Kruger/Cape Town, South Africa 2020

if this picture is good enough for lonely planet, it's good enough for me. explanation later.

$1 = ZAR15 (South African Rand)

It’s that time of year where we embark on another trip of a lifetime. This one to South Africa. The last was a bit of a strange year for the both of us that included a lot of personal turmoil, what with family deaths, moving houses, and eventually selling our home. When we sold our house we ended up with a sizable check and we try to be responsible with the proceeds, but since our bank account rarely has this kind of money in it, we take advantage of the excess cash to plan a grander trip than we usually would. A short list of ideas that includes a trip to Antarctica, India, an African safari, New Zealand etc. And while a train ride across Australia was a serious consideration, a trip to South Africa quickly rose to the top of the list and became our destination. We don’t know many people who have been to South Africa, so we reached out to those who had. One of El’s friends has done safaris and was happy to share her contacts and experiences. One of my friends has never done a safari, but could not recommend Cape Town enough and was able to share his full itinerary from the last time he went. He seems to be quite the researcher, and gave us a full list of things to do and places to eat in the city. Not all of them will make our cut (heck, I don’t think most of them made his cut) but the list was a good starting point for us. My first challenge was trying to figure out how to actually book a safari. Turns out there are so many options that you need to research just what kind of safari you want to do. They range from a 15 night game trek for $23,000 per person down to driving through the game park yourself and sleeping in a tent surrounded by an electric fence. We were introduced to a man named Thomas online through El’s friend who was impressively responsive to emails and provided us with some focus for planning the safari. Once we were able to narrow down our approximate budget for the adventure, he was able to hook us up with a business partner of his named Vinnie. Vinnie put together a couple of options for us to consider and with a little more research, we were able to make our final decisions. “Awesome! What do you need from us? Credit card? Do we just pay upon arrival?” Oh, no! Once we verbally committed to the package, we were sent an invoice and told that payment was only able to be made via wire transfer to a bank in Botswana. No credit cards were accepted and half of the full price had to be paid now with the remainder 30 days before arrival. Now, I needed to learn about bank to bank wire transfers to Africa. Of course my bank gave me the side-eye when I told them how much I wanted to transfer to a bank that I had never done business with to a recipient I never did business with. All I could tell them is that I had done as much due diligence as I felt I could to be sure this was all on the level and at the end of the day, it was $3500, not $35,000. The wire transfer fee was a flat rate of $50, and since the full amount had to be paid in full before arrival, there did not seem to be a reason to split into two payments, and instead of paying the second bank fee, I would just do it all at once. Everything seemed OK and now I shifted my concentration to researching what there is to do in Cape Town. At first we considered a couple of days in Johannesburg, but decided to extend the safari and Cape Town by one day each and forgo the stop in Johannesburg altogether. My next challenge was work. Having started a new job last year, I have not been there long enough to have earned any vacation time yet. But, hell, I was not about to let a little thing like lack of accrued time prevent me from taking our yearly vacation! I spoke with my manager and confirmed that I would have no time available by the time of the trip. At which point he casually said, “well, you could always take the time off unpaid”. SOLD! I booked the trip and gave him my dates and filled out the Leave of Absence request form. No one questioned it and as far as I was concerned a week off without pay was a small price to pay for this opportunity. In addition to the research of what to do in Cape Town, I also needed to read about what you pack for a safari. I assumed there would be some items that we would have to buy or borrow. Things that don’t ordinarily make it into our travel pack. Mosquito repellent with DEET. Binoculars. Earth-tone clothing. Who knew that some of the animals you want to see are repelled by red and blue colors? And some of the pests you don’t want, are attracted by black and white? Next up was reaching out to our doctors to discuss malaria and typhoid prevention medication. We both got a course of each: typhoid that you finish a week before travel and malaria that you start before you leave and continue throughout and beyond your trip. Sadly, these are travel related medications, and most insurance will not cover them. My typhoid course cost me $102. Hey, if I make it through without contracting typhoid, I will consider that money well spent. We started the countdown to vacation more than a week ago and are so excited for this trip.

Thursday February 13

Our flight leaves JFK at 10:00am on Friday. JFK has the only direct flight we could find to Johannesburg (no US city has direct flights to Cape Town). This means that we need to plan to be at the airport at 7:00am. So, our options are taking the train or driving, and figuring if it is better to go Thursday night or early Friday morning. After considering our options, we drive down on Thursday night and stay at the new TWA Hotel at JFK. We both worked on Thursday and left in the late afternoon. We got down to JFK around 8:00pm. Looking for the JFK long term parking lot, we Google it and put the address in the GPS. We find the address, but something does not look right. It looks more like a giant car wash than the expansive lot we parked in a few years ago. The sign on the building does say “JFK Long Term Parking”, but before we go in I drive around the block and re-Google the address. Turns out, there is a private company called “JFK Long Term Parking” that has absolutely nothing to do with the long term economy parking lot associated with JFK airport on Lefferts Blvd. Annoying and clever at the same time. We make it to the real lot, park and catch the Airtrain to the airport. Now, quickly, the TWA Hotel is the only hotel on the airport property and is located at Terminal 5. It is the old TWA terminal that had been defunct since 2001. Well, they converted it to this modern hotel with some great eateries and renovated interior. When we booked our night, they asked if we were celebrating anything. We have learned from experience, we always respond with “we are celebrating our anniversary”. When we arrived at our room, we were greeted with a Happy Anniversary card, a bottle of wine, and two boxes of chocolates. We were excited to go to the Lisbon Lounge upon arrival. We each got a cocktail and shared an appetizer. Then, we got dinner and dessert, to go. We took it up to the room where we sat and shared the complimentary wine, eating our dinner with the lights off, looking out over the airport against the dark night sky. It was an excellent way to start our vacation. We got an email from Vinnie today letting us know that all is set for our arrival (he or his group will be meeting us at the airport in Nelspruit, which is the airport that services Kruger National Park) which was certainly a positive sign that our planning has worked.

Friday February 14

We wake at 6:00am and get our bags ready to travel. As we check out we grab a coffee and a pastry to have something to take our first dose of malaria pills. We are able to check in online and have the desk print our boarding passes for us so that we can head directly to security. We learn that South African Airways does not participate in the TSA Precheck program for expedited screening. So, we go through with everyone else. It takes about 15 minutes to go through and we are at the gate about an hour before boarding. We are all set. We board on time, but there is some issue with the plane that delays our departure by about an hour. We do have a connecting flight today, but we are not worried at this point about making our connection. Our flight today is about 15 hours and we are scheduled to land at 8:30am on Saturday, which gives us an hour-and-a-half to make our connection.

Saturday February 15

We land in Johannesburg pretty close to on time and run to make our connection. JNB is an international hub so there are many people making connections to points all over Africa. Since we have all our luggage as carry on and we have done this routine before, we know that most people, including us have to go to the bathroom when they get off the plane, but if you can hold it, you can get to passport control before most of the others who opt to hit bathrooms first. We are through passport control in the matter of minutes and following signs for Terminal B (for domestic transfers). We had no baggage to claim, so we made it to the next security check before anyone else could even get their bags from the carousel. We are through security in short order and now have about an hour until our next flight. El spots an MTN store, which is the cell phone carrier here. There is no line, so she buys a sim card for her phone. We head to the gate and the flight is on time. It is a small plane and there are only about 10 of us on it to the town of Nelspruit (pronounced nell-spreet). I may have been in a smaller airport in my time, but right now I am hard pressed to think of one (this one only has one gate). We exit the terminal with the question on our mind…will someone be here to meet us? And lo and behold, we meet Yuri- a man standing with a sign that reads “Morrell: flight 8334”. He is super friendly, if a little difficult to understand sometimes. Between his accent, some missing teeth, the inside noise of the van, and the content of his conversation, which I sometimes have no reference for, it can be a challenge to follow his stories. He tells us that we have a 2.5 hour drive ahead of us. I do tell him that, if possible, I would like to stop at a store that sells wine to stock up for the next few days. As we pull out of the airport parking lot, we see an entire herd of impalas grazing just under the sign reading “Welcome to Nelspruit”. There is something we don’t see everyday...except here, we will see them everywhere! On the ride, I am able to catch about an hour of sleep. The ride from the airport to the park is about 2 hours to the gate (we enter at Crocodile Bridge) and then the lodge is another 30 minutes once inside the park. We start off on asphalt road for a mile or so, but then turn off onto a dirt road…a very rough dirt road that we stay on for another 30 minutes. It takes only seconds for us to start seeing animals in their natural habitat. Wildebeest. Impala. Giraffes. A few zebras and a lone wart hog. Yuri stops the van to let us take the proper photos. Eventually, we arrive at a lodge called Shishangeni Game Reserve which is completely surrounded by an electric fence to keep animals off the property. When we arrive it is just the end of lunch time, so we grab a plate and eat a proper meal before getting ready for the next part of the day. We are also given the daily schedule which opens up our understanding of how a safari works.

5:00 wake up call > 5:30 morning game drive > 8:30 breakfast > 13:00 lunch > 15:30 high tea > 16:00 afternoon game drive > 19:30 dinner. The game drives are at least 3 hours. So that is 6 hours of game drive each day. I was worried trying to figure out what we would do when we weren't on game drive, but, with six hours out of the lodge, it doesn’t seem we need to fill too much time. Anyway, we sit and eat. I grab a plate of couscous with a pork chop and a dinner roll. We are seated on the wraparound porch off the main dining room and I started to eat. El steps away from the table for a moment and I am sitting by myself. There are trees just off the seating area and out of the corner of my eye I saw what my mind assumes is a bird taking flight from a branch. But, after a moment I realize that it is a vervet monkey jumping onto the porch and running towards me! Well, it wasn’t coming for me, but that is what I saw! It jumps square onto my table and without knocking anything out of place, it grabs my dinner roll off my plate and jumps back onto the wall where it sits and eats it tauntingly before leaping off out of sight.

the absconder enjoying my roll

Moments later one of the lodge employees comes over to joke with me…”did you ever have a monkey steal your lunch before?” he asked, standing next to me with a slingshot. Not sure that concept made me feel any better. I think I would rather see my roll disappear before my eyes than the slingshot guy miss his mark and accidentally hit something else whether it be glassware or one of the guests! All in all, I was startled for a moment and the monkey didn't hurt me, and the monkey didn’t get slingshotted. I will consider that a win. After lunch we head back to the room to shower. It is 92 degrees today and the shower is outside. Our room is a bungalow style, standalone building with a privacy fence around it. The view is all trees for as far as the eye can see. There is a bathtub inside the room, but the shower is a platform off the bathroom that is outside with no curtain. Just showering al fresco and it’s not like there is anyone who can see you. We get dressed for the game drive and head up for “high tea” in the lodge. It turns out to be more of a snack than an official "high tea”. Anyway, we head out on the game drive. We are told to keep our voices down during the drive. Within minutes we find ourselves in the middle of a herd of elephants. Wow, 10 feet away from a wild elephant eating and taking a mud bath.

