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Madikwe Game Reserve: Safari in High Style!

Only the thought of visiting Madikwe Game Reserve and the beautiful Rhulani Guest Lodge made leaving Maru-a-Pula tolerable. MaP headmaster Andy Taylor had strongly urged us to go, so we searched through Madikwe’s Last Minute Specials online, and got one night at Rhulani Guest Lodge for nearly half the usual price.

We set off on Sunday morning at 10:30am and, with our fiasco getting from South Africa into Botswana in mind, we allowed for 2 hours to cross the border. As luck would have it there were only a handful of people at both border crossings and it was plain sailing – apart from the car inspection that revealed we had a stray orange in our bag in the trunk, which earned us a bit of a telling off from the guard. Crossing took 25 minutes in total, and within another 15 minutes we were at Madikwe.

We passed through the entry gate and drove along a dirt road, where we saw zebra, Guinea fowl, and hornbills, and when we arrived at Rhulani there were four attendants waiting for us with warm, scented wash cloths, instructions on where everything was, valet service for our car, and a tour of the resort.

Rhulani was a proper luxury lodge, and the immediate impression was enormously eye-pleasing; a small-scale version of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, if done by Frank Lloyd Wright in all native materials (stone, wood, tree limbs and thatch).

We sat in the open-air lounge drinking the non-alcoholic cocktail offered and enjoyed the staff’s first-class invitation to be massively indolent.

Having arrived early, we had plenty of time to look around, take in the views, take photos and explore our accommodation, which was a mini-lodge with a private plunge pool, indoor and outdoor showers, four-poster bed with mosquito netting, more great views, WiFi and air-conditioning (but, happily NO television).

We were treated to our own table for two at lunch, as the rest of the resort’s guests were still out on their morning game drive, so we had the place entirely to ourselves, with our own server. A nice caprese salad arrived, followed by chicken, risotto and a delicious side of collard greens. Sadly, Simon’s glass of wine was blown over by a gust of wind and landed in his starter, but his glass was soon re-filled (although the table-cloth was Ieft soaking in chardonnay!).

A fruit meringue was served as dessert and we waddled off to chill out and enjoy the Rhulani vibe (which is a Zulu word for ‘relax’), sitting with our feet in our plunge pool, watching the birds flitting about, and relaxing on our loungers.

When the other guests returned from their morning game drive they had a bite to eat and time to freshen up and relax, then we broke into groups, with us going out with a German couple, and our driver, Sean, a young man who gave up the city life in Jo’burg for life on the open range. Our big Toyota vehicle was equipped for full off-roading (as we would soon discover), and it was immensely comfortable navigating the dirt roads that had nearly shaken our fillings out in our tiny hire car.

Sean was a wealth of information as we discuss the full range of Madikwe wildlife, and in the span of a couple of hours we saw elephants, zebra, a huge male giraffe, wildebeest, impala, lots of beautiful birds, and steenbok, and we drove (slowly!) into a herd of Cape buffalo who were grazing on long, dry grass. The soft swish of their movements and their gentle chewing was just sublime, with the heat, the yellow sunlight, golden grass and their quiet snorts.

We then went to a watering hole where seven elephants were drinking. They were young males, and they had churned the shallow water into mud, so one of them carved out a hole in the bottom of the bank until he reached fresh water. They were taking turns slurping it up their trunks like they were using a straw. What a comical sound!

A male lion had been spotted at the watering hole before the elephants arrived, so Sean decided we’d track him down. We tracked him for an hour, with Sean catching sight of the lion but then losing him when he flopped down in the long grass. As the sky darkened we were rewarded with a full-throated roar. We didn’t so much hear the roar as feel it, a full bass growl that registered in our solar plexus’. With that, Sean took the vehicle through thorn scrub and long grass until he spotted the lion on the other side of a gulley. The lion roared again and when we found him Sean pulled up right next to him, which startled us a bit. Quite a bit, actually.

