearest to this camp, but the idea was to travel some distance in the park before hitting camp to see if we could see some animals. One thing struck us immediately about the park: an enormous number of trees have been pushed over or broken, giving the place the look of a blasted territory. We were told that this damage is caused by elephants and that the park now has far too many of them - around 1,100-1,200 instead of the ideal 800. As a result of international protests, there has been no culling since 1994.

    Within 10 minutes, we had our first sighting: the impala is the most commonplace but, one of the most elegant, of the animals in the park. It is dubbed the McDonalds creature because the distinctive curved markings on its rump seem to make a large letter M. Then we saw a warthog, possibly one of the ugliest animals around. It is said that, when God had created all the other animals, he put together the odd bits remaining to make this boar-like creature. Next we saw a kudu - the second largest of the antelope family. We also spotted some zebras and some virtually submerged hippopotamuses. This was pretty good going, but then we saw, strolling down the track towards the minibus, a pack of around a dozen large-eared wild dogs. Since there are only around 350 in the entire park, this was a rare and very fortunate sighting that even excited our guide Keith.

    After an hour or so of slow driving though the park, we reached Pretoriouskop and were checked into our accommodation for the next two nights. Each couple was allocated a 'hut': a permanent and well-built structure with a fridge and a cooker in an external area and a very tall conical straw roof over the whole thing. Roger & Vee had a buffet dinner in the camp's restaurant where, at one point, they were joined by a large flapping insect that caused some consternation to the staff who proceeded to eject it from the building with some speed and aggression. When we asked what it was, we were told it was some kind of beetle with an Afrikaan name that roughly translates as 'eye spitter' (apparently it can cause temporary blindness to unfortunate tourists).

    As explained earlier, the best chance of seeing animals in the wild is early in the morning so, on Wednesday, we were up at 5 am for the 6 am jeep trip. There were 10 of us in each jeep. Roger & Vee's driver and guide was a loud and lively Afrikaaner called Andy Silver who has worked in the park for 10 years. He was a colourful character who would periodically - and for no particular reason - shout out: "Yi! Ha!!" Although the hour was early and the vegetation was low, things did not initially look that promising, since it was cool and drizzling. In fact, the cooler weather probably proved a help in eventually seeing so many animals. We soon saw a colony of baboons on a low hill. Then we spotted three buffaloes. Next came a white rhinoceros. In fact, the white rhino is not white and the black rhino is not black - they are both grey. The reason that the white rhino is so called is that the Dutch used to call the animal 'wijd' which simply means wide. Other animals making appearances were a gnu, a brown-spotted hyaena, a kudu, and even a stately giraffe.

    Our jeep rolled up a granite hill called Mathekenyane ('Place of the Sand Flea') for a while and then we drove on to the large camp of Skukuza [click here] where we stopped for a fried breakfast. Suitably refreshed, we continued our wanderings by following the Sabie River which had a hippo floating in it. Newcomers to our eyes were vervet monkeys who look rather cute with their black faces on grey bodies.

    However, things became really exciting when we located some lionesses trying to track down an impala who had been cut off from his group. The lionesses did not succeeed, but then our guide Andy cleverly spotted a leopard skulking in for the kill. Andy manoeuvred the jeep back and forth along the dusty road, trying to keep the leopard and then the impala in sight. This was not an easy task, as the leopard was down low to avoid being seen by his intended victim. But then there was a flash of spotted fur and the impala had disappeared. Such a kill - or a 'bamba', as the guides call it - near Kallie's Rock is not often seen by tourists and we were awed by the skill and speed of the leopard in downing his prey.

    As the morning progressed, we saw two male lions at some distance and several hippos and a crocodile in the river. Then a herd of elephants suddenly appeared before us on the road, right in front of the jeep as they meandered across the path. One way of telling an African elephant from an Indian elephant is the size and shape of the ear - the large organ is actually shaped like the continent of Africa. As we stared in fascination, the nearest male elephant decided to protrode his penis and the size and length of it made one wince in amazement.


    Elephant in Kruger National Park

    At this point,we stopped at a little picnic site called Nkuhlu for a break. The place was overrun by monkeys who would snatch anything a visitor bought unless one was quick and determined. As we slowly retraced our tracks, we managed to see no less than four giraffes together - a lovely sight. Several of them had little birds on their necks, pecking away at parasites. Back at Skukuza, we halted for lunch. After the meal, Roger & Vee sat outside under a hutted affair and found that the inside of the roof was covered in dozens of hanging bats. In the afternoon, we had another hour and half looking for more animals. Some we had seen earlier, like kudus, gnus, and rhinos. But we observed some new ones too: Burchell's zebras, little klipspringers and a graceful bushbuck.


    Giraffe in Kruger National Park

    So, during the day, we had managed to see each of the 'big five': elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino. Andy told us that it was the first day in seven months that he had achieved this. In the course of this time, as well as all the ground animals, we saw a variety of beautiful-looking birds, such the brown snake eagle, the yellow-billed horn bill, the black-bellied korhaan, the ground hornbill, and the lilac-breasted roller. The most common bird in Kruger was a shiny blue bird with bright yellow eyes and this is locally known as a starling even thought it is nothing like the British starling. We were back at Pretoriouskop about 4 pm, after a trip of some 10 hours. Binoculars and cameras had been enormously busy and there had been much oo-ing and arr-ing. Andy told us: "You've had an exceptional day". We believed him and were grateful to him.


    Cape buffalo in Kruger National Park

    Roger & Vee ate in the restaurant again, this time sitting with Carol and Ffion Jones, Welsh speakers from Angelsey. They had visited game reserves in Kenya and found Kruger very different: a more developed system of roads but animals in much fewer numbers.

    Thursday morning dawned early because we were leaving Kruger, so we were up at 5.45 am and the minibus was rolling again at 8 am on a day which proved much hotter than the previous one. Instead of leaving the park by the nearest gate, we took a route through the park in the direction of the next stage of our tour. This enabled us to see some more of the park and its animals. Driving south-east along the rough track that is the Voortrekker Road, we saw around 50 buffaloes crossing the road. Then, turning south onto the H3 tar road, we observed a group of blue wildebeest and three giraffes close by the road. We exited the park through the Malelane Gate by the Crocodile River where, as well as a couple of crocodiles, we spotted two saddlebilled storks (which have long red beaks) and a tall great white egret.

    SWAZILAND

    One of the many quirks of Africa's colonial history is that South Africa contains two independent states within its borders: Lesotho and Swaziland. It was no distance at all from the Malelane Gate of Kruger National Park to the South Africa/Swaziland border: Jeeps Reef on the South African side and Matsamo on the Swazi side. Having had our passport stamped by South African customs but before actually entering Swaziland, we spent some time in a kind of 'no man's land' (it is actually in South Africa) occupied by the Matsamo Cultural Village [click here]. Here there were two crocodiles that wandered about amongst the people. They were supposed to be safe, as they had been fed on chickens, but no one went close enough to test this out.

    In his youth, Roger used to read a series of books by Edgar Wallace about a British colonial figure called 'Sanders of the River' [click here]. Sanders frequently had occasion to work with a black tribal leader called Bosambo and, here at Matsamo, we were met by a character who dressed and sounded just like Roger used to imagine Bosambo 40 years ago when he never envisaged that he would ever visit Africa. 'Bosambo' (real name Vivian) took us through a re-creation of a traditional African homestead which they called Emvelo.

    Early in the tour, 'Bosambo' led the men into a separate area sheltered from the women by tall bamboo sticks. Here our guide explained that the skimpy attire of the Swazi women would cause problems for the young men of the village who would tend to have embarassing erections. The apparent solution - shown to us by a young man who came along for a demonstration - was to fit over the end of one's penis the hard, hollowed-out shell of a local vegetable called kalebas (some kind of pumpkin). We were invited to take photographs of this strange device being applied, but none of the tourists had the nerve or the inclination.

    Another illustration of the rather different sexual traditions of the Swazi people came when 'Bosambo' took us all into one of the large huts (actually the grandmother has the largest). It was explained to us that a husband and wife would sleep in the same hut but on separate mats. Whenever the husband wanted sex, he would beat the ground with a stick and, whatever the hour, his wife would have to oblige him. For some reason, this practice did not commend itself to the female members of our group.