people often ask, "just how close did you get?" i tell them, "close enough to hear the grass rip from the ground as the elephant eats"

There is a term on safari, we learn, called the “big 5.” They are what many safari takers strive to see on outings. The five are elephant, rhino, cape buffalo, lion, and leopard, and here we are 10 minutes into our first drive ticking off our first of the big 5. The drives are first thing in the morning and in the afternoon because that is when the animals are the most active (they tend to lay and rest during the midday sun). You get into an 11 passenger land rover that has a roof and short, canvas doors, but no windows as the area between the top of the door and roof is open. Fun when you are taking photos, but admittedly unnerving when you are parked ten feet from a pride of lions and he turns the engine off. If a lion decided to pounce for some reason, we are sitting ducks. Luckily there was no pouncing today. Just a lot of photos…you know…the reason we are here!

not threatening, yawning

these lions just lie in the tall grass as the sun heats the day

We see a lot of birds and Harold (our driver/tracker) seems very knowledgeable about animal names and behaviors. He is able to stop and point out things that our untrained eye doesn’t even pick up. While we stop at the elephants, he tells us about elephant behavior, points out interesting things he sees with this particular herd, takes questions, and gives us plenty of time to take our photos. A couple with us seem to be very interested in the birds, so Harold makes sure to point enough out to keep them interested. There is another rover from the lodge that is also out and Harold is able to communicate with the driver, so if one spots something the other can come and bring their group over. They spotted a group of rhinos and we raced over to see them. So far though, my absolute favorite is anytime we pass a giraffe. Sometimes they are solo and sometimes they roam in a small group. Our last stop is down at the river where we come upon a herd of hippos in the water.

we saw a couple of hippos walking near shore, but many spend most of their days like this

and like this, with the bird acting as lookout for danger and keeping the hippo clean of parasites

We are allowed to get out of the rover and told not to go past a specific barrier. Harold sets out snacks and offers us a drink (beer, wine, or soda) while we take photos and wait for the hippos to do something photogenic. I have a new respect for professional photographers (like National Geographic) who have to wait for these animals to do something picture worthy. God, it could take an eternity. After we get back, we head back to the room to shower, again. Before we went out we applied sunscreen and our DEET repellent so when we get back we need to wash it off before we sleep. Head back to the lodge for dinner. I get cream of carrot soup, chicken breast with a mustard cream sauce, and a panna cotta for dessert. After dinner, we go to the room to drink our wine and journal for awhile before falling asleep. At some point I look up and notice a very large spider on our window drapes. Not big like a tarantula, but It has to be the largest spider I have ever seen inside a room. Not sure if it is a jumper or poisonous, I feel it better to enlist help. I walk up to reception and ask for someone to remediate. He grabs a feather duster and we head back to the room. He takes care of it and we are spider free within moments. By 9:30 we are bushed and we have a wake up call tomorrow at 5:00am for the 5:30 game drive. We are sleeping within minutes.

Sunday February 16

The wake up call comes a bit late, but we have our clothes set out. We sunscreen and DEET and head up to the lodge for a pre-drive snack. Today it is a bran muffin and a cup of coffee. We start the game drive at 5:30. Today it is just us and the one couple with Harold. The man is actually great at spotting game, as is Harold. I, on the other hand suck at it. If it isn’t an elephant walking right in front of the rover, I cannot seem to spot anything. Sometimes Harold will say, “oh here’s a crocodile” and I will look, and look, and look. He will continue to describe where it is and I keep looking, until I give up. That has happened a couple of times. This morning as we start off on the game drive, the savanna is shrouded in fog.

a foggy morning on the savanna

as the fog begins to lift, we see a herd of impalas. they are everywhere and an easy meal. guides call them "bush McDonald's"

You can see a bit off the road but not too far up ahead. Again the drive lasts about 3 hours and as we journey on, the fog begins to burn off, making a surreal scene as the entire savanna comes into focus. This morning’s drive is sort of a fortunately/unfortunately kind of situation. Unfortunately, there is not much activity this morning, some birds here and there, and of course, impalas (Harold calls them the only 100% guarantee on every safari). Eventually we see giraffes and zebras, but fortunately this was the first time we saw lions. A pride of about ten all resting in the weeds. It is only about 7am, but the heat is starting to affect the animals as it will continue to do throughout the day. The lions have been active at night and are now lounging and sleeping for the day. Harold tells us to remain seated and to keep quiet as he gets us dangerously close to the pride. We are so close I can hear the lions breathing. And at the end of the drive, we get the fourth of our “big 5” when we pass a herd of cape buffalo in the fields.

considered the most dangerous of the "big 5" due to their unpredictability, we could not get too close to the herds of cape buffalo

You never know what you’re going to see (or not see). Let me explain it like this…picture that Kruger Park is about the size of New Jersey. There is a network of paved roads to carry you through the park. Game reserves are accessible only by private dirt roads that run for kilometers. There are no other buildings on the property besides the one game lodge compound. So, when we go on a game drive it is like driving around New Jersey looking for a herd of deer or a bear. You can imagine if you did it there might be some days you don’t see much in terms of large game. I have decided that I adore giraffes. I can’t believe that I am already over things like elephants and zebras. We were face to face with them and got a lot of great pictures. But, giraffes are so majestic and I do not get tired of seeing them eating and walking so gracefully. Just beautiful.

i have seen giraffes in zoos, but nothing compares to seeing them in their natural habitat

After the drive concludes, we get back to the lodge and eat breakfast. No monkeys today. After we eat, we head back to the room to shower, take a nap, and journal until lunch time at 1:00pm. And after lunch, we head back to the room to journal and wait for high tea and the afternoon game drive (we could lounge in the lodge, but the only place is on the wraparound porch with a view of trees in the heat, the bungalow is more comfortable). As I sit in the room journaling I look out of the window and see a single giraffe walking by. I didn’t think I would see any animal outside the property border, but here I am watching the first animal from this vantage point and as I think about it, I would be OK with giraffes seeing me shower. We go on the afternoon game drive, and it starts out slow, we eventually catch up with the same pride of lions and also get a much closer encounter with a rhino than we had yesterday when we could only see them from afar. Three hours is a good amount of time. The couple we have been out with are gone and now a group of Portuguese are out with us tonight. They are a nice conversation, if a little bit jerky as a group. Between smoking in the rover, talking louder than we have been asked to, showing up with food (though Harold did say it was OK) and at one point, one of the ladies was showing someone a video on her cell phone that included loud music that was just a bit over the top for me. But maybe it was just us that would be annoyed by such behaviors. We get back to the room just after 7:00 and shower before returning to the lodge for dinner. Most of the meals have been buffet style and tonight is no exception. The food has been very acceptable and we are able to find enough to keep us full. After dinner we head back to the room to journal and discuss our plans for the morning. When we were booking our trip, this lodge (Shishangeni) did not have room for 4 nights, so we got 2 nights here, and 2 nights elsewhere. Yuri, the driver, will be here to pick us up at 10:00am, so we need to know what our plan is and also our contingency plan, should the morning game drive go longer than expected. We finish off our bottle of wine and call it a night. No spiders tonight. We rest soundly, if under a mosquito net.

this reminds me one of those photos with a caption of "the last known photos of..."

enjoying a break during an evening drive

Monday February 17

Wake to the phone ringing. I expect the voice on the other end to say, “time to wake up for game drive”, but instead he starts asking questions like, “are you going on game drive?” Mind you, it is 4:54am and I have just been startled awake and the room is pitch dark. I am not prepared to answer questions. I want to say “thanks”, and hang up! But, now I am confused. We have set an alarm for 4:55am that has not yet gone off. So when he asks if we are going, my mind assumes we missed the alarm and it is now 5:30 and we are late to the group. I ask “what time is it?” (meaning now), but he thinks I am asking what time the game drive is, so he says “5:30”. Now I know we somehow missed our alarm and the wake up call. I tell the voice on the other end that I will be right there. And now we need to hurry up to make the rover, but just then our 4:55 alarm goes off. Which brings us back to reality. We know we are not late. We get dressed for game drive and head to morning snack. I see our driver Harold and ask if he called. The man next to him says he did because one of the other receptionists told him we were being picked up today and he didn’t know if we were going on the game drive or not. This is now the second time that one of the receptionists has caused a stir with misinformation. Yes, we are being picked up today, but not until 10:00am, hours after game drive is over. All I sorted out. We head out with the same Portuguese group from last night and they are every bit as annoying this morning. I am trying to take it all in stride and if Harold does not scold them, at least he knows we are not with them! Another slow start looking for wildlife. But we come upon a family of rhinos and drive in to get a closer look. Basically, right on top of them.

getting this close to a family of rhinos is when i really appreciated the rover's ability to go off-road, since it was private property

sunrise over a rhino

There is no fog this morning, so as the sun is rising we are getting some quality colors to accentuate the scenery. One of the things I will come to appreciate is our ability to take the rover off-road. Since the reserve is private property and the rovers have all kinds of off-road capabilities, Harold is able to move us very close to things that we would ordinarily not even see because of their far proximity from the road. Another thing I will come to appreciate is that the number of guests on the drive determines how many rovers are needed. There is a large group at the lodge, making three rovers necessary this morning. Because of this, the rovers can drive in different directions and radio each other when they come upon scenes of interest. So, while we radio about the rhino family, we get word of another pride of lions that includes a grown male. It was great seeing the lions yesterday and I would have been content with that, but in the back of my mind I secretly wanted to see a lion with a full mane. One that looks like the king of the beasts! Well, we got it! He was magnificent. At first sitting up and looking me in the eye (or camera lens as it were) before laying back down for a rest.

he only popped his head up for a few moments. otherwise, he just lays in the tall grass during the day

At 6:00am it is already in the 80’s and too hot for many of the animals. On our way back we come upon a first for us, a hyena, walking along the road. We creep up behind it and once it realizes we are there, he ducks into the tall grass and disappears immediately. The best photo we got was from the back side. We drive on and eventually turn around and start heading back to the lodge. A few minutes later, I will assume, we come upon the same hyena. He is walking in the same direction as before, but we are now turned around. Harold stops and turns the rover off. We sit in silence as the hyena walks right up to and past the rover. So close we can hear it panting as it passes us and moves along.

easy to see why the hyena is one of the "ugly 5"