But the lion had been in the park with his mother since he was a cub, so he was fine with us nearby. As he lay there he gave two gigantic yawns and we had a marvelous view of his extremely impressive teeth!

We ended the evening there, but still saw lots of animals on our way back to Rhulani, including a big chameleon in a tree, which Sean called “the laziest animal I’ve ever seen” because it had been on that branch for a week.

Dinner that night was chilled salmon appetizer, Eland steak for Simon and duck breast for me, mashed potato and baby carrots and zucchini, with a tiny poached pear with cream cheese for dessert. Gaborone was only 15 miles away, and we were treated to the superb sight of a lightning storm over the city, bringing pula, the blessing of rain, to a place we now loved.

After dinner we returned to our villa with the safety of a guide, since there were wild dogs in our compound that night. The next morning’s alarm call came all too soon, and by 5:30am we were showered and ready to go. We had a quick snack of rusks, coffee and tea before setting off into the chilly darkness, but we were dressed for it, and our Jeep had warm blankets to offset the cold.

Sean decided we would track three male lions who had been hanging out along the reserve’s Southern fence. He spotted their tracks fairly easily, as it had rained the night before, but he kept saying, “They’re going this way. Now they’re going the opposite direction…” over and over, for nearly 2 hours. We covered a lot of ground, but finally gave up. We did see a huge male rhino during that time, who didn’t like us very much as we were a terrible distraction from the job at hand. He was on the scent of a female, so he loped off quickly.

We headed down a track where we came upon a giraffe with its head up, not eating. Susan asked Sean if it was looking at us, or at something else, and he said he thought it was looking at something else. Then we heard the most unusual sound, as if someone’s stomach had rumbled at the same time as a lion roared miles away. Sean brightened right up and said, “That’s baby lions!”

He followed their little roarings, and we found a mama lion with four young cubs. The babies were pestering mama for milk to go with the wildebeest she had killed and stashed beneath the tree they were lounging under. When we came upon her she immediately stood up and began to growl at us in a very clear warning. There was absolutely no mistaking her intent, and no mistaking the look of a mother who’s worn out with her babies’ constant demands. Plus, she had blood all over her front from the wildebeest, so we immediately took the hints.

Sean tried to pull away going forward, but she was having none of it. She kept up her angry stance until he backed the truck up and made a wide circle around her. She settled in and nursed her cubs, and from then on she was fine. Another mama and her two older cubs just sat there and watched the drama unfold.

When the babies had been fed they lay down with mama nearby, but one cub got up and ambled our way. When he saw our vehicle he stopped in his tracks, trying to hide behind a termite mound. Sean said he would take his cue from the other lions, and when they showed no reaction the cub knew it was safe. He was so cute and furry, with an obvious personality of his own. What a special thing to see! It made our whole day.

We drove off after a while, spotting troops of baboons as we went, until Sean stopped to give us the drinks and snacks we’d missed out on the night before as we tracked the male lion. Sean stopped the jeep about a mile beyond one of the baboon troops and laid out rusks, dried mango, shortbread and coffee spiked with Amarula. He said he might not have been completely comfortable with the location, but baboons always posted a sentinel, and we’d hear them if lions showed up.

He also told us the female lions with cubs explained the crazy pattern he’d tracked earlier: the males were walking back and forth looking for the females, but couldn’t find them. If it wasn’t for the giraffe, and then the irritable, pestering moans of the cubs, we never would have found them either.

When the time came to head back to Rhulani for breakfast we were fully sated with African wildlife, and already talking about a return visit. Our time at Madikwe was far, far too short, but we held the purpose of our visit to Africa in mind and felt extremely grateful to Andy Taylor (and his wonderful secretary Lynda!) who made sure we didn’t miss out on this incredible gem. We rarely take time off to do something “just for us” (some people call that a “vacation”, we’re told!), and if we could only have a day or so to do it, Madikwe was an unforgettable choice.

Next blog: The Faces Of Africa

Want to see LOADS more photos of Medikwe and its animals? Check out our Into Africa album on Veness Travel Media on Facebook. We will be adding to the album as each blog goes up.