    The highlight of our visit to the cultural centre was a song and dance routine performed by around 40 young people, fronted by a bare-breasted young woman with a delightful smile. The musical style deployed is called makwaya. It is based on a lead singer, with a chorus chanting complementary words, with only drums and ankle shells for musical accompaniment. It was joyous and the joy was infectious, as was well demonstrated at the end when the guests were invited to join the performers in a dance. Vee was right up there giving it her all and Roger enjoyed the performance so much he bought a CD of the music.


    Vee (in white in the middle)
    strutting her stuff with the Matsamo dancers

    After a buffet lunch at the centre, we walked over the border into Swaziland and reboarded our minibuses. Swaziland is green and hilly and therefore not necessarily typical of Africa. Our route led us to Piggs Peak, a small town at the centre of the country's logging industry, and past pine plantations. Near the border crossing of Oshoek, we stopped at the Ngwyenya glass factory ('ngwenya' means crocodile in Swazi) where all the products are made from recycled glass. Roger & Vee did not buy any glass work, but they did purchase a few samples of Swazi handicraft in some adjoining curio shops.


    Roger with local handicraft
    that he would like to have afforded

    About 5 pm, we arrived at our overnight accommodation: the Ezulwini Sun Hotel in the Ezuluwini valley just outside the capital of Mbabane. Vee wanted to have some time chilling out, having travelled so much and eaten so much, so she spent the evening in our hotel room reading the whole of "The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency" [click here]. The buffet dinner was provided in a different hotel, just over the road, called the Lugogo Sun. Roger joined two of the group who were American, Jessica Couleur and Caroline Cooke, in an excellent meal which he concluded with waffles with syrup and chocolate, strawberry & vanilla icecream.

    The two minibuses were supposed to have visited a candle factory in Swaziland in the course of the day so, next morning (Friday), one of the buses went off early to the factory. However, Roger & Vee's group voted to give the candle factory a miss, had a bit longer in bed, and left the hotel at 8.45 am. It was raining and overcast as we drove south-east to the town of Manzini, through Siphofaneni, and on to Big Bend (near where we had a comfort stop). Swaziland has one of the highest incidences of HIV positive populaces in the world and we regularly saw billboards exhorting no sex or safe sex: "Virginity is a good word to teach your children" and "Abstain or use a condom every time".

    ZULULAND

    At 11 am, we reached Golela, the border crossing between Swaziland and South Africa. It took us three-quarters of an hour to navigate the bureaucracy of returning to South Africa, but then we were in Zululand or, to give it its modern-day title, KwaZulu-Natal Province. It was then a hard drive for almost another two hours all the way down the N2 so that we could spend the afternoon near the coast at The Greater St Lucia Wetland Park [click here] (the place is due to be renamed). This is a UNESCO world heritage site [click here] that stretches for 80 km (50 miles) from Sodwana Bay in the north to Mapelane Nature Reserve in the south. The park protects five interconnected ecosystems: marine (coral reefs and beaches), shore (barrier between lake and sea), Mkuze reed and sedge swamps, the lake (the largest estuary in Africa), and western shores (fossil corals, sand forest, bushveld and grasslands).

    After almost five hours travelling in all and a very rushed lunch at the "Für Elize" restaurant (Roger could not finish his waffles & ice cream), the group jumped on a boat for a two-hour trip on the lake. It was very cool and markedly overcast, but we managed to see some interesting and attractive wildlife. Our local guide contrived simultaneously to steer the boat, look out for animals with his binoculars, and describe all the wildlife through his microphone, sadly with a thick Afrikaaner accent that was tough to comprehend.

    We saw lots of hippos wading in the water (apparently there are up to 1,000 in the park as a whole) and a large crocodile resting on a sand spit (there are around 2,000 in the park). All the other animals we saw were birds and there was a rich assortment: little yellow weaver birds (with their nests built on reeds rather than in trees), a graceful flamingo, white herons, the tall goliath heron, plovers, a mongoose, the black and white kingfisher. The greatest excitement came when we spotted an Afican fish eagle - not only is this a majestic bird, not only did he actually have a fish, but we were able quietly to manoeuvre the boat right up to the branch on which he was feasting on the fish.


    Alligator in St Lucia Wetland Park

    Oddly, after this boat trip and back in our minibuses, we partially retraced our route and returned north up the N2 as far as Hluhluwe and then rolled up to our accommodation for the night: the Zulu Nyala Heritage Hotel [click here]. After dinner, we were treated to a performance by a Zulu dance troupe in a special entertainment section of the hotel. This was a rather chaotic and uninspired little show which did not compare in enthusiasm and excitement to the Swazi show the previous day. However, it was an opportunity to be photographed with Zulu-clan performers wielding spears and shields. Our rooms were spread around the grounds and, as we returned to them, the night was literally a cacophony of sound from crickets and frogs. During the night, there was a crashing thunderstorm.

    Saturday morning involved either the earliest start of the tour or a late breakfast at the hotel, depending on whether one had chosen to take the option of visiting another reserve: the nearby Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park [click here]. Roger & Vee wanted to see more animals and opted for the tour, but the only other members of the two minibuses to join us were Sheila & Louise Walter. So we were up at 4.45 am, off at 5.30 am, and had a very cold, noisy and rough jeep ride to the reserve, ready to be in position for the 6 am opening of the Memorial Gate at the northern end of the park. The two reserves of Hluhluwe (pronounced 'shlu-shlu-ee') and Umfolozi were first proclaimed in 1895, making them the oldest in the country. They do not adjoin, but a 'corridoor' between them opened in 1989 allows animals to move from one park to another, benefitting from a total of some 960 sq km (369 sq miles). Credited with bringing the white rhino from the brink of extinction to flourishing numbers, the park is also home to the big five and many other animals.

    Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park looks very different to Kruger National Park. Although we were told that the last three years have seen the worst drought in living memory, we found lush vegetation and rolling hills under a drizzling sky. Probably as a result, we saw rather fewer animals than in Kruger and from a much greater distance: the famed white rhino, blue wildebeast, gnu, zebra, buffalo, water buck, and nyala (plus some birds such as a pair of fish eagles and an open-billed stork). We stopped for a breakfast - packed by the hotel - by a river at Maphamula.

    We had to leave the park about 8.30 am so that, at 9 am, we could link up on the road with the rest of our travelling colleagues. Both minibuses then took the N2 south-west and about 10.30 am we caught our first sight of the blue Indian Ocean. From then on, it was dual carriageway all the way to Durban. Regularly we saw sugar cane fields. This crop was originally imported from Mauritius and, since harvesting it was so labour intensive, indentured workers were brought over from India in the middle of the 19th century so that, even today, Durban has a significant Indian population. There was a welcome coffee stop at a service station near Stranger and then we finally arrived at Durban at noon. At this point of the tour, we said farewell to our guides Keith Marallich and Warwick Baker.

    DURBAN

    Durban lies on a quasi peninsular, framed by the Indian Ocean on the east side and the bay of Natal on the south side. Originally called Natalia by Vasco da Gama, the city was renamed Durban in honour of Sir Benjamin d'Urban, the governor of the Cape who was responsible for the annexation of Natal. Today it is the third biggest city in South Africa with 2.4 million inhabitants (around 800,000 of Indian descent) and the country's largest port. As a result of its position, the weather here is almost tropical and, as we arrived, it was beautifully sunny.

    We were staying at the Holiday Inn Garden Court Hotel [click here] which is located in the North Beach part of the city, full of art deco frontages overlooking the ocean. There was nothing organised for our time in the city, but four of us - Roger & Vee and Hugh & Sue Whitbread - took up the opportunity for an optional tour of the city, lasting almost four hours and led by a guide called Ken Merrill.

    In fact, due to mix up, we four were picked up half an hour late and missed much of the first stop, the Victoria Indian Street Market. Although we did not see the covered market, we had a quick chance to look at some of the side streets and particularly the area occupied by the purveyors of traditional medicines with their strange concoctions of herbs and collections of animal bones. We were told that practioners of traditional medicine are either iNyanga, generally a herbalist or medicine man to whom you tell your complaint, or isangoma, a more spiritual adviser or 'witchdoctor' who tells you what ails you (both these are Zulu terms). Opposite the market area is the Juma Mosque which can fit some 5,000 worshippers.