This time we got much better pictures. We get back to the lodge and eat breakfast. The food has been decent here. Nothing special, but nice. We need to pack our bags as we are moving to another lodge today. Yuri will be here within the hour and we would like to shower before checking out. The thought has crossed our mind if time is short to skip the shower and just wait until we are checked in at the new place. As we leave breakfast and head toward the room, we see Yuri has already arrived (early), but we tell him we will finish packing quickly and check out as fast as possible. We check out and settle our bill. We leave a tip for the lodge staff and give Harold his. I thought he was a great guide for us. Each day concerned that we see something incredible. We hop in Yuri’s van and he takes us to Buckler’s Africa B&B. It takes about an hour. As we arrive, we are struck by the scenery. The setting is gorgeous. On the Crocodile River. We see hippos from the seating area overlooking the river. We drink coffee while we wait for our room to be ready.

view from our lounge area at buckler's. crocodile river below, full of life. you can sit and watch during the day, or just listen at night

Once in the room, I nap while El knits outside. We are already sunscreened and DEET ready, so we decide to wait until after the game drive to shower before dinner. More annoying people on our game drive. This time Brazilian. After being obnoxiously loud, the two men keep falling asleep. Their wives wake them when there is something to see and take pictures of. One woman keeps taking selfies. Not with the animals or her husband in the photo, but only herself sitting in the truck. We pull up to an elephant and she is taking pictures of herself. Narcissistic much? Since Buckler’s is outside of the park, our arranger has hired a private safari company to pick us up and take us inside Kruger for the actual game drive. When you are in Kruger, unless you are staying at a game reserve inside the park and are in one of their vehicles, you are required to stick to the paved streets. Before we came, one of El’s friends was suggesting to skip South African safari and go for a country with “better” safari. She said her husband used the term “Disney safari” when speaking of South African safari. And now I do believe I know what he is talking about. Staying at Shishangeni for the first two nights and getting the private game reserve experience, and comparing it to this experience I can try to compare and contrast. I used the analogy about the state of New Jersey, so I will continue. Kruger National Park is roughly the same size as the state of NJ. When you enter through the gates, which I believe there are 14 of them, you have to check in and pay your fee when you arrive. The gates open at 5:30am and close at 6:30 at night. There is a hard close, which means if you show up one minute after the gate is locked, you will spend the night inside your car inside the park. Once you get waved into the park, you are required to stay on the paved roads. Think of these like the Turnpike, Parkway, and 287 and the like. Of course the speed limit is closer to 40km/hr, but you understand there are only so many highways in the state and you are not allowed to go off of them. No exits. That is, unless you are staying at a private game reserve which is a privately controlled section of the park- think like a city. Shishangeni is approximately 58 square miles, and you can only enter if you are a guest. Once on the private property, you can only drive on main (dirt) roads if you are not with a rover. The rovers have the capability to drive over any terrain, though they mostly stay on the dirt paths. Even though the game animals that you would see in both places is the same, the rover guides have intimate knowledge of the family groups that roam (especially the territorial ones) that live in their area. So, imagine I said, go to the state of NJ in your car and show me a deer or a bear, would you know where to go to guarantee seeing one? Now imagine I added that you can only drive on the highways. I would bet you would have better luck if you were allowed to go off the highway and up to the more rural areas of the state. If I ever meet up with El’s friend who characterized the drive as “Disney,” I would like to know if I have this concept correct, because, with the possible exception of seeing different animals native to a different area of the continent, I can’t imagine what advantage going to a safari in Botswana would be over what we experienced at Shishangeni inside Kruger. Our particular experience is that the food at Buckler’s Africa is wonderful. The full English breakfast and the dinner of grilled meats and veggies was on a level higher than we got in the park. The property view is different. Buckler’s overlooks the Crocodile River and you see hippos below. You get the hired safari and there is no alcohol served on premises (though you can bring your own). Shishangeni was located in a secluded part of the park, so most of the property was surrounded by trees and bush. The room qualities are similar between both (very good). So, my recommendation to either do half of your time inside and half outside for both perspectives, or to do all inside, because there are advantages you get inside that are missing if you are outside. One other thing is that since the park closes at 6:30, our afternoon game drive starts at 3:00pm, which is still early in the heat of the day, whereas the private reserves can stay out past dusk to get maximum early evening activity. Chris, our guide is pointing out some excellent tracking points. Between circling vultures signifying a fresh kill, to the impressive stalking routine displayed by the hyenas last night, based on the direction the impalas were looking, both options have their benefits and your mileage may vary should you decide to try this experience yourself.

the guides knew the names of all of the birds. i don't remember any of them.

At first, Chris, who has a thick accent that is tricky to understand, is speaking way too fast for the Brazilians who speak English, but need it slow. He is also driving a bit fast. You see, for example, over the course of the time in the park, you will come across a lot of zebra herds (called a dazzle, if you didn’t know). But, the first time you see them in the wild, you don’t know that you will see plenty more. Now, we have already seen plenty of zebras, and impalas (that are everywhere), wildebeests etc., but the Brazilians don’t know this and want to get many pictures of the first ones they see (just as we did when we first drove into the park). Chris is asked to slow down, which he does and things are smooth. As we drive through the park, we are required to stay on the sanctioned roadways. There are a lot of private reserves that you cannot enter unless you are staying there. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of roads, but it is only the 3500 km of sanctioned road you need to stay on if you are with a company’s game driver and not with a private lodge. Chris points out the sight of circling vultures. Knowing that this signifies a potential fresh kill, we head towards them to see if we can catch a glimpse of activity.

a tree full of vultures looking for an opportunity

after they eat and need to wash blood off, they will rinse in water and span their wings to dry the feathers

To no avail, but this is how much of the drive is. Driving around trying to spot something sitting, running, resting, hunting. Anything. At some point he stops the truck abruptly and backs up. He points into the thick brush. Of course, I can’t make out a thing and he says that there is a pack of wild dogs (called painted dogs) just inside the bush. It takes a few seconds for the movement to register with my eyes and I do see them. While we sit and take our photos, Chris tells us about what we are seeing. One of the things that makes the dogs particularly vicious is that instead of suffocating their prey and then eating them, the painted dogs will eat the animal alive as it tries to escape. Taking bites of the live animal until eventually it bleeds to death. Now that we have had up close experience with rhinos, anything more is just a bonus. It takes us almost three hours of the drive to spot our first rhinos. And as we are sitting and taking photos of the grazers, another visitor, as a lot will do, stops to tell us that they just saw two rhinos fighting about 2km up the road. We head towards that. Driving up to the scene there are a few cars already in good photo spots, but the roads, for the most part, have plenty of room for a lot of cars all trying to get the same shot. We see 4 rhinos about 25 meters away. There is some minimal sparring activity, not sure if it is a serious territorial battle or just two fighting over a patch of grass. They seem to have gotten their immediate aggressions out and are agreeing to keep their distance. We are now about 2km from the gate that closes at 6:30 and it is now 6:25, so Chris doesn't want to take us any further into the park, but does want to give us our full times worth. He looks around and of course, sees impalas. They are literally everywhere. Sometimes in herds, sometimes alone, and sometimes in small groups. They are silent and are not easily spooked by all of the traffic that goes by. They just eat their grass and playfully bound through the grass. Chris is looking at them with more of an interest than I would expect. He tells us that he thinks something is going on, but he is not sure what. I try to see what he is talking about, but, of course I don’t. I pull the binoculars to see if I can see anything. He points out that half of the group of impalas are looking one way, while the other half are looking in the opposite direction. He says, something is happening, there is something around, but he just can't spot it…yet. With the binoculars, I still can't see what he is talking about. Then he says, “look! There is one, two, three, four hyenas…that is what they are all looking at” I find them in the binoculars and start to follow them myself. The impalas are getting jittery and it looks like something is, in fact, going on. The hyenas are forming a perimeter circle and it is unclear if the impalas know there are multiples or if they think it is just one they have to fear. The hyenas are clearly positioning themselves for a group takedown.

el captured this interesting moment. the foreground is the back of the neck of an impala being eyed head on by a hyena obscured by grass

Just as things are getting interestingly tense, Chris says ”ooh. It is 6:30, we have to rush to make the gate” So, we don’t know how it ends, though I suspect not well for an impala or two. The guard at the gate says we made it by mere seconds to get out. When we get back to the lodge (only a 10 min drive) we shower and sit outside waiting for dinner. It is incredibly buggy and I just washed my bug repellent off and didn’t want to reapply, so we just opt to sit inside for dinner. The staff agrees that it is a particularly bad night for mosquitoes and the Brazilians follow our cue and sit inside as well. Dinner is served in short order. This lodge has an actual chef who we speak to about some of the food and he seems very excited about some of his creations. Tonight we are served freshly grilled steak, chicken thighs, and sausage. Grilled veggies and potato salad round out the meal. Everything is very good. The chocolate cake dessert was excellent too. I was hoping to sit outside and journal after dinner, but too many mosquitoes force us inside for the evening where we journal/knit and talk about our day over a glass of wine.The game drive pick up is at 5:30 tomorrow, so we set alarms and don’t make it a late night.

the sun sets on another day in kruger national park

Tuesday February 18

There is no wake up call here, so we set our alarm. The night was good sleep and not much noise, as the animals start to wake, I can hear the grunts of hippos in the river below our property. It is still too dark to see anything though. We meet Chris, the driver, at 5:30 and get to Kruger just before 6:00am. There is a line of people whose cars have already been cleared by the staff to enter, and just waiting their turn to get to the guard shack. It looks like a Canadian border crossing. The drive starts out predictably slow and we do start seeing activity. One of the nice things about having all of the tourists in their own cars is that when you see a traffic jam it usually means something photoworthy is happening nearby. The first traffic we see is reported to be a herd of cape buffalo in the distance being stalked by lions. Chris points out a flock of white cattle egrets all perched in the trees and suggests that they are an indication that cape buffalo are near. Once the buffalo move out of sight he can still spot the birds, letting us know they are still in the area. Through the binoculars, I am able to spot the buffalo, and at some point the herd becomes agitated. Even though we heard about the lions, I did not see any of their activity. We move on and hear about a lioness chasing a warthog.