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Beyond Gaborone

 

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The primary purpose of our trip was research for the book, but there were times when we had a few hours open, and we made the most of them by touring beyond Gaborone. If you’re going to a country, you ought to see the country, and that means getting out of the big city to where the rest of the people live.

The day started with Simon giving a talk to the Maru-a-Pula students about the first years of the school’s existence, and when he mentioned there was no air conditioning in the classrooms the noise in the room grew loud as the students processed that unthinkable horror. He was brilliant (Susan says!), and it was an enjoyable connection between what was and what is.

After Simon’s talk we did our second interview with the former deputy headmaster (for 24 years!), and we are now incredibly grateful to have heard his story first-hand. He passed away last week, having truly made a difference in the lives of many, many young people.

When the community service programme we had signed up for was cancelled we found ourselves with an afternoon free, and decided to drive out to Lobatse and make a big circle back to Gaborone by way of Kanye.

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Botswana’s flat, open expanses again captured our hearts (a Symphony in Brown, we called it, from the lightest, palest brown to the deep red-browns and even rose-brown of the soil in some places) and we enjoyed the wonderfully sharp and distinctive style of the countryside, a harsh but empathetic vista that rolled on for mile after mile, broken in irregular fashion by hills and kopjes—plus the occasional baboon sighting along with the usual roadside mixture of goats, cows and donkeys.

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It was a subtle and demanding landscape, but timeless and soothing, like there was some essential, innate connection. It also remained painfully arid, with next to no water. How the goats and cows eked out an existence on so little sustenance was a minor miracle.

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As we drove through the most rural areas, Susan often thought she was seeing someone’s abandoned garden shed, when in reality it was their house. Some of the small villages we passed included homes made entirely from corrugated metal, and some covered only in tattered tarp and filthy cloth. It was hard to believe people lived in them, but their owners were often sitting outside on a chair next to the front door.

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When we reached Lobatse it felt like we had stepped back in time by some 40 years. Nothing about the town center seemed to have changed from what Simon recalled of family trips there in the 1970s, and it still had a small-town vibe, with barely a hint of modernity to be seen. There was nothing to stop for, especially on a Sunday when half the stores were closed and the other half had a drab, downbeat feel, so we drove on toward Kanye, another of Botswana’s original old towns, and mile after mile provided both mystery and drama. Would another goat stray onto the road? Would another reckless driver end up in a ditch? Would there be an end to the grinding poverty that is a constant companion of rural Botswana?

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Kanye was livelier in its appearance of moving forward.  “Kiosks” selling fruit or candy, or offering services like car washes, haircuts, or shoe repair, lined the street, and there was a general air of bustle and purpose.

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Driving along the main street we saw an older man wearing a trench coat, who had dropped some coins in the road. When he bent to pick them up a small truck had to screech violently to a stop to avoid hitting him. We then realized he was dropping coins from his pocket every time he bent over, and his actions were futile until two teenaged boys came to help him. All we had thought of was how insane it was to drive here, and how we never knew what might happen. For the old man, picking up the money wasn’t an act of stupidity. He looked like those coins were nearly all he had in the world.

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The road from Kanye back to Gaborone went past Gabane, which suddenly seemed built-up after so much open land. There was still a tremendous amount of poverty—and a billion goats—but there were also a decent number of much better homes.

On the way back to MaP we saw a big billboard reflective of the three-year drought Botswana has been enduring, that read: “If it’s yellow let it mellow. If it’s brown flush it down. Only flush when it’s necessary.” It became our go-to refrain when confronted with the cultural frustrations of scheduling we were encountering; everyone loves to say “Yes!” to a get-together (in our case, and interview), but absolutely cannot commit to a date or a time. So…we had to let it mellow until the time came when we absolutely had to flush it down.

We’re not going to show you a picture of that. Instead, here are some banded mongoose (mongeese? Mongi?)