    From here, we drove to an area of Durban called Cato Manor, named after the first mayor of the city George Cato (the Zulu call it Mkhumbane). It sounds like a middleclass development but, in fact, it is a dreadful urban squalor occupied by some 170,000 of the city's poorest citizens. Originally an area occupied by Indians, the white authorities totally cleared the area after riots in 1959, leaving only a handful of churches and mosques standing forlorn among utter desolation. The area was never developed and, following the demise of the apartheid regime, in 1994 there was a 'land invasion' by poor blacks. This is a shanty town with no official electricity, no sanitation, and water only from a limited number of standpipes. It is in effect a third world city within a first world city and the contrast appalled us [ for an account of life in Cato Manor click here].


    Durban's Cato Manor shanty town

    After this disturbing sight, we were driven to a very different location: the beautiful Durban Botanical Gardens [click here], originally opened in 1849. Besides colourful trees and flowers, there is a poignant reminder of the earlier apartheid regime: a clock that was sounded at 9 pm each evening to announce the curview for black residents. There was perhaps no better illustration of the fact that things have changed than the appearance in the park of no less than four newly-married black couples being photographed with their family and friends.


    Flowers in Durban's Botanical Gardens

    Our last stop was the newest development in the city: uShaka Marine World [click here]. This was only opened in May 2004 and is part theme park and part shopping arcade. The main feature of the theme park is uShaka Sea World which comprises a shipwrecked-themed aquarium (one of the five largest aquariums in the world), a 1,200-seat dolphin stadium, a seal pool and a penguin rookery.

    In the evening, Roger & Vee stayed in the hotel and ate in the "Piatto" Italian restaurant with Dutch friends Adriaan & Danielle and Carlo & Josée.

    KNYSNA AREA

    Sunday and, after less than a day in Durban, we were off again and it was another early start. We had to be up at 5.30 am because we had to leave the hotel at 6.45 am in order to drive to the airport. We flew from Durban (where it was very sunny) to Port Elizabeth (where it was hot) on a Boeing 737-200 of South African Airways. It was only a flight of one hour, but Roger & Vee were delighted to be among a small selection of our group who were up-graded to business class. At Port Elizabeth airport, we were met by our guide for the remainder of the South African tour: Mohammed Ali [click here] - not the American boxer but a very professional Thompsons guide of Indian descent who, like our driver Faizel, was observing Ramadan during our time with him.

    About 10 am, our minibus skirted round Port Elizabeth and we rejoined the N2 after missing out the section between Durban and Port Elizabeth. We were now travelling west, following a stretch of coastline known as the Sunshine Coast which took us over bridges spanning five huge gorges. The first was Van Stadens Bridge, apparently a favourite suicide spot (in 30 years there have been around 50 deaths), which is just south of the town of Hankey, the original home of the famous Sarah Bartmann. Just to the south of us was Jeffrey Bay, well-known to surfers as the home of the 'perfect wave'.

    We stopped at the Paul Sauer Bridge which spans the Storms River. After a light lunch at a café, Roger & Vee walked across the bridge both ways. At a height of 148 metres (485 feet), it offers some spectacular views. It was a very short ride to our next stop known as Big Tree. This outeniqua yellowwood tree reaches an incredible 36.6 metres (120 feet) high and it is believed to be around 800 years old. It stands in an area which represents the only remaining indigenous forest in South Africa.

    It was another short hop to the next stop: Bloukrans River Bridge. This is an impressive piece of architecture - completed in 1983, it has an arch span of 272 metres (892 feet) and ranks as the fourth largest concrete arch in the world and the largest in Africa. Even more impressive is that it is home to the highest bungee jump in the world: 216 metres (708 feet). Our guide Mohammed was suprised to find that, for the first time in two years, someone from his group actually wanted to do the jump. In fact, two members of the group were up for it: Simon, a guy of about 30 who serves in the Territorial Army and has had a spell in Iraq, and Vee, a woman a few weeks short of her sixtieth birthday whose normal idea of exercise is to walk from the front door to the garage. Joining them were two women in their 20s from Portsmouth: Donna and Sally.

    After paying 550 Rand (about £50), the four signed a insurance disclaimer and donned the necessary full body harness. Then they were led along an enclosed walkway, slung under the bridge on the seaward side, all the way to the middle of the bridge where a special platform was located for the jump. It was decided that Vee would go first. From a viewing site at the east end of the bridge, Roger stared in horror through his binoculars as his legs went soft with fear. Back on the bridge, Vee was led barefoot to the very edge of the jumping platform. She was told not to look down but to stretch her arms out wide. Thumping rock music pounded across the platform as the staff either side of her shouted: "Five, four, three, two, one, bungee!!" This was the signal for Vee to tip forward and plunge into the sky above the gorge, as Roger slowly mouthed the words "O-h, m-y G-o-d".


    Isn't Vee utterly crazy?
    The first seconds of her record jump

    Falling .. falling .. falling .. falling. Then a gentle tug as she eventually reached the bottom of the jump and the elasticated rope pulled her upward ..upward .. upward. Then gravity came into play and she fell again. About this point, she actually opened her eyes (she had been afraid of losing her contact lenses) and started to scream with utter delight and exhileration. As her cries echoed round the gorge, the other members of the group - safely ensconced in the viewing area - all cheered her success and Roger simultaneously took photographs and took his heart out of his mouth. When the four jumpers returned from the bridge, Roger was there to give Vee a big, big hug. She was given a certificate and bought the video and photographs made by the organisers. It was a stunning achievement - her only previous bungee jump, in London nine years previously, was 180 feet and this one at Boukrans was higher than London's Telecoms Tower.


    Vee being 'recovered' from her amazing jump

    After an hour and a half at Boukrans Bridge, the group drove on, hugging the coast, through Tsitsikamma National Park (500 sq kms) - known as 'the garden of the Garden Route' - along to Plettenberg Bay where we stopped for a view of the coastline. This is a location where the best homes sell for 10 million Rand (about £1 million), but just outside the town there is a shanty town or - as it is known in more politically correct terminolgy - 'informal settlements'. By now, we were on the world-famous, beautiful Garden Route which streches from just beyond Plettenberg Bay in the east to Still Bay in the west.

    Finally, towards 5 pm, we reached the pretty coastal town of Knysna (the 'k' is silent). The name Knysna is a Khoi word, but it is uncertain as to its exact meaning. It could mean 'place of wood', or it could mean 'fern leaves', but its most probable meaning is 'straight down' - an obvious reference to the Heads which flank the entrance to the lagoon. Knysna's history began in the year 1804, the year that saw the arrival of George Rex, rumoured to be the illegitimate son of King George III. For the next two nights, our accommodation was the Knynsa Log Inn [click here], a yellowwood construction that is one of the largest log structures in the southern hemisphere.

    Monday was the first leisurely start of the tour, so we were able to take our time over breakfast which Roger & Vee had in the open air on a veranda. The day's programme started at 9.45 am when a short ride took us to the waterfront where we boarded a boat called "Spirit of Knysna". It was a 30-minute trip in gorgeously sunny weather across what is called the lagoon but is actually an estuary (because it has tides). What prevents it from being a lagoon is a narrow opening to the Indian Ocean, flanked by imposing rocks known as The Heads. Our destination was the Featherstone Nature Reserve which is owned by local naturalist William Smith and opened to the public in 1984. This is home to thousands of types of plants plus giant tortoises and all sorts of birds including cranes and herons.

    We were there primarily for the view - and what a spectacular sight it was. We were issued with walking sticks (surely not necessary for such fit tourists as us?) and then Unimog drawn trailers took us up very steep and winding slopes, before we strode up dappled paths shaded by overarching trees and climbed over sharp and uneven rocks (thank goodness for those walking sticks!) to the edge of the cliff where we overlooked The Heads. It is a vista to make the heart stop - the azure sky meets the aquamarine sea and rolling breakers crash over rocks of brown, yellow, gold, and white. Roger could not stop taking photographs.