giraffes cautiously on guard as a lioness does a walk around

Again, a lot of chatter amongst car drivers and passengers, but none of us is able to spot the action. We do see a herd of buffalo nearby and stop for those photos. We move on to a lake that has crocodiles on the shore. Not too close, but we can get some pics of them too. The last sign I saw we were 29km from the park entrance before circling back with a rest stop during the last leg. We keep our eyes peeled, but don’t see anything of interest on the way out. This morning’s drive was a long one (about 4.5 hours) and we return to the lodge around 10am. We ordered our breakfast yesterday for today. I got “full English'' and El got continental. I figured that since this place does not serve lunch, I should have a heavy breakfast to hold me over until dinner (though we do have some snacks with us). The breakfast is very good and I am sufficiently full. Afterwards, we change and come back to the overlook to journal/knit. We share some wine and snacks on the overlook, discussing plans and watching hippos from a safe distance. They don’t really frolic in the water, more of bob under and above the surface. Once in a while we see one come out of the water and walk onto the shore, but the grass is so high, they virtually disappear mere feet away from the water’s edge. It is still incredibly relaxing to hear the river flowing by, interrupted periodically by the grunt of a hippo or two. The staff chef brings us an afternoon snack of roast beef sandwiches and a selection of fresh fruit and dessert as we relax. It hits the spot and will certainly hold us until dinner. At 2:45 we get our drive clothes back on and get our leopard spotting glasses on for our game drive at 3:00. That is the last of the big 5 for us. I learned more today about the “big 5.” I assumed it was because it’s the 5 big things that people want to see when they come on safari. Figuring if it had to do with physical size, not sure why giraffe would beat out lion. But, Chris tells us that they are the big 5 based on potential danger. Lion, leopard, cape buffalo, elephant, and rhino make the list that was coined by hunters who classified them as the top five most dangerous when injured. The phrase was just adopted by marketing companies to make it sound more like what I understood it to mean. Some people extend it to the “big 7” to include cheetah and painted dogs (not sure how hippo or crocodile don’t make the list, though, but I guess they are not regularly hunted?). I think the marketing companies got busy and created something called the “small 5” which are insects like buffalo weevils and rhino beetles.

not technically part of the "small 5", these are dung beetles rolling their golf-ball sized dinner home

Then there is the “ugly 5”, “shy 5”, and “impossible 5”...and I am sure somewhere, other lists we hadn’t heard about. Anyway, regardless of how it got its name, we need a leopard to make the big 5 for us. We did see a glimpse of one yesterday. It had run across the road in front of another car before darting into the brush on the side of the road. It came to a rest in the bush, so I did see a well camouflaged fur coat in the grass, but I hold out hope for more of the full leopard experience and not just the quick glimpse we got. As we drive through the roads of the savanna that is Kruger park, I am struck by just how green it is. Not in an Irish countryside lush green, but in a, there are 1000 shades of green for as far as the eye can see and besides animals and cars, not one single other color. No flowers, no leaves, heck, since an elephant only digests 40% of what it eats, even their giant turds are green from undigested grass!

We took typhoid medication out of precaution, but at this point, I don’t think we needed it. Like Mexico, you can’t drink the water, but most tourist spots have conditioned water as well as bottled water abound, so your worry level can be suppressed. We are reminded by the signage at Kruger that this is a malaria zone and we have also been taking our meds for that, which I would recommend for any traveler to this area. One thing El and I agree on is that we would not want to do the drive through Kruger on our own as we feel we would miss so much without the benefit of a guide/tracker. On the afternoon game drive we are joined once again by the Brazilians. They are very annoying. Glad they will not be on the drive in the morning. We are looking for a leopard, but no sign. It is a slow drive and we don’t get much new in terms of unseen game. Leopard-faced vulture and full hippo may be all the new fauna from tonight. A full grown male kudu with horns as well. We get back around 6:30 and shower to get ready for dinner. Tonight, a zucchini and herb soup for starter, braised short ribs and roasted root veggies for main and chocolate cake for dessert. After dinner we pack our bags for tomorrow, setting out plane clothes and doing what we can to give ourselves extra time in the morning. El sits to write postcards home and I have grand plans to journal, but am just too tired and call it a night. We check the weather for Cape Town for the rest of the week and it looks good. So far it has held up for us in the north. Hopefully it will be as good in the south!

another break time on an afternoon game drive

Wednesday February 19

a fever tree's green bark seems to glow in the dusk

Since we are leaving today, and Chris’ game drives have lasted a bit longer than the first couple days, we ask if there is any way that we can start a little earlier, so that we have enough time to get back and shower and eat before our airport transfer pick up at 10:15. Between him and Karen (the lodge manager) we are told to be ready at 5:15am for game drive so that we can get to the gates as they open at 5:30 and have enough time to do our thing. Last night when we were on the drive, I asked the Brazilians if they were going on the drive in the morning. He said no, because they had arranged a day of fishing, so they would only be on the afternoon drive. Perfect! We don’t like driving with them anyway! Sounds like it will be just us, so if Chris is good with 5:15, so are we. We wake at 4:45 to get dressed and apply our sunscreen and bug spray. As we are running around (luckily mostly packed from last night), the power goes out. It has before, but usually returns after a few seconds. It does not return. We finish getting ready using the flashlights on our phones. We go out front and meet our guide, but Chris is not here as today and Braam is our guide. He is on board with getting us back in time for shower and breakfast before we get picked up. Chris had given us the paperwork to fill out last night, so we are ready to roll immediately. We jump in the truck and don’t you know it, two of the Brazilians show up! I will spare all of the exchange, but basically, one of the wives did not want to go fishing. She speaks zero English and jumps in the truck. But, now Braam is trying to figure out about the park fees. At 5:30 he is now calling Karen to find out. Meanwhile, the husband who speaks a little English is telling Braam it is OK, since they were supposed to go this morning. But Braam is saying that he was only given the park fees for two people (me and El) and he needs the money for the third before we leave. The husband is not understanding why Braam needs more money. This exchange is holding us up. Seeing the commotion, now she decides she doesn’t want to go and tries to exit the truck. Braam on the phone. Husband not getting the need for extra money and telling his wife to stay in the truck by holding the door closed. It comes down to telling the husband, you need to pay (400 rand) to Braam for the girl to go with us. You can collect a refund from the lodge when they open. And also, she needs to fill out the paperwork (before we go since she does not understand the questions on the form). Even when they are not in a group they are annoying,..and they wore Speedos to dinner last night...which just added to their classlessness. Anyway, it all worked out and we were among the first in the park this morning. She was great because she did not speak at all (let alone loudly), call the animals to come closer to the truck, or fall asleep and expect to be awakened should anything interesting happen etc. And, without the guys, she seemed to really enjoy the drive. I told Braam we needed a leopard and he promised to do what he could. Within 10 minutes he has spotted a cheetah that we have not seen before, but for such a brief time, we couldn’t really get great pictures. I can still mark it off! We drive through the park for an hour or so without much activity. Whenever we see another game drive truck, Braam will stop and ask what they are seeing as Chris did the same. This is the network the guides from competing companies have to give their guests the best experience. Being the last to see anything, it is no surprise that I cannot see any activity as we come upon a single truck with a bunch of people taking photos. Usually if there is something good (elephant herd, rhino grazing etc) you will see several cars and trucks pulled over, so as you drive up you know something is or might be happening. This is just one truck, so it could be anything from a bird to zebras. The guides all speak to each other in Afrikaans, so we never know what they are saying until the guide translates for us. We don’t pull away, instead Braam shuts the truck off and whispers, “there is a leopard behind that termite mound”!! It takes a moment to focus my eyes on the mound, trying to distinguish the termite mound light brown from the spotted yellow head of the leopard, but I see it. She sits still. Once in a while turning her head to survey the surroundings. I am fixated on her, just in case she stands up or runs away. We sit for so long watching her, that I start to look around in other directions and see a herd of impalas coming up the road towards us. Could we get to witness a kill? She jumps off the termite mound and sits in the grass.

the elusive leopard, just before she went on the prowl. exhilarating, to say the least

She is hidden from the impalas, but right in front of us. When the trucks are off and you are just sitting there in the natural sounds of the savanna, even that is incredible. We see the impalas coming closer and the leopard creeping towards them, then stopping. Then moving forward, then stopping. We notice that there are birds that are getting louder and louder in their squawking. They are warning the impalas that there is danger, but they see nothing and continue to walk blissfully unaware that they could be her meal in the next few minutes. The impalas are getting agitated and after a few moments, some of the herd starts running towards the leopard! Well this is odd, for sure. They are only about 20 feet from each other at this point and the leopard is ready to pounce. Just then, Braam sitting in the driver’s seat, spots a pack of wild dogs in his side view mirror. The wild dogs are known to be particularly gruesome in their kill strategy and it is no wonder the impalas are moving to get away from them, though not knowing they are bounding towards another skillful predator. Unfortunately, much of the confrontation takes place behind a bush and we just see a bunch of impalas running past us. However, they are now grunting, making a sound we have not heard before. They are warning others, but now that they have crossed the road, they watch from a safe distance. The leopard resets her position, now that everyone seems onto her whereabouts and intentions. We move down the street a little for a batter vantage point to see what else may transpire. Now we see a hyena. Not sure if it was just passing through or if it thought that a kill may be coming that it could get in on, but the next thing we know, the leopard is now stalking the hyena. We can see both from our spot and the hyena is trying to figure out where the leopard is. He locates her and runs across the street, and she follows. They are now in the taller grass, which hides the leopard in its entirety. She makes her pounce and jumps out of the grass two times. The hyena barks as it makes it’s getaway. Leopard is 0-2. We lose sight of both and after about an hour, the scene falls serene again. What an exhilarating experience to witness. I am completely happy with this morning’s drive! On the way out, we take another drive-by of the cheetah spot to see if we can catch a better glimpse. We don’t and head out. Just before the exit, a car flags us down and tells us about a family of lions just over the ridge. As we drive towards the spot, there are so many cars, we assume something is happening. However, it either already happened, and people are holding out for another opportunity. We have already seen the lions and the Brazilian woman seems content with what she has seen, so we press on towards the gate. What a great last game drive! Luckily we have seen everything else before now, since not one elephant or giraffe was spotted today. We get back to the lodge and are told that the electricity still has not come on. We then skip our plan to shower (no hot water) and tell them that we are ready for breakfast. They must be cooking with gas since they take my egg order, but tell El that there are no toasted pastries for her this morning. We each make do with what is offered. I ask the staff to let us know when our driver arrives so that we can get on the road to the airport. Just as we finish with breakfast, George, the driver, shows. We quickly check out and get on the road. The ride to Nelspruit is about 1.5 hours and is uneventful. George is very friendly and talks to us about our safari experience and tells us of his own world travel excursions. We get to the airport with about 2 hours until the flight. The airport is so small that there is only one gate and only small, commuter planes can service it. We take off with a slight delay, but nothing too bad. And, since we don’t have a connection to make (we are flying direct to Cape Town) we are all set. I am able to sleep a bit on the plane and journal the rest of the 2.5 hour flight. Cape Town is about an 18 hour drive from this part of the country, so I am thinking it is the difference between New York and Atlanta, which means that as we head south, the weather should actually be a little less warm than the 90’s we have been experiencing all week. In the city, that should be a relief.