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The next day we drove out to Gabane’s Customary Court (in traditional terms, the Kgotla) to meet with Kgosi Alfred Pule, the village chief. He spoke to us about the importance of MaP’s involvement in the village over the years, then he showed us around (you’ll remember it from our last blog about Botswana’s Independence Day). Kgosi Pule pointed to a blue building, which was now a store, and told us it had been built over the big hole MaP students had used to mix mud and cow dung to make bricks. We would have had no hope of ever finding it, as the village had grown and changed so much Simon hardly recognized it, so it was a real thrill to know the location of one of his most vivid MaP memories.IMG_7225

That afternoon MaP’s secretary, Lynda, suggested we drive to Mochudi for its wonderful museum, and while we made the trip out there we ended up just driving around waving at people. Everyone we wave at – and we mean EVERYONE – smiled and waved back as if it was the most natural thing in the world.  One boy shouted, “Hi English!” and another shouted “Hi white!”

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Mochudi was possibly the most homogenous of the towns we visited, with lots of small houses (better than shacks but not big or fancy) that all seemed to have the comfortable ‘lived-in’ appearance of homes that are content with their lot, and we wonder about that attitude. A lot. The people were certainly not under-fed or suffering in any way; most houses seemed to have electricity and, we think, running water, which seemed to be enough to create a general air of contentment and happiness. It was an intriguing concept, as well as an unfamiliar one.

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There was something special going on along the main street, with tattered stalls and lots of small trailers with a cow or goats. It seemed like it might be some sort of butchering day. We briefly considered stopping at a bar with outdoor seating for a beer with the locals, but decided we just weren’t sure enough about how that would be received, so we didn’t. We probably should have. Or maybe not.

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That evening we returned to our guest house with some groceries and water and were delighted to find a reply from Madikwe Game Reserve, who had a lodge at Rhulani available for Sunday night, with two game drives, all meals, and an ultra-luxurious accommodation for just under R6000 (about $250 each). Andy insisted we must go there, and while it was a major splurge, we decided we would treat ourselves to a bit of African safari luxury before we have to go home again.

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Next: Madikwe Game Reserve!

Want to see more photos? Check out our Into Africa album on Veness Travel Media on Facebook. We will be adding to the album as each blog goes up.

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Happy Independence Day, Botswana!

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There was no way our trip could get any better than our days with the school children, right? Wrong. Today we went one better, and spent the afternoon with an entire village.

Botswana gained its independence from Britain on September 30, 1966, and we were lucky enough to be in Gaborone, the country’s capital city, for the 51st anniversary celebration. During the week prior, helicopters flying gigantic flags practiced their flights over our guest house, decorations started to go up, and on the 29th, armored personnel carriers appeared at main intersections as a reminder of a) how much the President likes big-boy toys and b) it’s not cool to do stupid stuff, even if you’re drunk with independence (or beer).

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The evening before the big day we walked over to the stadium, where the next day’s celebration would take place, and there was a version of tailgating going on, with grills set up and people selling food.

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On the way we passed a young woman who saw the camera and said, “Take my picture, my sister!” Susan just melted at being called “my sister”, and when we showed the young woman her picture she was clearly delighted.

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Many of the people who saw the camera asked for a picture, and it was pure joy to see their reactions when they saw what we’d taken.

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We didn’t have plans the next day, other than making sure we were off the streets once the sun went down, and we’d been warned that attending the Independence Day Celebration at the stadium, which was literally 10 minutes walk from Maru-a-Pula, probably wasn’t the best idea in the world. So we had a leisurely morning watching the morning events on TV while working our way through that giant box of corn flakes, and discussing our options.

We were told the Independence Day celebrations at the national stadium would start at 10am but, when we switched on the TV to get a taste of the build-up at 8.30 a.m, it was already under way.  We watched most of it, albeit the military parades and marching got old after half an hour. The best part was the traditional songs and dancing, and then the big fly-past of the air force.

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The whole show wrapped up by about 11.30 a.m. so we drove to the old downtown mall, where we managed to get a couple of nice Botswana Independence shirts before heading to the President Hotel for lunch and some more traditional dancing on TV (Botswana’s answer to MTV!).