    The breathtaking view at the Knysna Heads

    Another path took us via 93 steps down to a cove framed by an arch of rocks and a few intrepid souls, including Roger, clambered over sharp, jagged rocks to be close enough to the water to feel the spray. It was like being in a different world - utterly detached from civilisation. The knowledge of no less than 47 ship wrecks in the area only heightened the sense of mystery. It was quite a wrench to leave and quite a long walk along the waterline back to our original point of arrival on the reserve where we were ready for cold drinks and a good lunch in the open air under milkwood trees.

    Following the return trip across the lagoon and back to our hotel, the rest of the day was 'free time'. Roger & Vee took the opportunty to stroll around Main Street which is full of shops and cafés, finishing up at a café called "28 On Main" where we had blueberry cheesecake and cappuccinos. Then we walked down to the waterfront area where there are lots more shops and restaurants and bought some souvenirs (or curios, as they are called in southern Africa) for home. In the evening, Roger & Vee joined the two Dutch couples, Adriaan & Danielle and Carlo & Josée, and returned to the waterfront for dinner in a restaurant called "The Drydock". The local speciality in Knysna is oysters which originate in Chile but grow in the lagoon (18 million a year). However, Roger took his first opportunity to eat ostrich fillet (served with a rosemary port and mushroom sauce) which he found lean and very tasty.

    Tuesday morning and it was time to leave Knysna, but first there was breakfast (Roger indulged in cinammon pancake) and then Roger and Josée (both keen photographers) took the opportunity to make a quick visit to a nearby gallery of photographs and sculpture called "Knysna Fine Art" [click here].

    OUDTSHOORN AREA

    So far on our tour, we had travelled by road, air and water. Therefore all that really remained was train. Appropriately therefore we left Knysna at 9.45 am on the delightfully-named Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe (the name 'outeniqua' means 'men laden with honey'), the last steam train in Africa that runs daily [click here]. The track was opened in 1928 and runs between Knynsa and George to the west, a distance of 75 km (46 miles). Trainspotters might like to know that the trains are normally hauled by a class 19D or class 24 steam locomotive and carriages used date from 1903 to 1950 and are all of the suburban side-door type.


    The steam train about to leave Knysna

    We made a short stop at a place called Sedgefield where some of us bought coffee and nuts from an enterprising little kiosk in a field by the track. Then we took a scenic route which passes a variety of salt water lakes with names like Black Marsh, Long Lake and Island Lake.

    In fact, we did not go all the way to George but instead, after a two-hour journey, disembarked at the appropriately-named Wilderness. This enabled us to see the train chugging across the Kaaiman’s River viaduct before disappearing round some cliffs and to observe some local furry rodent-like animals called rock hydraxes (allegedly distant relatives of the elephant) before reboarding our usual minibus. Having driven through the affluent town of George (named after King George III), we turned north and proceeded over the 800 metre (290 feet) Outiniqua Pass to the town of Oudtshoorn. This town was named after a Dutch baron and only the Dutch members of our group could pronounce the name correctly. It is known as 'the feather capital of the world' because it is centred in the middle of a large ostrich industry of some 300 farms.

    At 1 pm, just south of Oudtshoorn we reached one of the larger of these farms called the Safari Ostrich Show Farm [click here] and all had ostrich for lunch. We then had an interesting tour led by an entertaining guy from Cameroun called Eugene. Over the next hour, we became experts on the ostrich. We learned that it is the world's largest species of bird with full-grown adults weiging about 120 kg and the only bird species with two toes on each foot. Males are black and females are grey and their legs become red when they are breeding. They are fast, able to run at 70 km an hour, but stupid, having a very small brain of 40 grams. Starting in 1864, ostriches were orginally bred for their feathers which were so valuable that breeders became rich and built homes such as the 1910 Feather Palace still standing on this farm. However, the feather boom burst in 1914 and today the value of the birds is divided 10% feathers, 30% meat and 60% leather.


    Bourgeanvillea at the Safari Show Ostrich Farm

    The tour had some fun features. Strapping Simon was invited to stand on some ostrich eggs to demonstrate how incredibly strong they are (not a hint of a crack). Then those members of the group weighing less than 80 kg were invited to sit on an ostrich and stroke its neck and then to ride the bird. Several of the women - including Vee, of course - and one of the men - lightweight Hugh - did so and the riding in particular was hilarious because the rider had no saddle or stirrups and those birds could really move. Vee screamed in delight and Roger roared with laughter. The activity resulted in Vee receiving a certificate for ostrich riding to add to her certificate for bungee jumping. Finally there was a two-bird 'Ostrich Derby' with the riders coming straight at us for maximum effect.


    Vee's craziness continues
    as she rides an ostrich

    From ostriches to rocks .. leaving the farm in mid afternoon, we drove the short distance north to the Cango Caves [click here] located in the foothills of the Swartberg Mountains. These were discovered in 1780 and extend for 5.3km (over 3 miles) in a series of large water-carved chambers connected linearly by low passages and crawls. The main aesthetic attractions, and therefore tourist appeal, of the caves lie in the large size of many of the chambers and in the fantastical shapes and colours. Of course, all of us recalled our school lessons about distinguishing between stalacTites (which hang from the ceiling) and stalagMites (which grow from the ground). Our guide was a big black guy called Eric who entertained us by switching off all the lighting and singing a 'click' song in his native Xhosa language in a beautiful baritone voice.

    We returned to Oudtshoorn and at 6 pm checked into the Queens Hotel [click here]. Again Roger & Vee ate with their Dutch mates. This time though Roger tried a different meat: springbok complemented by a cape gooseberry and amarula creme sauce. Of course, Roger is noted for his love of desserts and this evening he indulged in a nougat parfait prepared with fresh cream and almonds served with a berry coulis.

    ON TO THE CAPE

    It was Wednesday morning and the final stage of our South African tour beckoned. Once again, it was an early start: up at 5.45 am and off at 7.30 am (and this was a holiday!). From Oudtshoorn, we headed west on Route 62 which runs between two mountain ranges, Groot Swartberge to the north and Outeniekwaberge to the south. Passing through Calitzdorp [click here], we then went through the Huisrivier Pass, on through Ladismith [click here], and through an area called Little Karoo. There were two premises that are worth mentioning. First, there was the isolated home in the trees of Wilbur Smith, the South African writer of various blockbuster novels. Second, there was a place called Ronnies Shop which did little trade until it rebranded itself as Ronnies Sex Shop [click here], following which business boomed as it became known as "the oddest pub in South Africa".

    At a place called Barrydale [click here], we stopped for a break at the wonderfully-named "Country Pumpkin" café. Roger & Vee enjoyed delicous lemon meringue and then Vee decided to make friends with a local python called Monty (get it?), wearing the huge thick snake round her neck for a photograph. Bungee jumping, ostrich riding, python wearing - does this woman know no fear?


    Still more of Vee's craziness
    as she 'wears' a python

    Moving on, we traversed the Tradouw Pass. The unusual word 'tradau' means 'the way of the women' and it is believed to be derived from the Khoi words 'tra', signifying 'women' and 'dau', denoting 'way through'. Beyond the pass is the tiny Suurbraack, typical of the poor housing of the people who eke out a living locally. Rejoining the major N2 road (which we last saw at George), we passed through Swellendam, one of South Africa's oldest towns, and made a comfort stop at a little place called Riviersonderend ('river without end').

    Then we turned off the N2 onto the small R326 in order to go down to the coast and more specifically a famous little town called Hermanus [click here] which we reached at 12.30 pm. Located 80 km (50 miles) east of Cape Town, this is an old whaling station perched on the cliffs above Walker Bay. It is a prime vantage point for whale watching and therefore known as "the whale capital of the world". Southern Right whales migrate here from Antarctica to breed and other whales which make appearances are Brydes and Humpbacks. Here there is the world's only whale-crier who wanders the town, complete with sandwich board and bullhorn, warning of approaching activity. The Whale Festival, in late September-early October, celebrates the return of the whales.