Once in Cape Town, as we exit the airport, we are inundated by taxi and Uber drivers who cannot seem to understand why we would want to take the MyCiti bus. I have bus directions. We want to know about our bus options while we are here. We find the bus pass kiosk and get the answer to all our questions. We buy a day pass and will decide later if we need another day pass or switch to a 3 day pass. We follow the directions and, among learning that the directions provided are actually wrong (they tell us to take bus 101, but it is the 111). We get checked into the room. They had no doubles available when I booked, so we opted to pay extra for the 4-person dorm all to ourselves, so we have 4 beds and a private bathroom. Since we couldn’t shower this morning after the game drive, we both shower and get dressed for the evening. We're both hungry, so we do a search for the Eastern Food Market on Darling St. We have an 8:00 reservation at a speakeasy called The Art of Duplicity. We have the address and are trying to figure out how long we would have to eat dinner before going out tonight. It all works out. The first stop is Eastern Food Market, it is kind of like a food court with multiple stations that are mostly Indian, but there is some Chinese, and Middle Eastern too. We look around and find the only counter that serves “bunny chow”. Options are veggie, chicken, or lamb. I order the chicken to split with El. They take an entire loaf of white bread and cut it in half widthwise. Stand the half loaf on its end and hollow the middle out with a knife. Then, they fill the loaf crater in with chicken tikka masala. The bread innards are placed on the plate and curry sauce is ladled over it.

no rabbits were harmed in the making of this dish of bunny chow. can't say the same for the chicken

We sit at the cafeteria style tables with our plastic cutlery trying to figure out how to attack the feast. This is supposed to be the best bunny chow in Cape Town (a dish that supposedly originated amongst the Indian population in Durban). My initial thought is that it is decent, but realistically it is only as good as the sauce on the chicken. While I have never had Indian food with white bread, happy I tried it, I clearly prefer the standard basmati rice. Glad I tried it, don’t need another one. We put a serious dent in the saucy loaf. Our next stop is a speakeasy called The Art of Duplicity. Our reservation is for 8:00 and it is close to 7:30…we didn’t know how long it would take for us to get here. We find the address, but there is no one to direct us to the secret location. We go next door to a place we heard about, called Truth Coffee. It is an interesting looking room. It is an old warehouse, the décor is steampunk all the way down to the outfits worn by the staff. Very industrial. Lots of pipes, metal fixtures, gears with and without cranking mechanisms. Even the gift shop part of the room where you can buy bags of coffee, mugs, and the like, the coffee bags are on wire racks and you hand crank to move the shelves to see the other kinds of coffee you can buy. We order a coffee while we wait. El gets a 1:3 and I get a 1:5 (ratio of coffee to milk). This is quite possibly the best cup of coffee either of us have ever had. At 8 o’clock we head to the specified address and meet the doorman who gets us into the speakeasy. Part of the fun of this place is that they do not publicize their address and ask that you do not geotag them on any social media platforms. It’s all in good fun. We make it inside and it is basically a high end craft cocktail bar with a 1920’s look and feel. We are given a drink menu and I order a drink called “Phoney Notes”: Woodford Reserve, hazelnut shrub, pimento bitters. It is garnished with a star anise that is held between forceps and set on fire with a blow torch, and then placed on top of the single large ice cube in the center of the glass. The fire burns out quickly and the charred star sits as a smokey reminder of an ingredient that is not meant to be consumed, but every bit as important to the drink as the other parts. Tastes a lot like an Old Fashioned. We strike up fun conversation with the bartender and his assistant. They are both transplants and friendly to the travelers new to town. The bar is quiet tonight and we won't make it a late one. We want to try to go to Table Mountain first thing in the morning, so we don’t want to be out too late. It is just after 10:00pm and we want to get going. We settle the bill and decided to grab an Uber to get back to the hostel. We are not at all familiar with these streets and frankly the Uber is so cheap that it is just the safest way back. We are not going to another bar and going to grab a nightcap in the hostel bar. A bottle of Heineken is about US$2. I could get used to this. We call it a night.

Thursday February 20

Our first full day in Cape Town. We wake only slightly refreshed. With our late hour bedtime, I hoped we would sleep until the alarm at 6:45, but, sadly, we are awakened to the intermittent sound of clanging metal right outside our window. It sounded like a loud chain link gate closure every minute or so. Eventually, I have to get up to look at where the noise is coming from. Turns out, the building next door to the hostel is where all (some? most?) of the vendors at the Greenmarket Square store their packed up stall structures. Some with carts (like NYC hot dog carts), others with a few banquet tables that have to be dragged out of the building onto the sidewalk where they are loaded onto dollies to be pulled, pushed, or steered to the Greenmarket Square a couple of blocks away. Any dolly that needs loading, gets loaded up on the sidewalk and then in a single movement that results in a crashing sound, they will pull the hand truck off the curb and onto the street just inches below. The same sound for the hot dog carts. They just don’t need to be loaded on the sidewalk. We have bought a ticket for the Table Mountain cable car. The station opens at 8:00am and the car running is weather dependent. They do have a website that has the current status of the car to let you know if it is running or not. Unfortunately, they do not update the site until 8:00am. Table Mountain is located in such a way that it actually creates its own weather, so closures or openings can happen at any time. Because of how cheap Uber rides are (cheaper than the public bus) we order one after we eat breakfast at the hostel. I do remark that as convenient as the Ubers are, I feel that we get so much of our intimate knowledge of a city through all of the walking we do (learning street locations and neighborhoods) that could be missed out if we rely solely on the rides instead of public transports etc. It takes about 10 minutes to get dropped off at the cable car station and we arrive only to find out that the car will not run this morning on account of wind. We get some pictures and see the “tablecloth” which is a thin film of fog that lies on top of the flattop mountain and rolls gently off the edges. The car can be closed on account of too much fog too. We will keep an eye on the website for another chance later today or this week. Our ticket is good for 7 days and you can get a refund if it goes unused. We know we would like to do a free walking tour that starts near the hostel at 11:00, so we need to decide what to do now. We are at the cable car station half way up the mountain. There is a free shuttle bus that runs from the car station half way up to the bottom of the mountain. We could walk down, but decide to take the free shuttle down, then walk back to the hostel, checking out Kloof Street on the way. We see some good cafes and restaurants and El is able to run into a supermarket for a look around. It took us about an hour to walk back to the room from the bottom of the mountain. I grab my sunglasses and apply sunscreen before heading out for the walking tour. The tour starts at Motherland Coffee Co. on St. George’s Mall (at Wale St). They are free and run every day of the year. They offer 3 different tours and each runs about 2 hours. We will play our need for lunch after a tour by ear, since the breakfast (brekkie as it is called here) is holding us fine at this point. On the way to Motherland we walk through a square called the Greenmarket. It looks like a craft fair where people sell their artwork. There is also a makeshift refugee camp along the square on the Longmarket Street side. People living in crude tent-like structures on the steps of a church. Sitting outside as it is surely sweltering inside the tents in the summer sun. It can be difficult to differentiate the refugees from the local homeless population. In the past 2 hours I have noticed how aggressive some of the homeless can be to passers-by, including us. They have not gotten physical, but sometimes raising a voice at you as you pass by can be a little jarring. We found Motherland Coffee and order a latte. Again, a wonderful cup of coffee. No bitterness whatsoever, just an excellent, smooth, flavorful cup o’ joe. El wants to see if we can get in on the coffee tasting demonstration at Truth Coffee later this week. We take the walking tour at 10:00 and it focuses mostly on the downtown area giving a lot of dates regarding which countries controlled the area and who challenged that rule and when. As usual, there is too much information to catch it all. A lot of times, as with this tour, I am mostly listening for key spots that are on our list of things to see/do in the city. Some of the highlights of the tour include the Large Church, talking about the Slave Lodge museum, Parliament buildings (Cape Town is one of three country capitals along with Pretoria and Bloemfontein), and the Company’s Garden. I think we walk pretty far in between information talks, so I am not sure what buildings we are walking among that are not being pointed out. Our guide is OK, and I suppose the information she gives us is accurate. She just seems like a new guide, easily sidetracked and distracted, but considering the content, I am not sure it matters all that much. We end around the corner from the starting point. We go back to St. Georges Mall for a street food fair that runs every Thursday. Mexican, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indian, traditional African- just all kinds of ethnic foods. We get traditional African salads, falafel, guacamole and chips, and an edo roll of assorted veggies wrapped in nori. During lunch we check the website and see that Table Mountain's car is open. We were going to take another walking tour, but our tickets take precedence. We Uber up to the cable car again and when we get there we are able to get in one of the first cable car groups. The cars only hold about 20 to 30 people and they stage people as they arrive. The car runs every 6 minutes or so and the trip is only 4 minutes up or down. The floor of the car rotates and in 4 minutes it only gets about ½ way around giving you different perspectives on the view of the side of the mountain. We get to the top and it is very windy. There is talk of possibly shutting down the car again due to wind, but it is still running even when we leave. We are able to get some great overlook shots as well as some “tablecloth” pics as the fog rolls off the cliffs into the valleys below. We don’t stay too long, maybe 30-45 minutes.

table mountain partially covered by the "tablecloth"

a view of some of cape town below table mountain

one last shot before we head back down in the cable car

We cable car down and Uber back to St. Georges Mall to catch the next walking tour. The company actually offers three different tours at 10:00, 2:00, and 4:20. We already did the historical information tour and we are starting the tour of the Bo Kaap neighborhood. Sadly, we missed the “apartheid to freedom” tour. We get on the Bo Kaap tour and wind up having the same guide as we had this morning. Bo Kaap is a predominantly Muslim neighborhood. We see several mosques, but the tour does not go into any of them. Bo Kaap is also famous for its starkly, vibrantly colored houses. Many are shades of fluorescent and are constructed like row houses that have the same façade separated only by where the different colors come together. On the walk, the guide asks if we had eaten koeksisters and asks who would try the dessert cakes if she was to order them for us. A restaurant called Faeeza's Home Kitchen is known for their great ones. We order one each. We continue the tour while the restaurant fills our order to go. We head up to an overlook spot that is right above/behind a restaurant called Biesmiellah- a place on our list for excellent Cape Malay cuisine. The view of Table Mountain is spectacular and we take a bunch of pics. Bo Kaap has an iconic look for this city and the guide shows us the spot where you can see the block of houses that were on the cover of the Lonely Planet guidebook.

so, how did i do? does this look like the photo at the top of this page?