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A few days prior, we were told about the traditional celebrations that would take place at each village’s Kgotla (sort of a community gathering area where celebrations took place and village issues were discussed), where the Kgosi (village chief) donates a cow for slaughter and the villagers bring other food to pass along. We decided it might be fun to visit Gabane again to see what was going on. We had spent an hour or so with Kgosi Albert Pule a few days prior, and he had shown us around the village (more on that later), so we felt sure he would be welcoming.

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At first everyone looked at us like “Why are you here?” when we arrived, but then Kgosi Pule said “Hello” to us and hooked us up with Richard, a volunteer who was assisting in getting the celebration together, so people became  curious about us rather than suspicious.

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It was a fully-fledged community party and we were invited to take part in the most hospitable way. Had we drawn up our requirements for an African village party we could not have come up with anything more evocative than what we saw that day.

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When the camera came out, the fun really started. Men, women, children…all of them were just thrilled at being photographed, and quickly gathered around asking for pictures. These beautiful women had been cooking all morning, and were taking a well-deserved break.

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These guys made a point of tapping Susan on the shoulder and asking for a picture, then they ran back to the cooking pots and “posed”. They were so funny!

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The children were shy at first, then couldn’t wait to be photographed.

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But even the adults came right up and asked to have their pictures taken. Richard said that was unusual, and that they usually didn’t want pictures taken. Today, that most certainly was not the case. They just out-right asked. This woman asked where we were from and when we said, Florida in America she asked us to take her there.

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Later, a man introduced himself to Simon and when he asked if we were from America (in Setswana) he told us Americans come to Botswana to shoot animals (at least, that’s what we think he said). We assured him we would only shoot pictures, but we’re not sure if he understood us. Still, the effort had been made on both sides, and that’s what counts.

It was fascinating to see the Gabane version of a pot-luck dinner, and the whole area smelled absolutely wonderful. They made do with what they had, and the food was simple but wholesome, but the enjoyment of time spent with friends was crystal-clear.

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By that point the children were gathering in groups, all dressed in their clothes the color of the Botswana flag.

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One man we met was 97 years old, and a former heavy artillery gunner in WWII. Simon talked to him for quite a while, and he was very friendly and obviously proud of his service. A lovely man. He had come for a hot meal, and was taking away a bag full of dried beans and rice to help see him through the week. It was a real honor to have met him.

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One woman, named Justice, gathered her friends together and asked to take their picture taken as they were dancing. It was absolutely hilarious, and they were obviously having the time of their lives. When they were shown the pictures they literally screamed with delight. And we do mean screamed!

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Then all hell broke loose. They went absolutely wild with their dancing, and again, screamed every time they saw the pictures. When they’d had enough one of the women indicated the main reason they wanted their pictures was so that they could see their butts sticking out as they danced. We laughed and laughed together, and it felt just a tiny bit like we belonged, at least for a while.

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With the friendly people, the big cooking pots over fires, the happiness, and the utter lack of guile—which seems to be prevalent here—it was an extraordinary final day in an extraordinary country.

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We’ll never forget the people we’ve met and the scenes that have totally captured our hearts. From “Take my picture, my sister” to posing for a selfie with a Gabane villager, it’s a place we will miss, terribly.

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It was the most heart-warming scene we could imagine, and it was only with the greatest reluctance that we tore ourselves away. It was a day we will never forget.

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NEXT: Beyond Gabarone

Want to see more photos? Check out our Into Africa album on Veness Travel Media on Facebook. We will be adding to the album as each blog goes up.

 

 

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“Take My Picture! Oh, And Can I Touch Your Hair?”

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From the very beginning of Maru-a-Pula, students have been required to participate in social service. In the early years, that service was exclusive to the nearby village of Gabane (pronounced, roughly, Huh-BAH-nay). Students made bricks of mud and cow dung to patch huts; helped lay new thatch on roofs; and cooked and cleaned for the elderly and infirm. Today, the range of SPE (services) choice is vast, and we were determined we would do as many as our time allowed.