    It was the end of October and we did not know whether we would manage to see any whales, but there was a report that whales were to be spotted at a location called Sievers Punt. Sure enough, there were several whales there, very close to the point where heavy waves crashed onto craggy rocks under a bright blue sky. However, the whales remained largely submerged and so, even with binoculars, there was little to see and there was no chance of a decent photograph. Of course, we recognised that the whales were there to breed, not to perform for us, and we were just pleased to be so close to them.


    Coastal view at Hermanus

    In the town, we had lunch at the "Burgundy Restaurant" sitting in the open air in glorious sunshine. Setting off once more, we reconnected with the N2 and climbed Sir Lowry's Pass, heading for our final destination of Cape Town.

    CAPE TOWN

    Cape Town was founded in 1652 by Jan van Riebeek to provide a port where the ships of the Dutch East India Company could take on supplies for their voyages east. Today it has a population of over 3 million and it is the parliamentary capital of the republic. Physically Cape Town is known as one of the most beautiful cities in the world because of its wonderful location, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Table Mountain on the other. Socially the city is the most open-minded and relaxed in South Africa with none of the sense of tension that pervades Johannesburg.

    Our first view of the city was impressive: a distant scene of gleeming buildings set against a blue bay. However, our impressions were soon sobered somewhat when we passed Khayelitsha Township south of the N2 and a little later Langa Township north of the main road. Our aim was to fit in a visit to Table Mountain before we checked into our hotel and we managed this by arriving at 4.10 pm. We were lucky; the previous day the cableway had been closed due to adverse weather conditions, but this afternoon the weather could not have been better - warm, sunny and clear with no wind. The cable car - opened in 1929 - is very steep and very quick (six minutes), but there are great views and the cars revolve as they rise and some of the windows are open.

    The sandstone mountain top is remarkably flat - generally around 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) with the highest point (Maclear's Beacon) rising to 1,086 metres (3,562 feet) - and 3 km (almost 2 miles) long. We were on top of the mountain for three-quarters of an hour and would like to have stayed longer. The views are simply magnificent - to the north, the angry Atlantic and the tiny Robben Island, and, to the south, the majestic cliffs of Twelve Apostles and the rugged coast below. There is quite a lot of wild life up there too and Roger & Vee spotted a couple of lizards.


    Roger & Vee on the top of Table Mountain

    It was 6 pm when we all checked into the Protea Hotel President [click here], a very good place close by the ocean in the Bantry Bay area of the city. This was the point at which we said farewell to our second guide Mohammed Ali - he had been very professional, informative and supportive. Our room was splendid with a mini kitchen including a microwave and sink. However, Roger did not stay there long because he wanted to see the 7.10 pm sunset. Down by the sea, he found that Simon & Julia May had the same idea. The setting was wonderful as the bright red sun dipped quickly below the sea's horizon to be followed by a dazzling display of crimson skies before, behind us, a full moon shone down. Lots more photographs.


    Sunset in Cape Town

    Thursday morning was the time when Roger & Vee left all the others for their own programme. The others had trips to the Cape of Good Hope and to the Western Cape winelands. No doubt this would have been very enjoyable, but one cannot see everything and Roger & Vee - being political individuals - had a more political programme in mind. First, we said goodbye to our friends of the last 11 days with much hugging and kissing and exchanging of e-mail addresses. Then, at 9 am, we left the hotel to go on something called the "Freedom Route Tour" run by the company Inkululeko Tours [click here]. This is a new and very small company which, in the spirit of the new South Africa, has a multiracial ownership: a black South African called Andile who was born and brought up in the Langa Township of Cape Town and a white Zimbabwean called Malcolm who now lives in Cape Town.

    It was Andile who led our tour, intended to show tourists aspects of the city that reveal the history and the consequencxes of the regime of apartheid. First stop was a district known either as Bo-Kaap or the Cape Malay Quarter [click here]. Many of the inhabitants are decendants of the people from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Malaysia, who were captured in the 17th and 18th century and enslaved by the Dutch East Indian Trading Company. Many were already Muslims and others were converted to Islam by the Cape Muslim community. We looked at Wale Street which is typical of the style of housing characteristic of the quarter: a synthesis of Cape Dutch and Edwardian with use of colours like ochre, magenta, lime green and sky blue.

    Next stop was to see the District Six Museum [click here]. District Six was named the sixth district of Cape Town in 1867 and it was once the most racially-diverse part of Cape Town but, starting in 1901, all its 60,000 inhabitants were forced to relocate to the Cape Flats and all the properties were destroyed except for churches and mosques. At the end of 1994, a former Methodist church was opened as a museum to commemorate the unique spirit of this mixed community whose experience mirrored that of other multiracial communities under the apartheid regime.

    The main destination of the tour was the Langa Township, located 15 km (9 miles) from the city centre. The name Langa literally means 'sun', but it is derived from the name of Langalibalele - a Hlubi rebel imprisoned in Cape Town after rebelling against the Natal government. This is home to 250,000 black citizens. Like most townships, there have been some improvements since the ANC Government was elected - principally better roads and the provision of pavements and electricity - but much remains essentially unchanged as public funds are in short supply. We felt self-conscious about visiting a township as tourists, but wanted to see how most South Africans still live in order to gain a genuine appreciation of the country. Andile assured us that the residents were happy to see us and did not resent our presence. Indeed most people smiled at us and the children loved walking with us and holding our hands.

    We started at the Tsoga Environmental Resource Centre [click here] where Prince Charles had once planted a tree and Vee bought some craft items. Next we were taken to see the traditional old-style hostels where migrant workers were required to spend long hours in cramped conditions far from their families in the homelands which they could rarely visit. Even today, the conditions are pitiful. Next stop was to a 'shebeen' - an Irish word to describe an illegal place for the purchase and consumption of beer - where Vee enjoyed supping from a huge bucket of locally-brewed beer.


    Vee enjoys a wee drink in Langa Township

    We moved on to visit some new housing stock which was a real improvement from what we had seen before and encouraging as a positive sign that the authorities are trying to improve matters. Next we visited the practice of a local iNyanga (a herbalist or medicine man). He was dressed in a variety of skins and, in the dark confines of his premises, there were a multitude of skins, bones, and herbs. In response to a question from an American visitor, he confirmed that he was willing to impose spells on people. Last stop was the Mxenge Nursery which the tour company helps to fund as a way of giving something back to the local community. This all too brief time in a township had been a humbling experience for us all - but something every tourist to South Africa should consider.


    Roger and friend in Langa Township

    At 12.30 pm, we were dropped at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront where Roger & Vee had lunch before spending the afternoon visiting Robben Island [click here]. The word 'robben' is Dutch for seal, but the island has variously been a leper colony and a prison. It is infamous as the location of the long imprisonment of many leading anti-apartheid activists, most notably Nelson Mandlela who spent 19 of his 27 years of imprisonment on the island (wearing the number 466/64 meaning that he was the 466th prisoner admitted to the island in 1964). The journey from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at Victoria Basin to the island is by an Australian-designed catamaran - in our case, the "Makana" - which makes it a quick (30 minute) but bumpy ride. Once on the island, the large group was split into smaller groups, each taking a coach with a guide. On our coach, there were a dozen from Britain, a similar number from the Netherlands, quite a few Germans, an Australian, someone from Latin America, and six from South Africa itself (the 150 Rand - about £16-50 - fee is steep for most South Africans, but there are subsidized visits at 60 Rand a head for locals in the winter).


    Table Mountain from Robben Island

    The most memorable part of the coach tour is the lime quarry where the political prisoners were forced to work up to 12 hours a day in appalling conditions. There is a 'cave' in one wall of the quarry where the prisoners sheltered from the sun while eating some lunch and engaging in political discussion. In a very real sense, the origins of the current South African constitution can be located in that 'cave'. Most of the prisoners who worked in the quarry finished up with damaged eye sight. A number of them, including Nelson Mandela, gathered a few years ago for a commemorative ceremony. At the end of it, Mandela spontaneously picked up a stone and placed it on the ground at the entrance to the quarry. One after another, all the ex-prisoners present did the same and the triangular pile stands there today as a simple but moving monument to the suffering of these brave men. In other circumstances - such as our visit - the island can be seen as picturesque. There are cormorants, penguins and hares and the view of Cape Town is wonderful [for 360 degree picture click here and then click on panoramic view of island].