street view of bo kapp neighborhood

While we take our pics, the guide goes to pick up our dessert order. They are like freshly made cinnamon, sugar, cardamon, and orange peel doughnuts. Still hot from the fryer. Taste is great. We finish up around the block and make a mental note for when we can come back to Biesmiellah’s. After the tour we walk to a rock and roll bar called Aces and Spades on Hout St. The place has a cool vibe, but music is a little too goth for my liking. We stay for one beer and look up some local places for a light dinner. We have to get up early tomorrow, so we need to start our night of bar hopping and eating early. It is 7:00pm and we are finished here. We walk up to a place recommended by our walking tour guide called the Village Idiot. It is a rather large bar/restaurant that serves some traditional African food. In my life, besides Moroccan cuisine, I think I have limited experience with African culinary specialties. I mean, have you ever been to a Kenyan restaurant? I have been to Ethiopian places, and I recall the food being very spicy. But, I don't know much about other places, including South Africa. Anyway, it is recommended that we try something called “bobotie” and this place serves it. We get an order of olives and an order of bobotie to share. We will decide later if we need more food. Meanwhile, I get an email from our local fixer (Thomas) about our plans for tomorrow. The email came this morning, but I don't check my messages all that frequently, and I just see it now. He is basically confirming that we are still on for tomorrow. We are, so I email him back and tell him all of the particulars that we have already agreed on. We will be ready at this time in this place for our excursion. All set. I send the email expecting all is set. Moments later, El gets a message on Whatsapp that I should call Thomas on his phone. What could possibly be the issue? He confirmed things were good. I confirmed things were good and now he needs me to call? What could possibly have gone wrong between those two communications? El responds to him that even though our local sim card has a South African phone number, we did not purchase a phone plan (we get data only) and that if this is not urgent, he should just meet in the morning. He responds that he really needs to speak to me and asks again that I call him on his cell phone. El is able to use a site where we can make a phone call using the data plan and we call him. The connection is not too good when we get through and it turns out that he just wanted to say that he will be there in the morning at the scheduled time and place! That’s it? That is all you wanted to say? OK, see you then. Thanks for wasting my time, you obviously have no concept of how we travel. This ought to be interesting. The food arrives and we had only ordered one portion to split. The bobotie comes out as a mildly sweet ground beef with an egg on top and baked. Served with rice and a small salad. The dish is tasty, but the hint of sweetness with the ground beef does prevent me from wanting to order it again.

this was one of the pieces of art in the district 6 museum, but it fits here

On the way out, I ask the waiter if that is considered a good bobotie. He says it is good, but that his grandmother’s is way better than this one. We have to get up early and agree to be in the room around 10:00 to go to bed. We have to leave at 6:00am tomorrow and need to plan accordingly in terms of showering and sleep, though realistically, we could probably sleep in the car if need be. I do have a couple of errands to do before the morning, like hit an ATM and order our breakfast to go for our Chapman’s Peak picnic. We make our last stop a bar called The Shack. Instead of walking there, we Uber (ride runs about US$1.75) it is past dark and it has been suggested that if you are unfamiliar with the streets, to seriously consider an Uber/taxi etc. just for the safety factor. The Shack seems to have five connected bars in one complex, each playing different music. The first is playing The Clash and serves beer. Bartender invites us to explore and see if other rooms are more to our liking. Her beer will still be cold if we come back! The next room is playing some generic rock I don’t recognize. Next room Is more of a rap/dance club. Pass. The last we go to is playing stuff like U2, Foo Fighters, and the Police. They have bottled beer, one of which is the first stout beer that El has found in this country. We have one beer and decide to call it a night. Uber back to the hostel. I need to get money for tomorrow's full day excursion from an ATM. The receptionist at the desk tells me that if I go to the ATM I should be fine, but not to take my backpack with me, as it makes me look like a tourist/target. I do as she suggests and have no issues.

Friday February 21 We set the alarm for 5:30 as we need to meet Thomas at 6:00 for our day in Stellenbosch. With the wine region being so important to the economy here, there is no shortage of options to tour it. We have made an appointment for a wine tasting at De Toren and also a lunch reservation at Delaire Estates. Obviously, not driving ourselves there, and too far for an Uber, we have hired Thomas for the day to drive us out there, wait while we wine and dine, and bring us back. Last week, having read so much about the scenic beauty in the Cape Town area, I asked him if he would be willing to add some sort of scenic drive in the morning, before our winery stops. He suggested leaving at 6:00am and packing a picnic breakfast that we could eat on Chapman’s Peak Drive (reminiscent of PCH in California). Thomas meets us at the hostel, but only to tell us that he will NOT be our driver today. Our driver does arrive in short order and we are off for the day. We drive about 40 minutes along a winding road worthy of movie filming, complete with sheer cliffs above and below the roadway. The amount of bikers, coupled with the lack of shoulder along the route make driving extra tricky- though I am not the one behind the wheel. Viwe (vee-way, our driver) is doing a great job at giving us just enough pointers to keep the trip interesting, but not too much to make it boring. We get to a scenic overlook and pull off. There are some steps leading from the road level down a few feet to a more secluded area out of sight from the road. It has a spectacular view and some stone steps that double as benches. There is no one else around and Viwe stays with the car while El and I share our picnic breakfast overlooking the Atlantic coast with the mountains of Cape Town rising above.

if that isn't a view for a breakfast picnic, i don't know what is

We have a half hour to soak it in. We press on down the coastline and ask Viwe to explain shantytowns, the current refugee crisis, and the language requirements in the local grade school system, among other things. I fall asleep for a half hour and wake up in the town of Muizenberg. We park along the beach promenade and get some coffee and stretch our legs. During the ride, Viwe pointed to El the moment the water along the coast transitioned from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. El goes to the water and dips her feet in the Indian Ocean for the first time. We finish the coffee and head out on the last leg. We are making good time and have about another hour to go. We will arrive early, but are OK to mill about should they not be able to take us until our scheduled time of 10:30. It is only about 9:00 now. We are driving through the Stellenbosch region which looks a lot more like Napa Valley than the cityscape we just came from. After a bit of driving through the rural area, we come into the actual town of Stellenbosch. It is a college town and there is much activity on the street as we drive through. Minutes later we see the sign we are looking for. A private cellar vineyard called De Toren. In comparison to some of the larger estates, De Toren doesn't make that much wine. We check in and are told our tour will begin at 10:30 and that we can walk around until we get started. Another guest arrives, and the tour and tasting is only the three of us. They have just today started this year's harvest. We see the workers in action. The tour does not last long. A quick explanation of how the orientation of the grape vines helps produce the best grapes followed by pointing to some of the key features of the winery. We head inside to see the absolute first bin of grapes that will be made into wine for this year. The cellar-master gives us a brief talk about where the process goes from here. We are then shown the barrel room where the wine rests for at least a year. This vineyard has five signature lines of wine and four of them are blends. We are shown the blending tanks and the aging room for the top line series- of which only 1000 bottles are made every year. Then it is on to the tasting room where we get to sample four of the five wines.

el and i with our tour guide else-marié at de toren private cellars

decanting one of the four wines we were introduced to today

This winery only makes red wine, so none really strike as my favorite as I am not generally a red drinker. The other guy on the tour is from Belgium and seems to know his stuff about wine. He is really loving these wines, so I expect, if you like reds, this would be a good place to sample them. The tour and tasting last just shy of 90 min. We are not looking to buy anything today, so we take some photos and head back to the car. We have lunch reservations for 2:00pm at an estate about 20km away. It is before noon and if we leave now, we could be there two hours before the seating. Viwe asks if we should call the restaurant to see if they can take us early. I choose to forgo the call and just show up as I don’t want to give them the opportunity to say no. If we show up they can tell me no to my face. As expected, we arrived just after noon. There is a lot more people activity on this estate than the quiet one we just came from. This one is called Delaire Graff and this place is huge. In addition to the winemaking of several varieties of wine, they have two world class restaurants, a hotel, spa etc. They have so much traffic, they have parking attendants indicating free spaces and golf carts to shuttle you between your car and your destination. We head to reception and tell them we are 2 hours early and inquire of our options. We are told that getting seated early at the restaurant should not be a problem. We are among the first guests in the restaurant today and we are seated on the patio with a front row view to the mountainous beauty of the region. Reminiscent of our lunch in Fez last year in the mountains of Morocco, they could serve us liverwurst sandwiches and it wouldn’t temper the breathtaking dining experience. Luckily, liverwurst was not on the menu today. We start with bread with 3 spreads (chermoula (olive oil/garlic/lemon/cilantro) aioli, tomato jam, butter with paprika, coriander, and orange zest. For our first course today, we share a carrot/tomato soup as well as a curried lentil and black bean dish, both of which are very good. For entree I get duck breast while El gets handmade tagliatelle with beef, mushrooms, and Parmesan. Again, both are very good, but I have to give the edge to El’s pasta. We also share a couple of sides: Parmesan french fries with truffle aioli and glazed carrots. For dessert, I get a coconut panna cotta and a cappuccino.