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For our first SPE we are off to Galaletsang primary school to assist the MaP students in after-school tutoring, which quickly became a major life experience, especially for Susan, who had never set foot inside that kind of environment before.

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The school was an average government-run school in Botswana, massively underfunded and with 30 or more children packed into each classroom. There were no bright pictures or encouraging sayings on the walls. Some desks only had one leg and were held up by student’s chairs. There was no room for all of the kids to lay their papers and books flat, because too many were crammed in, with too few desks. But they were very polite, and responded to the facilitator’s questions with “Yes sir” and “No sir.” We were introduced, then let loose to assist with homework.

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When the camera came out for some classroom photos the kids were SO excited to have their pictures taken. They shouted, “Me! Me!” so after a few photos the camera was put away to stop the distraction.

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Although we were supposed to be tutoring in small groups for the next day’s lesson, the children asked all kinds of questions, like why Susan’s eyes were green and Simon’s eyes were blue, but everyone they knew had brown eyes. They asked where we were from (big gasp at USA. They appeared never to have met an American), and asked where sharks live in the USA.

The children were, frankly, fascinated by us, and our ‘whiteness’ was a real novelty. It quickly became clear that none of them had encountered a blonde white woman who was willing to let them touch her hair. When they asked and were given permission, forty hands immediately shot out, and their whispered comments were hilarious and delightful.

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The kids were so eager to learn, but so handicapped by their surroundings. The lack of proper facilities was terrible to see, and the drawbacks teachers had to deal with were huge; trying to make do with so little for so many was an almost insurmountable challenge.

Our hearts broke at their potential and at the statistics that show all but a very few of those bright, eager minds would fall between the cracks before their schooling ends.

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The next day was a day we had both been looking forward to: Simon would return to Gabane, where the school’s social service program first started in 1972. Inevitably, the ‘village’ looked nothing like it used to, but it still had a school that needed extra teaching and people that need feeding.

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Right from the start it was a different prospect, with far more children and a less constrained atmosphere. There wasn’t a teacher in sight. School had ended and it appeared the teachers all buggered off even though there were at least 100 children still there.

Simon got right into the tutoring, but Susan ventured outside to take a few photographs. Big mistake! In no time flat she was surrounded by curious, eager kids who all either wanted their picture taken or wanted to touch her hair. She took several group shots, then individual shots, but it was odd that only a few children asked to see their picture. The rest were just happy to have it taken. It was quite an onslaught, and she almost literally had to fight her way out.

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Simon’s lesson seemed to be a success, though, and the kids were quite a riot. Again, they were keen and eager to learn, even if the topics were not the most thrilling.

The next day we participated in an SPE session visiting the Tshwarengara school at Old Naledi, to staff their library for an hour so that children could stay after school for additional learning. The school was given a full library by an international organization, but because the government didn’t provide a librarian, the teachers refuse to stay for an hour after school so the children could access the books. When MaP students come and open it, the children still aren’t allowed to take books out.

It’s frustrating to see this fully-stocked library and know the government can’t be bothered to invest in a librarian and the teachers refuse to stay for one hour after school, once a week each. Just open the damned library!

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After a half-hour reading aloud from very basic books in English, the children were allowed to work puzzles or play memory matching-games, word bingo (with rocks as markers and worlds like of, laugh, and about), or play a dice game that matches numbered tiles.

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Others played Scrabble Jr, but only matched the letter tile to the words on the board rather than playing the game and taking turns. In some ways they were lucky; most children their age would never have worked a puzzle, as the education system does not value “play” as a teaching tool.

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It was all very cooperative, and each time a child succeeded, the other children clapped and congratulated them. It was a real joy to see, perhaps especially because these children were less fortunate than the kids the day before. Some had no shoes.

Our next SPE would be something a bit different, helping tutor children who lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, or had HIV/AIDS. Some of the MaP students belong to a group called Ray of Hope, and the small village of Gamodubu is one of their missions.