    The final part of the tour is a look at the maximum security facilities with a guide who was himself a political prisoner on Robben Island. It is mindblowing to think that men who suffered so long and so brutally in this place can now work here with former wardens, take tourists around, and tell their personal tale, but perhaps this is a cathartic process for them and it is certainly a compelling experience for us and a dramatic illustration of the new, tolerant South Africa dedicated to truth and reconcilation.

    In our case, the guide was Modise Phekonyane. He became involved in politics at the age of just 15 and, when he was 16, ran away from home to avoid police raids. At the age of 17, he was arrested as a result of his involvement in student uprisings organised by a group opposed to the forced use of Afrikaans, as opposed to native languages, for all subjects in black primary schools. First of all, he was detained without trial and threatened with being thrown from an 18-storey building. Then, on 14 February 1978, he arrived on Robben Island where he spent the next five years, being released when he was 23.

    Modise took us to the communal cell where he lived all that time. The youngest prisoner was a mere 13 and one died of pneumonia. All the prisoners were allowed only one letter every four months and only one visitor (for half an hour) every six months. He told us, in a massive understatement: "To live here, it was very painful". Since children were present, he only hinted at some of the tortures inflicted on some of the prisoners: sitting in an electrified chair, electric shocks to the genitals, a plastic mask on the face. In spite of all this hardship, the elder, educated prisoners, including Mandela himself, organized and operated a secret school to educate those who came to Robben Island with little or no education. In fact, Modise himself came to the island basically illiterate, but left five years later with the equivalent of a high school education. He went on to study at a university in Mississippi, USA before returning to South Africa after the fall of the apartheid government. As a guide on the island now, he lives with four ex-wardens and amazingly he could say: "I now count three of them as my friends". Of his new situation, he insisted: "I have ceased to be a victim" and "It gave me a chance to heal myself .. I have become a better person".

    Finally Modise took us to the cell block where Mandela and other top leaders were imprisoned and we sat in the yard which was the only place where they could have any exercise or social interaction [for 360 degree picture click here and then click on panoramic view of yard]. We were shown Mandela's particular cell.


    Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island

    In the shop on the island, we were able to buy a short book of poems written by Modise called "My Freedom, My Passion". He autographed it for us and wrote: "I used Robben Island to grow and develop and not allow it to destroy me". We also bought Nelson Mandela's autobiography "Long Walk To Freedom" [for review click here]. After three and a half hours on the island, we left the place, totally awed by everything we had seen and heard.

    While we had been out all day, our luggage had been transfered from the Protea Hotel President to the Holiday Inn Waterfront Hotel [click here] where we were staying for our remaining two nights in Cape Town. The Holiday Inn is a lower standard than the President, but it is conveniently sited close to the entrance to the city's premier leisure complex - the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront - and near to the centre of the city. We ate dinner in the hotel and Roger experimented with a new dessert: Moroccan almond fritters served with coconut icecream. As we had found with the service generally in South Africa, it was friendly but slow.

    Friday was our last day in Cape Town and in South Africa - and it was raining. But this did not stop Roger from organising a mini tour which continued the 'political' theme of the day before. First, we walked over to the Houses of Parliament [click here] on Government Avenue. The building was originally opened in 1885, but obviously the arrival of a multicultural democracy has transformed the establishment. We asked if we could go on a tour of the building and were disappointed to be advised that a week's notice of such requests is required. However, we found that a school group was expected shortly and it was suggested that, if the teacher did not mind, we could join her pupils on their tour.

    This is what happened. It was only a short visit, but we were able to see the National Assembly. This has 400 members representing 12 parties who are elected by universal suffrage and proportional representation using the nine provinces as huge multi-member constituencies and the country as a whole as a final constituency to ensure a proportionate result. Members sit in a horseshoe-shaped pattern with the Government (the African National Congress) to the right of the speaker (a woman) and the Opposition (the Democratic Alliance and others) to the left - just like at Westminster (they even call the recording of debates Hansard). The other house is called the National Council of Provinces. It has 90 members and each of the provincial legislatures nominates 10 members, regardless of the size of the province, four permanent and six rotating. The new democratic parliament has been sitting for ten years and, to mark this first decade, there was a long banner on the outside of the building setting out the titles of the main items of legislation carried.

    From the Parliament, we made the short walk to the South African Jewish Museum [click here] and the Cape Town Holocaust Centre. These two establishments are located in the same (protected) complex but are separately managed. First, in the café, we had a cappuccino and huge slice of chocolate cake. Then, in the shop, we bought four books, including an informative guide to the beliefs and practices of the different religious traditions that make up the 'rainbow nation' of South Africa. Next we visited first the Holocaust Museum (which closed at 1 pm) and then the Jewish Museum (which closed at 2 pm) - trust us to visit Jewish establishments as the Jewish sabbath was about to be begin. There was so much to see and to learn in these innovatively designed buildings. Althought the first South African Jews came from Britain and Germany, most subsequently came from Lithuania (and Latvia) and the largest display is a full-size recreation of a Lithuanian shetl (wooden village of Jews). At the end of our time there, we found ourselves in conversation with a very friendly and informative man who turned out to be Eric Michaels, the Project Manager for the Jewish Museum which only opened in 1999.

    The weather was now glorious and so we strolled through the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, seeing ducks, pigeons, squirrels and an aviary, as well as an imposing statue of Cecil Rhodes. After returning briefly to our hotel for a coffee and a freshen-up, we made the short walk over to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront [click here]. This is a new and very popular complex of malls, shops and restaurants, attractively located around a functioning (if small) dock and dry dock with a clock tower dating from 1882. We did quite a bit of souvenir shopping here, before just sitting and savouring the view of the ocean in one direction, the mountain in the other, and all around families and tourists and street performers.


    Cape Town's Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
    with Table Mountain behind

    Once the sun had gone down, it became surprisingly cool, but we stayed at the waterfront to have dinner at the "Hildebrand Restaurant" [click here], eating ostrich steak followed by "Table Mountain meringue".

    VICTORIA FALLS

    On a holiday of early mornings, this Saturday morning was the earliest because we were leaving South Africa for Zambia and the final segment of our tour. In our Cape Town hotel, we were up at 4.15 am (!) and out at 5 am to drive to the airport where there was time for a croissant and cappuccino before we took our one and half hour flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg on a Boeing 737-800 of South African Airways. After a three-hour wait, we then had a one and a quarter hour flight from Johannesburg to Livingstone on a Boeing 727-200 of Nationwide Airlines. Livingstone Airport surprised us. We walked from our aircraft to the low building that was the arrivals area to find that passengers' suitcases were being pulled by staff through doors at the bottom of the wall and dumped on slatted benches. It was hard to believe that the airport has just been the subject of an $11M improvement programme.

    The short road journey from the airport to our hotel was like being in the film "Out Of Africa". First, there was the dry heat of up to 40C (104F) at this time of year. Then there was the sleepy town of Livingstone with buildings going back to 1917, making them the oldest in Zambia, and the dusty road, brightened by the flame-red flowers of flamboyant (or Royal poinciana) trees. Sun International [click here] runs two hotels located in the 6,600-hectare (16,300-acre) Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park: the Zambezi Sun Hotel [click here], which is located just outside the entrance to Victoria Falls but is only three-star and has no direct view of the falls, and the newer (opened in 1991) Royal Livingstone Hotel [click here] which a short walk from the falls but is five-star and overlooks the final stretch of river approaching the falls.

    We were staying at the Royal Livingstone and, as we arrived, we felt as if we were walking into a dream. The combination of the spectacular location and the attentive service make this the best hotel we have ever come across in our world travels.