if that isn't a view for a lunch, i don't know what is

duck breast

coconut panna cotta

We finish lunch around 2:30 and Viwe is waiting for us. Yesterday when we walked down from the Table Mountain cable car station, there was a significant downgrade all the way into the downtown area. As I walk around today, my calves are reminding me just how much of a downgrade! It is making walking on any sort of grade, up or down, challenging at best and incredibly painful at worst. Because of me, the three of us take advantage of the golf cart shuttle to the car in the upper lot. We have been out since 6:00am and full, but not uncomfortably so, we have no need to do anything else in Stellenbosch today. We head back to the hostel to nap before heading out for the evening. We can’t think of food right now, but it is possible that we will be able to eat before we call it a night. El suggests the Gin Bar. South Africa is enjoying a surge of interest in gin. There are craft distilleries locally and a few bars that are catering to the gin crowd, and one is near the hostel. It is located behind a chocolate shop on Wale Street about two blocks from the hostel. We will start here, but consider our options as the night progresses, knowing we are close to home if needed. This place has 18 local gins in addition to 11 international gins and a full selection of other spirits, but they are all about the gin here. I start with a cocktail called the “Hope”. The house gin and tonic menu has five signature G&T’s: Hope, Head, Heart, Ambition, and Soul. Hope is a cross between a G&T and a martini. Gin, tonic, olive brine, basil, and olives. There is not enough olive or juice to overpower the tonic. So it is like a classic G&T with a hint of saltiness, very good. Next, I ask for a classic G&T using the best local gin. I am served Geometric Gin, Barker & Quinn tonic, and lemon. It is very good, could use a little more citrus (probably lime), but we are sitting upstairs and frankly my calves are telling me this drink is perfect as is. It is now 9:00pm. Neither of us are hungry enough to move on for food. I am almost done with my drink and thinking that I may just stay here for the night. El suggests going to another bar. Back to Aces and Spades, which I did like, but it seemed to be strictly a beer and well drink kind of place. I am thinking I would prefer to find a wine bar in the area if we move on, and skip the beer places tonight. On the drive home today, about a block away from the hostel, Viwe pointed out a restaurant called the Grub & Vine on Bree Street. El Googles it and they close at 10:00. It is now 9:00. We finish up at the Gin Bar and head over two blocks to 103 Bree Street. We pass a few late night wine bar options on the walk and as we arrive at Grub & Vine as only part of the name suggests, they seem to be more of a food place than a wine bar place. We are invited to step into an adjacent wine bar called Frogitt & Vonkel. This is a private wine retailer (according to the story on their menu) who distributes boutique vineyard wines and opened a wine bar so people could sample the offerings before ordering them. I ask for a crisp, dry white and am pointed to something called Radford Dale The Crux Chardonnay 2016. It is not as crisp as I prefer, but goes perfectly with the olives, journaling, and company I am keeping this evening. Tomorrow morning the only thing we have planned for the day is a visit to Robben Island. Our ferry ticket is at 9:00. We will probably spend at least a portion of the afternoon at the waterfront which seems to be a popular section of the city. The music in this place is awful. As much as I wouldn’t mind getting another glass of wine, I am more inclined to move on for the ambiance factor alone. We move on down the street to a place called the Mink & Trout. I think I have heard about this place, but I am not sure when. As with many places on this street, the kitchen is closed but the bar is open though we are still not in need of food. We order a glass of wine and sit with our phones to plot the first part of our day tomorrow. After Robben Island, we will plan to see the V&A (Victoria & Albert) waterfront area, but tonight we will decide if we think we can walk it or if we need to take a bus or Uber. We also think we would like to get a “Gatsby” tomorrow and need to look at how far the Golden Dish is. I will explain more about the Gatsby if we get one, but there are a couple of places in the city to get one of these sandwiches. The Golden Dish and Miriam’s Kitchen are said to be the best. We see that Golden Dish, while supposedly the best, is so far out of the city center, we feel it may not be worth the effort, and figure just going to Miriam’s should fit our needs. Oh boy! As we sit in this place sipping our wine and doing research, a woman who is clearly either drunk or mentally ill walks into the room and has a loud and vulgar “conversation” with the only other table in the place. I think she is trying to get some of the young men to get up and dance with her. It makes for an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable few minutes. I am questioning why on earth the staff here does not, at least, gently escort her out of the place. It is almost like they see humor in the situation (that we fail to see). We down our wines and move on to extract ourselves from the situation. We head to La Parada, a tapas place. Their kitchen has just closed, but the bar is open. It is not that we want dinner, or tapas, even, but when drinking we do like to stay fuller than an empty stomach. We ask if we can at least get a plate of olives and they do have them. We each order our wine and the olives arrive. They are incredibly spicy hot and don’t have a very good flavor. The wine, however, is very decent. The music sucks here too and I tell El that I will end my night here unless she wants to grab something in the hostel bar. We stay here a lot longer than we needed to. But, hey, we are on vacation and playing Scrabble in a tapas bar in Cape Town is preferable to almost anything I would be doing at home! We actually finish our olives and wines just as I start to get a strong whiff of freshly extinguished candles. It looks like they are winding the night down and collecting up the table decorations and bottles of condiments. While not being explicit, I think this is our cue to call it a night and head back to the room. No nightcap, just a solid night’s rest, if we can manage it. Saturday February 22 Our anniversary and last full day in Cape Town. We both sleep pretty well, but got to sleep late and up early, so I start off a little tired still. We shower and head to the breakfast downstairs. Our first and only planned stop today is the tour of Robben Island. Our ferry ticket is 9:00am (must be booked in advance online) and the waterfront doesn't look too far. We opt to walk to the waterfront which only takes us about 25min. Many of the people are from the cruise ship that has been here for three days. They just pull up in coach buses and join the group. The processing of people with tickets takes some time, not because the security is slow, but the cruise ship is on a 47 day tour, and the people that we see from the ship are mostly older and can’t get around too easily sometimes. Not a problem, just a reason it takes a while to get to the ferry. Once on the ferry, it takes about 20 minutes to make the journey across the cape. When you get to the other shore you get on a bus that takes you to the first stop in the walking portion of the tour where we are introduced to the guide, Neville, who tells the stories of what it was like to be a political prisoner on the island for 18 years. It was a good experience (to hear his first hand accounts), though realistically, everyone just wants one thing…to see Nelson Mandela's cell. As we stand in the barracks that Neville was incarcerated in, he tells us his stories of how they were treated by their guards and shows us things like the mats they used to have to sleep on. After an hour, he takes us to Mandela’s cell and we take our photos as we file by.

mandela's cell on robben island

We head back to the bus and take the non-walking portion of the tour. Mostly just getting a drive-by explanation of buildings on the island and seeing the quarry where the hard labor took place. They also point out the graveyard that was in use during the time the island was a leper colony. It was interesting and informative, but in the end, I just didn’t think the experience needed to be 3.5 hours. We ferry back to the waterfront area and get our first rain of the week. It is not a downpour, just annoying enough to force us to put on our rain gear. El has found a knitting shop whose retail shop is closed today, but that has a stall at the local Watershed Market in the waterfront area. I journal while she finds the shop’s stall. Next, it is close to 2:00pm and we want some lunch and decide to go to Miriam’s Kitchen for a Gatsby sandwich. Problem is that Miriam’s closes at 2:00. We do a Google search and find that there is another location that is open until 4:00. We opt to walk as it is only 1 mile back towards downtown. Having heard a bit about the Gatsby sandwich, we know it is legendary for its size. We do the smart thing and order a ½ sandwich…and we split that! We check the options and order a spicy chicken, mayo, salad, and it is served with fries- very spicy fries, on top of the sandwich. When the server brings the sandwich I make a joke by telling her that a mistake has been made, since we ordered the half portion. She laughs and tells me this is the half portion!

again, we only got the half portion! now that's a gatsby!

We are so glad that we got to eat only the ¼ sandwich. It still filled us up, but not too much so. I think it is tasty, if a little salty. No question this would be a better meal after a night of drinking, than a lunch. We can check it off the list. During lunch it has started raining a lot harder. We know that we would like to go to the District 6 Museum that closes at 4:00 and since it is closed on Sunday, we know we need to make our move since it is now 3:00. We order an Uber that arrives in 6 minutes and takes us to the museum. They allow us in, but remind us that they close at 4:00. This gives us about 45 minutes to go through the small, but powerful museum. It costs R45 each. It doesn’t take long to get the gist of how the blacks were systematically fucked over by the whites in this country, specifically this city, and from 1966 to 1984 the white government ordered the razing and relocation of an entire section (District 6) of Cape Town from downtown to the outskirts of the city. Basically bulldozers were brought into a neighborhood and just started leveling houses and businesses that were then replaced by new construction that was only allowed to be inhabited by whites. The blacks fled to the Cape Flats area of the city, which of course, had no infrastructure or services necessary to sustain a community, let alone a cities amount of people. You can’t help but admire the spirit of the displaced who were able to look back on the experience and to find something positive that came out of it, mostly stories about family and community spirit. We both finish up as they start shutting off the lights inside, letting us know that it is time to go. We are down the street from Truth Coffee and stop in for a cup. Resurrection blend coffee latte for me. Tastes wonderful. I ask about a “cupping session” which is a coffee tasting and tutorial that you get walked through by a barista. We had seen it on TV and the server tells us to be here at 8:00am tomorrow and a barista named Chris will help us out. The hostel emails me to remind us that we need to check out by 11:00am tomorrow. So, El and I are trying to figure out what we will do tonight and what we can do tomorrow. Tonight, since we do need to do at least some preliminary packing, we don’t want to make it too late a night. I think we should go to Honest Chocolate to get what has been described as the “world’s best brownie”. And we should probably wine bar hop down Bree Street again. If it is open tomorrow, I wouldn’t mind going to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden after our coffee experience. Since we are in the area, we head to a punk bar called Surfarosa on Harrington St. The music is decent, but the beer selection is lacking. As much as I want to stick with drinking South African wines while I am here, the problem is that the wine selections in some of these dive bars are not good (even by the bartender’s own admissions) and sticking with the limited beer selection is preferable. We leave Surfarosa and head back to Wale Street to go to Honest Chocolate, which is a locally sourced, fair trade chocolate bakery and confectionery. We read about, “the world’s best brownie” and want to see if it lives up to the hype. El can’t resist adding a peanut butter pretzel bite. We get both to go and head into the Gin Bar (in the back of the bakery) for the next round. I don’t want to spend a lot of time here, but starting the night with a nice, dirty martini, could hit the spot. This place has a knowledgeable and friendly staff who fancy themselves craft cocktail mixers. I ask for a classic martini, extra dry, extra dirty. This place is one that chills the glass with ice, as to avoid adding ice to the drink. The gin and vermouth are stirred in ice to cool them and olive brine is added with a mixing spoon with a delicate pour into the glass. The crafting of the drink takes a while and the bartender asks if we are from Canada. “New York,” we tell him. “Ah, a Trump fan are you?” he asks. I tell him in a playful, but in no uncertain terms that those are fighting words. He smiles and says, “how come I have never met a Trump fan? Don’t they travel?” I affirm that some of his base is certainly xenophobic and content not to leave the states. We are happy to be here to remind the rest of the world that America’s government are assholes, not the people. We all laugh. He asks for an opinion as I take my first sip of the martini. Not dirty enough…though it dawns on me as he adds more brine, that we are used to a stronger, saltier brine at home and that he is adding any more brine here will actually act like a diluter than anything else. I am only getting one drink here, so it is certainly fine for this situation (beginning of the night drink). We eat the peanut butter pretzel sandwich. It is a fun taste of a bite, though the peanut butter is not too sweet. It is good for a bite, but I don’t need more of them. We finish here and move on. One of the annoyances is the opportunism of people looking for change. I don’t want to paint all of them as homeless, but in a city that surely has services available to people on the street, we are frequently getting approached by those down on their luck. The issue I am having is that when you are waiting at a street light to cross the road, you get approached. Sometimes it is to sell you an item you don’t need, or to straight out ask for money. When you politely decline, and the light changes and you start to walk across the street, only to see that the person is following you and what started as a semi-polite ask for change, starts to take on a much more hostile tone. “You don’t need your coins!” one guy shouted at me as he followed us half way down the next block. “Give me your coins!” He begins to demand in a tone that in some cases could be construed as a threat, though I don’t get the sense I am being held up, it can be a little unnerving knowing that you stick out like a tourist and expect that some element could take advantage of that fact. It happened again today that a man entered a full restaurant to walk table to table asking for a handout. Not sure why the management does not address these situations, but I can tell that some of the other customers were as uneasy as we were in this situation. It is about 8:00. We are not necessarily hungry now, but we know we don’t want to eat too late. We decide to walk up to the Bo Kaap neighborhood to Restaurant Biesmiellah which is known to be the best Cape Malay restaurant in the area. We stop on the way for a couple of photos of the sun setting over Table Mountain. I ask the server what the house specialty is and she points to a page of Cape Malay and Indian dishes. I choose pienang (a Cape Malay curried beef dish) and a plate of assorted samosas to split. We don’t think we need a full entrée each. There are some small dishes of condiments. Some spicy, some sweet and sour. The samosa plate is typical of samosas we get at home. The beef stew, however, is a bit of a new one on us. It looks like a beef curry served with rice and roti. The issue is the actual curry sauce. It is so sweet, it just makes the beef taste more like Chinese sweet and sour, than Indian beef curry (which I love). We wind up eating it all and El likes it way more than I do. I think this place probably does a respectable job with the meal prep, but I can say that so far, I am just not much of a Cape Malay food fan, as the sweet bobotie from the other night suffered from the same over sweetness issue. After this we will head back to Bree Street for wine bar hopping. Probably starting with the Frogitt & Vonkel where we stopped last night. While Bree is a main thoroughfare, some of the side streets to get to it are a little less busy. On the walk over here I had a young man walk up to me while I was crossing the street, get a little closer than I expect from a stranger, and confrontationally shake a cup with coins at me. No words. Just a cup rattling metal. I politely decline his invitation, as I do believe that could just about be the rudest of all panhandle methods. You are just going to shake a cup at me and expect me to add to it? I think not. However, as I say “oh, no, not tonight” as I keep walking, the man is now following me and continuing to shake the cup at me raising his voice…”sir…Sir…SIR…” as we make our way onto the sidewalk and start down the street from the intersection. Again, not dangerous, but being a stranger in a strange land, you never know (and truthfully I have had several locals and fellow travelers warn me about walking the streets after dark). We make it to Frogitt & Vonkel where I get a glass of Catchpole & Co Woodward Ridge Chenin Blanc 2018 since my first choice is sold out. I tell El that since it is after 9:00pm, I am OK with making this our last stop of the night.