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There was some initial confusion when we arrived, as a wedding was due to take place in the community hall where the group usually sets up. The little girls were all dressed up in Disney Princess style dresses for a song the children were going to sing during the wedding, and they were just darling.

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With so many very young children, and so much excitement going on, the center was in utter chaos. Susan’s group of early-learners were learning to draw basic shapes and say the shape’s names in English.

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Again, her hair was the subject of much interest, and this time her Shamu sunglasses also deserved serious inspection. Several of the little girls tried them on for size.

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Simon was rewarding his kids with a game of “noughts and crosses” after they did their reading in English. His kids called it “Xs and Os”, but when Susan came over toward the end of the session and said, “Oh! Tic Tac Toe!” the boys thought that was hilarious. One boy in particular was captivated by the name, so he wrote it out in English and we repeated it several times so that he would always remember it.

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It was a bittersweet afternoon and we marveled at these perfect young people even as we wondered what some of them were enduring in their short lives. How do you thrive when your parents are dead or dying? How do you go on to be healthy and whole when you’re one of many who needs love and care? What is the best way to support people like Shirley, who takes these precious children in?

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We had long conversations with educators and students during our time at Maru-a-Pula, and gained tremendous insights into the country’s massive educational challenges, and its small successes. Botswana—and by extension, Africa—took hold of our hearts, filling them with joy, and shattering them to bits.

Next: HAPPY BOTSWANA INDEPENDENCE DAY!

Want to see more photos? Check out our Into Africa album on Veness Travel Media on Facebook. We will be adding to the album as each blog goes up.

 

 

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The Prodigal Son Returns

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We were waking up at Maru-a-Pula! After years of talking about it, we were finally there! A good night’s sleep helped to counteract the previous night’s frustrations, and we awoke to a peaceful school campus.

After 41 years away, Simon found the campus unrecognizable as we walked around that first morning. In his school years there were 50 students, one boys’ boarding house, a small dining room, the Headmaster’s house, and two classrooms.

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The few original buildings were lost in the welter of the new, and novel touches like storm drainage, landscaping, trees, pathways and air-conditioning had been installed.

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The periphery was where the school has changed most. Instead of bush, bush and more bush there was a grass sports field (which Simon’s class had hacked out of the bush, and which had been nothing but red dirt for many years), tennis courts, a swimming pool (which Simon’s class had dug by hand until a backhoe was brought in for the final touches), an enormous library building, the spectacular Maitisong performing arts center, the Bean Bag Cafe, and a great number of classrooms.

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We began work on the book straight away, but had time that first afternoon for a quick drive around the immediate locale, looking for Elephant Rd and Simon’s old house – which was now behind a huge wall and electrified fence.

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The Mall, once the city’s main shopping focus, had definitely seen better days, and although there was a craft market going on, it didn’t hide the fact the basic fabric of the place was crumbling and in urgent need of some TLC.

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We had dinner that evening with Andy, the Headmaster, and had a wonderful reminisce about Simon’s days at school, while enjoying good food, superb wine, and the joy of a prodigal son returned home.

Walking around the campus would be a daily habit, and one evening we had a stroll in the twilight. Of all the things Susan didn’t think she’d have to say when we woke up that morning, “Simon, step back a bit so the monkey doesn’t pee on your head” was right up near the top. There were monkeys in some of the trees, Kalahari refugees from the drought that has gripped Botswana for the last three years. (There is a monkey in this picture; look closely!)

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But we also finally discovered the Memorial Garden, where the conjoined ashes of Deane and Dot are buried. They are buried across from a little pond with calla lilies in it, and a bench to sit and contemplate. And, as per Deane’s instructions, his ashes and Dot’s are mixed together, forever one inseperable from the other.

Simon had been in touch with Deane via Skype for a few years before he passed, and had only missed seeing his Headmaster in person again by just a couple of years. Seeing Dot and Deane’s resting place was quite an emotional moment for Simon, but the peacefulness of the garden was fitting, and helped ease some of the sadness.