    It is literally set by the lush banks of the mighty Zambezi River, overlooking hippos (usually easier to hear than see) and islands with the mist of the falls clearly visible (but not audible). Since the hotel is in a park, the lawns are regularly enlivened by a group of zebras nibbling at the grass and monkeys scampering across (babies hanging underneath the bellies of their mothers). There is an open air swimming pool and plenty of trees for shade and, at the bottom of a slope down to the river, a sun deck projecting into the river where 'sundowners' are served just before sunset. The accommodation itself is in the form of 173 rooms set in 17 two-storey clusters, each cluster comprising approximately 10 en-suite air-conditioned rooms, each with a private terrace or balcony. We had ground-floor accommodation with a huge double-bed and splendid bathroom, all set off with expansive mirrors, and to look through the ceiling-to-floor glass doors and see zebras, monkeys and the river itself was just thrilling.


    Zebras in the grounds of the Royal Livingstone Hotel

    The level of service was excellent. Staff were always attentive, polite and friendly. Whenever we ate in the main building, Vee would be given a stool for her bag and the á la carte menu was excellent. If we ate inside, wooden fans gently cooled us; if we ate outside, we were shaded from the sun or illuminated from the night and entertained by a jazz guitarist. Even the room service was special. Each evening our bed would be turned down and a candle lit in the bathroom; on the last evening, petals were strewn on the bed. We struck up a real friendship with our chambermaid 18-year old Mercy who taught Roger some naming practices in her native Tonga language (we are still in e-mail contact). The hotel is like a cocoon, operating in its own little world where all prices are in American dollars.

    If you have obtained the impression that we loved the Royal Livingstone, you are not wrong. And then there was Victoria Falls itself [click here]. The falls are located on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. The split is 60/40 in Zambia's favour, but the most powerful and photographed section is in Zimbabwe. The question is often posed of whether one should visit the falls from Livingstone in Zambia or Victoria Falls town in Zimbabwe - the so called Zam or Zim choice. However, to be really appreciated, the falls need to be seen from both sides. The problem at the moment is that the political situation in Zimbabwe is so repressive that very few tourists are going to Zimbabwe and, although we could have made a trip from Zambia, we had no wish to offer any support to the Mugabe regime.

    The first European to see the falls was the Scottish explorer David Livingstone in 1855. He named them after his Queen Victoria who never herself saw them and he commented: "On sights as beautiful as this, angels in their flight must have gazed". The local or indigenous names for the falls are Mosi-oa Tunya in the Kololo language and Chinotimba in the Nambya language - both loosely translated as 'The Smoke That Thunders'. In fact, the mist and spray can reach as high as 500 metres (some 1,600 feet) and, on a clear day, the spray can be seen 50 km (35 miles) away. Victoria Falls are 1.7 km (about a mile) wide, compared to Niagara Falls width of 1 km, and they are 108 metres (354 feet) high, compared to Niagara Falls at 58 metres. There are in fact six separate falls: from west to east, the Devils Cataract (narrow but powerful), the Main Falls, the Horseshoe Falls (narrow), the Rainbow Falls (the tallest), the Armchair Falls, and the Eastern Cataract.

    The average annual flow of the Zambezi River over the falls is one million litres a second. The cascades are at their greatest capacity during the wet season from March to May. At this time, the flow can be nine times the average. However, in the dry season of September to December, the volume of water is often only 4% of the peak - but that is still around 270,000 litres a second. We were visiting at the time of lowest water flow. The downside of this was that we were not witnessing the true power of the falls. However, the upside was that we could see so much more (when the falls are at full flow, the spray is so intense that one can see and photograph nothing and have to wear plastic hats and macintoshs).

    On our first day at the Royal Livingstone, once we had unpacked, about 4 pm we made our first walk down past the Zambezi Sun Hotel to the falls. Using the specially-constructed stone walkways, we marvelled at the view of the Eastern Cataract, walked over the Knife Edge Bridge, and observed the Victoria Falls Bridge which links Zambia and Zimbabwe.


    Roger & Vee at the Eastern Cataract of Victoria Falls


    The Eastern Cataract at Victoria Falls

    After our first walk, Vee went to have her hair done in the hotel hair salon, while Roger observed the splendid 6.15 pm sunset and took photographs. Later our first dinner at the hotel was fillet of pork for Roger, steamed Zambezi bream for Vee, and pecan toffee pudding for both of us.

    Sunday morning and we could luxuriate having breakfast in the open. Roger spoilt himself with waffles and banana syrup, while Vee went for scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. Later in the morning, we took a longish walk along an isolated road to the Victoria Falls Bridge where we had to go through a kind of customs check on the Zambian side in order to walk along the length of the bridge, technically passing into Zimbabwe at the central point of the bridge, but turning back before reaching Zimbabwe proper. There were some good views from the bridge of a different section of the falls and at the mid-point there was a deck for bungee jumping into the Batoka Gorge ('only' 111 metres compared to the 216 metres for Vee's jump at Bloukrans Bridge in South Africa). There were a few young traders from Zimbabwe desparately trying to sell items to the very few tourists who ventured this far. It brought home a little the devastation which Mugabe has wreaked on his country. On our return, we stopped off at the Zambezi Sun Hotel to have a cold mango drink by the side of their open air pool.

    After all the exitement of South Africa, we were taking it easier for a little while, so this afternoon we had a siesta in our hotel room, before at 4.15 pm strolling to the main building for an utterly decadent high tea. Thus consisted of two pots of tea and a selection of delicious cakes, consumed while sitting on a deep couch in the splendid lounge. We felt very grand. Afterwards we took another walk down to the falls, again viewing the Eastern Cataract and crossing the Knife Edge Bridge. This time, we could see four elephants on Livingstone Island which sits on the edge of the falls. As we strolled back to our room, we enjoyed another Zambian sunset. In the evening, we had another good meal at the hotel. On the return to our room, we found three different types of insect but nothing to worry about.

    After a fairly sedate Sunday, we increased the pace a little for Monday. So, from 9 - 10.30 am, we took a trip out to Livingstone Island. By the side of the hotel's sundeck, we donned life jackets and boarded a flat hull speedboat which whipped around the rocks and rapids for the short trip to the island - a basalt rock which adjoins the very lip of Victoria Falls and separates the Main Falls from Horseshoe Falls and Rainbow Falls, the highest cataract. Here we could obtain much better views than anything we had seen previously - we were closer to the edge and the water and it was just stunning. Especially beautiful was the sight - something we had never seen before - of a double rainbow in the mist. The upper rainbow was a reflection of the lower one, so the colours were inverted.


    The double rainbow at Victoria Falls
    as seen from Livingstone Island

    We then changed into swimwear at a makeshift open-air changing room which had adjoining it something labled as "A loo with a view" ( a toilet bowl open to the elements but looking over the spray of Victoria Falls!). Assisted by a couple of island guides, we then walked out to a rocky area very close to the edge of the falls where we scrambled over slippy and rather sharp rocks, before the water became deep enough to make the short swim to another set of rocks. Clambering over the second set of rocks, we found ourselves by a minature lagoon at the sheer edge of the falls with a rock face rising to just below the water level, cutting one off from the sheer drop down to the bottom of the falls. It was possible to swim in this lagoon-like area to the edge of the restraining rock and look over into the depths below as the water spun jacuzzi-like around us. The area is called the Devil's Pool and entering it is just an utterly brilliant experience. This is something that would have been totally out of the question if the water levels had been higher than at this summer time of the year.


    Roger & Vee on the VERY edge of Victoria Falls

    After this trip, we walked down to the Zambezi Sun to obtain some money and have a cold drink. Then we made a third visit to the Eastern Cataract. This time, though, we took a different walkway and Roger edged himself across the ledge of a small weir to gain access to a grassy area over the falls. Back in our hotel room, we looked through the window to see five zebras and an impala immediately outside - a bit different from our home in London (although we do have squirrels, woodpeckers and even foxes in our garden). Then we had another little siesta.

    At this point, we went for our booked ride on a helicopter. It was only a short trip from our hotel to the Baobab Ridge Helipad. On the minibus, we talked to the other four passengers and found that they were two Czech couples: Petr & Dana and Miloš & Markéta. Since Vee is half Czech and we both speak some Czech, we were all excited at this encounter. The real excitement came, however, when we climbed aboard the EC130 helicopter. Our 15-minute trip over Victoria Falls gave us a totally different perspective. For the first time, we could see the full length of the falls and appreciate how it gouges the terrain in a huge rocky scar. It was jaw-dropping in its splendour and we all took tons of photographs as we wheeled over this wonder of wonders. On the return to the helipad, we flew over Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, seeing a few animals.