Sunday February 23

touring around with my favorite travel partner

Our plane leaves at 4:45 this afternoon, so we essentially have the entire morning to fill. We have to be checked out of the hostel by 11:00, but may be out at that time, so we will check out after breakfast this morning. We are up at 6:30, showered, dressed, and packed at 7:00. We check out and head to Truth Coffee on Buitkant Street, for our cupping session. We were told to meet Chris, the barista, and he seems a little flustered that we have arrived on time. Not in a bad way, but more like a “oh, I didn’t realize they were serious when they said you would be here at 8:00. I’ll get everything ready now,” kind of flustered. We sit and wait. One of the other baristas delivers a complimentary Espresso Sunrise, which is basically a frothy blended mix of espresso, orange juice, condensed milk, and ice. Refreshing. We wait until Chris comes over and has us follow him to a more secluded area of the restaurant. We stand in the quiet corner of the room. He sets up five cups with coffee grounds in them. Fresh ground. We start by inhaling each to identify different aromas of each. We discuss our smelling experiences, which, interestingly, are considerably different, from each other and from Chris. Just as he is starting the pour of hot water into each cup, a tour group of at least 30 people shows up and all of the sudden the secluded section of the room becomes so crowded that we need to reposition so that the three of us are standing in an area ordinarily reserved exclusively for employees. We continue. After the pour of water, each cup is let sit for 4 minutes before we are allowed to disturb it. Chris issues us each a soup spoon and shows us how to rotate the spoon in the liquid in such a way that you finish with a thin layer of froth on the back of the spoon. As you pull up on the spoon, you inhale to note the differences between them and smell the difference or similarity to what you smelled in the fresh ground beans. But now, the tour guide, instead of waiting on the waitstaff that is attending to them, is now interrupting us by asking Chris for utensils, spoons specifically. As he stands next to a container of clean spoons, he politely tells her that he is in the middle of something and he will get a staffer to fulfill the request. He does and all is good. We continue with our session. Next up, Chris uses two spoons to remove any froth from each cup. Now is the tasting part. He demonstrates the proper technique for sipping the coffee from the spoon (a quick slurp that pulls all of the spoon’s contents into your mouth at once). After once again discussing our thoughts on what we are tasting, we are now ready to order a coffee. To his horror, we tell Chris that we actually prefer our coffee latte style with a considerable amount of milk. We are pretty sure that any subtleties we can taste in the black coffees will be masked by any added milk. Nonetheless, Chris prepares our order as we request.

a latte foam artist presents me with my order

Meanwhile, like a great bartender or sushi chef, as El and I are seated at the bar, the barista who brought us the Espresso Sunrise, now sets a small glass of froth in front of each of us. Not knowing he was going to give it to us, we didn’t pay much attention to the ingredients, but the drink is called an “Albumin Airship,” and according to the menu it includes a raw egg white. It is certainly tasty. Next up is another Espresso Sunrise followed by an iced coffee. Then, again, we don’t know what he is making will come to us, but he puts something together and presents us with a brandy snifter full of ice and liquid. The bottom half is clear and the top half is brown, like really light coffee, and garnished with a lemon wedge dredged in sugar. He sets it down and gives El a wooden stirrer, tells her to stir it, try it, and let him know what we think. He also says this drink is not on the menu. She stirs it and it looks just like iced tea. She sips and passes it to me. It is not iced tea. It is not iced coffee…I don’t think. I mean it is a coffee shop, but it is not a classic iced coffee. He asks for a verdict and I do guess iced tea and lemonade (thinking like a bad tasting Arnold Palmer). He smiles and says no. He tells us to turn around and that there is a contraption that is probably 10 feet by 6 feet and takes up a significant part of the front window to the shop. It is a series of pipes and reservoirs, all interconnected. He explains that what we are looking at is actually a gravity fed, slow filtering process for coffee. It takes 12 hours to filter the coffee and that every day before they leave for the night, they start the process that has finished up by the time they open in the morning.

slow filter mechanism in the window of truth coffee

So, I am not sure what this process actually does to the coffee in terms of taste. Does this slow filtering make it stronger coffee? Does it make it smoother? I don’t know. Anyway, he says that we are drinking a slow filtered coffee and tonic. After he tells us, we sip it again and of course, now we can taste it after we know what it is. It is a bit weird of a flavor and I would never order one, but for a moment, I am good with putting my palate in the baristas hands, so to speak. One thing you can say for sure is that the people who work here are passionate about the coffee and it shows in their excitement for the product they serve. We wind up drinking all or almost all of the complimentary drinks we are given as well as the one latte we ordered. It is now around 10:00 and we are actually very full…not on food, but coffee. We have to leave for the airport around 1:30, so we still have a bit of time to knock something else off our list. Being Sunday, many museums are closed today. The weather is great, so we call an Uber and head to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. It is a lot further out of the downtown area than I expected. It takes about 15 minutes to get there on the highway. It costs R75 to get in. I am not sure where this garden ranks in terms of size, but the setting is pretty great as it sits on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain. The main attraction here is called the “boomslang”. Named after the snake, it is a 130m long walkway that is built at the height of the tree canopy, so when you walk along it you are walking through the treetops. On the way up to the entrance, we see a warning sign regarding the snakes that you could potentially encounter in the gardens, how to identify them, how to act if you encounter one, which ones are poisonous and which are not dangerous. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a snake on this trip, but from the safety of a game drive rover and not necessarily hanging from a tree! So, although I saw pictures of the snakes, we didn’t actually see any today. We walk along the boomslang and it is kind of cool, but 130m is not all that far. There are some spots with benches to sit and soak in the beauty surrounding the gardens.

standing on the "boomslang", a 130 meter long, canopy level walkway at the botanical garden

We get to the end of the walkway and decide to walk back the way we just came from. We check the map and figure out what features we want to see as we make our way out of the gardens. A sculpture garden and an area called the Veil which is a wooden bridge constructed over a marsh area where you can see wildlife interacting with the plant life. The sculpture garden is not all that big, so if you stay on the walkway you can see them and take photos of the ones that catch your eye. Sadly, the Veil is closed for some unknown reason. We leisurely make our way to the exit, Uber back to the hostel and do a time check. It is around 12:30 now, we head off to a spot on Bree Street to get some lunch before leaving for the airport in the next hour or so. Not all of the places that were open at night are open on this Sunday afternoon. We head into B&L (Burgers & Lobster). We have passed by here each night, but it always looked very crowded and more of an eatery than a wine bar we were looking for in the evenings. It is perfect today. We are the only people in there today. I do a money check and talk with the waiter about ordering our lunch and paying for a portion in cash and some on the card. He is good, so we are good. El and I get a bottle of Cederberg Sauvignon Blanc and order a burger and lobster roll to split. We read about South African lobsters and how they differ from Maine lobsters in that they have no claws, but are sweeter taste than their Atlantic cousins. El writes some postcards and I check some internet stuff as this is the last connection I will have until tomorrow. The food is really great and the wine compliments it well. We settle up and walk back to the hostel to get our bags. Uber to the airport. The fare is R180 which is about $12. If we took the bus back it would have been the R160, but we would have had to carry our bags to the bus stop, wait for the bus, switch at Civic Center to get the line to the airport etc. To us it was worth the US$1 extra to get the door to door service. We are at the airport by 1:45. Leaving by 3:00 to meet our connection in Johannesburg. All is smooth and we are on our way uneventfully. We expect to be back in NYC at 6:00 tomorrow morning.

In conclusion

I always assumed we would make it to South Africa as a vacation destination. The concept of a safari was interesting, though I didn’t know exactly what it entailed. Being city travelers usually, my research tells me we made the right call to come to Cape Town. Not that we couldn’t have a good time in other cities, but it seems that this is the one with the most stuff to do concentrated in a relatively small area. With coastal and inland natural beauty, a scenic wine country close by, and thriving central downtown area with great museums and an exciting food scene. The people we spent any time speaking with were universally friendly and welcoming, prideful of their home. We met a lot of transplants from other parts of South Africa (and also from other parts of the continent and beyond). Everyone’s pride manifested in different ways. Whether it was an excited tour guide showing off stories of their home city, a bartender giving recommendations for touristy things to do, or an Uber driver genuinely happy that the weather is holding up for us. I don’t think I will ever get back to this city again, but I do leave with a sense of wanting more. I think we did a good job hitting the first tier tourist stuff in addition to packing in as much local stuff as we could. I leave Cape Town with a sense of accomplishment of what we were able to cram inside of four days. Maybe five or six days would have been ideal, but not at the expense of the safari. In retrospect, I am pretty sure that I would not have done one thing differently, given the choice. Cape Town does seem to have a high end cuisine scene, that if I came back I would probably try to get a reservation at some of those places, but believe me, our lunch at Delarie Graff could not be overshadowed on this trip. It was one of the biggest trips we have ever made and I am so glad it all fell into place. Our next trip most likely won’t be on this scale, but I am sure it will be another trip of a lifetime since it will be with my favorite travel partner…now of 21 years.