    Helicopter view of Victoria Falls
    with Zambia above the falls and Zimbabwe below them

    Back on the ground, we returned to Zambezi Sun Hotel with our new Czech mates and bought a round a drinks, before wandering back to our own hotel as we saw our third Zambian sunset. Once again we ate at the hotel. This evening we chose pan-seared escalopes of yoghurt and brandy marinated ostrich.

    BOTSWANA

    It was Tuesday (Presidential election day in the United States) and the last day of our holiday in southern Africa. We had decided to take advantage of being so close to spend the day visiting the Chobe National Park in Botswana. The trip - which only involved us two - commenced with a pick up from our hotel at 7.30 am. The coach drove up to Livingstone, turned left, and then just went on and on and on down the long, straight road leading west to the border between Zambia and Botswana. The border is actually at the confluence of the Zambezi River and the Chobe River and, at a point in the middle of the river, the borders of Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia all meet. Is there anywhere else in the world where four national borders meet at one point? The short ferry crossing took us to the border post of Kazungula in Botswana, where Vee discovered the worst toilet in Africa, and then we drove on to the five-star Mowana Safari Lodge at Kasane.

    The lodge is actually situated on the Chobe River by Chobe National Park, so it was the perfect base for our day in the park. The park is named after the Chobe River on its northern boundary, but it covers a massive 11,700 sq km of dusty plains, woodland, savanna and forested floodplain. It is home to an exciting variety of large mammals and over 450 bird species and is renowned for having the highest concentration of elephants in Africa with anything like an amazing 60,000-80,000.

    We put on life jackets and joined our local guide Cruise on a small powered boat for a three-hour river trip on which we were the only passengers. At this point, the Chobe River divides the Caprivi Strip of Namibia from Botswana and there are occasional disputes between the two countries over ownership of islands in the river. In 1999, the International Court of Jusice determined that the island of Kasikili/Sedudu belongs to Botswana and, as we found, it is a treasure trove of abundant bird life and wild life. Our guide was able to manouevre the boat really close to many of the animals, so that we had some really good experiences.


    Getting close to a hippo in Chobe National Park

    The birds we spotted included the long-legged African jacana, the long-necked African darter, the long-legged and long-necked white egret, the wire-tailed swallow, bee eaters, a goliath heron, male and female fish eagles, lots of blacksmith plovers, a yellow-billed stork, and open-billed storks flying in formation. The animals we saw included lots of male impalas, red waterbucks - noted for the circle on their rump - and red lechwe (both types of antelope), pukus and a kudo (another two types of antelope), some buffalo, a water lizard, a warthog and its baby, a large female crocodile guarding its eggs, and a group of hippos on land. The most abundant animal on our trip was predictably the elephant. In Kruger National Park, we had been excited at seeing half a dozen elephants together but, in Chobe, one can see several dozen together very easily. We spent quite a while observing at very close quarters a group of 11 elephants who waded across the river to the island where they wallowed in mud before spraying dust all over their bodies with their flexible trunks. To humans, the idea of getting wet and then covering oneself in dust seems perverse but, for elephants, it is provides a natural coating to protect against various insects and parasites.


    Elephant crossing over to Sededu Island
    in Chobe National Park

    Back at the Mowana Safari Lodge, we had a buffet lunch, both chosing to eat warthog for the first time. There was time to look round the large reception area of the lodge which contains an 800-year old baobab tree and photographs of the occasion when President Clinton stayed at the hotel in 1998.

    The afternoon was spent on a second incursion into Chobe National Park but this time by jeep, our driver and guide being Phinley Matengu. The terrain and sandy roads were very different from the other parks we had visited on our holiday. We were out for almost two and a half hours, but saw a much less than in the morning. Of course, there were lots and lots of elephants - herds of them - but the other animals were now quite familiar to us: chacma baboons, monkeys, impala, kudu, warthogs, Cape buffalo, and a solitary and distant giraffe. We had a good laugh when we saw an open vehicle full of Japanese tourists - in spite of the strong heat, they all wore coats and, because they did not like the dust, they all had face masks.


    Kudu in Chobe National Park

    The one and half journey back from the lodge in Botswana to our hotel in Zambia was simply a reversal of the morning journey, resulting in us arriving at the Royal Livingstone Hotel at 5.45 pm, half an hour before sunset. We decided that, since it was the last night of our holiday, we would have a 'sundowner' on the sun deck by the Zambezi River, so we sipped something called 'Blue Zambezi' as the red sun dipped below the misty horizon. One of the waiters gave us a bowl of peanuts. What he knew but we did not realise was that, in a matter of seconds, monkeys would descend on us and leap on to the table, grabbing the nuts and fleeing as rapidly as they had arrived. The waiter - who had set us up - and his colleagues and the other drinkers all thought it was hilarious and we were happy to share the joke. Later we had one last dinner at the hotel.


    Sunset at Victoria Falls
    (note spray from falls on the left)

    CONCLUSION

    After an exciting two and a half weeks in southern Africa, it was time to go home. Still at Victoria Falls, we woke on Wednesday to turn on CNN television and learn the dispiriting news that George Bush had beaten John Kerry in the US Presidential election. After breakfast and packing, we sat by the Zambezi River and tried to capture mentally the wonderful scene so that we could recall it in the cold and wet of a London winter when we reached home.

    Throughout our trip, we had met so many interesting and friendly local people and this proved to be the case even on the bus journey to the airport, when we found ourselves in conversation with no less a figure than Her Excellency Dr Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika, the exuberant Zambian Ambassador to the United States [for biographical details click here]. Leaving from Livingstone Airport was no more thrilling than arriving at it - we had to pay a $20 a head departure tax and there was no air conditioning in the departure lounge (unless one paid another $10 to enter a specially air-conditioned room).

    The flight from Livingstone to Johannesburg was only an hour and a quarter, but then we had to spend around six hours at Jo'berg airport waiting for our connection to London. We ate and drank, Roger finished reading "A Short History Of Africa" [for review click here], and we bought five books, four CDs of African music, and a wooden giraffe as a souvenir for our home.

    We eventually left Johannesburg at 9.25 pm and were able to catch some sleep during the overnight flight. When Roger went to the toilet in the middle of the night, however, he had to wait a long time and then found a young couple emerging from the little room (some new members of the mile high club!). After a flight of 10 hours 40 minutes, we landed at London Heathrow at 6.05 am local time (there was now a two-hour time difference). It was overcast and raining, so nothing new there. Back at home, there was good news and bad news. Vee's brother-in-law Derek had used our time away to knock our toilet and bathroom into one, so we had avoided all the noise and dust. But Roger's Microsoft Outlook program on his computer had somehow become corrupted by one of the 700 e-mails arriving in our absence and it took three days to fix.

    It had been a very different holiday from almost all of out previous ones. Usually we spend most of our time in cities, visiting art galleries, museums, palaces, cathedrals and mosques. This holiday was much more about seeing countryside and wildlife. It had been a simply wonderful trip in which we had viewed and experienced so much. We had visited four countries and stayed in 11 locations. We had gone to five national parks and seen an impressive variety of wild life including the famous 'big five'. We had gone to a township and seen Robben Island. Vee had done the highest bungee jump in the world, ridden an ostrich, and 'worn' a python, while Roger & Vee had swum on the edge of Victoria Falls.

    Ten years into a democratic South Africa, we had been generally encouraged by what we had seen and heard. Of course, there are formidable economic and social problems, but racial violence is less frequent and living standards are slowing improving. Above all, there is a sense of tolerance and optimism that would have been unimaginable without the inspirational leadership of Nelson Mandela.

    Roger took 750 photographs during the trip, so the ones to be used on this site will be merely a small selection, but perhaps this account will encourage you to make a visit yourself. It is time for Africa to be brought fully into the global community and for its peoples to share in the peace and prosperity that most of us enjoy.

    Links:
    Hugh Whitbread's photos of the South Africa tour click here
    South African weblog click here


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