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On our first afternoon we spent about an hour with Arlington, the staff member who organizes activities beyond the school that the students sign up for as part of their required social service. We volunteered to join them on a trip to Gabane, the impoverished village Simon’s class had “adopted.” Back in the 1970s MaP students would go out twice a week, along pitted dirt roads in the back of a pickup truck, to make bricks from mud and cow dung for patching huts; to help lay thatch for the villagers who needed their roofs repaired; to do chores and cooking for the elderly and the infirm; and to provide food to the most destitute among them.

We would be visiting a school to do tutoring and feeding, and would also sign up to visit two other schools and a community center to do tutoring. Those afternoons were so special we’ll dedicate our next blog to them, so stay tuned.

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Our time at Maru-a-Pula was so joyful, and so sentimental for Simon, we can’t wait for the chance to return some day. So much had changed, but so much had remained the same, especially for that very first class that did their acceptance interviews and aptitude tests in Dot and Deane’s blue tent in the middle of the bush, with nothing but hope and determination around the plot of land that would become Africa’s most successful school.

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Most of the students from that first class have gone on to do incredible things, many of them in social justice, and they have remained in touch over the decades. We were honored to include them in our interviews toward the book, and even more delighted to have established—and re-established—what will remain lasting friendships, including current headmaster Andy Taylor and Maitisong creator David Slater (below), and former first-year student Alice Mogwe and her husband Ruud Jansen (lower photo).

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Next: “Take My Picture! Oh, And Can I Touch Your Hair?”

Want to see more photos? Check out our Into Africa album on Veness Travel Media on Facebook. We will be adding to the album as each blog goes up.

 

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“Never, Ever Drive At Night.”

 

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It had to happen. After all the wonderful events and experiences of the previous 13 days, we had to have a total bummer. And then some.

After two fantastic days at Addo we checked out and headed to Dung Beetle River Lodge at the far southern end of the park, but our GPS took us down a terrible dirt road, and a second even worse dirt road which, while being a bummer, wasn’t the real bummer yet to come. These are the only people we saw during the whole 1 hour drive, and we’re pretty sure it gives an indication of what we were breathing in the whole time.

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By the time we got to Dung Beetle the owner took one look at us and insisted we each have a beer on the deck overlooking the Sunday’s River and work on adjusting our attitudes.

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We’d booked the Elephant Room, which had a fabulous balcony over the riverside deck, and while we had originally thought we’d head back into Addo, we decided it was impossible to top the previous day’s experience, so we opted to look around Colchester a bit.

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The owner had suggested we drive to a park that led to the mouth of the river, and to the dunes along the ocean. We spent about 2 hours walking the beach and climbing the dunes, and we met some fishermen who were fishing for Kob in the rough waves. A perfect wind-down before we headed to Simon’s former school the next morning.

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Our Botswana Travel Day started out well, with an early flight back to Jo’burg and a drive north to Maru-a-Pula, Simon’s school from 1973-1976. But not so fast. We suddenly discovered our flight was not at 11.20 but 10.35, so we really needed to leave Dung Beetle at 8.15 to be on the safe side. It was only a 30 minute journey to the airport, but we couldn’t afford to take any chances. We had booked the earliest flight so as to avoid driving in Africa at night, which everyone on God’s green earth assured us was a terrible, terrible idea. Deadly, in fact. So don’t do it. The photo below, which is an actual in fact HIGHWAY, is part of the reason why.

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Breakfast at Dung Beetle only started at 8 a.m., so we packed and threw our cases in the car first, then threw some coffee and toast down our necks before bidding the owners a hasty farewell. The journey was easy; we dropped off the hire car, checked in, and were through security by 9.05 a.m. Now we had an hour’s wait, during which we regretted not having time for a full breakfast.

We arrived at Tambo airport in Johannesburg, and our miseries began. It took a full hour to get mobile, thanks to the slowest clerk in the Hertz inventory and an absolute ton of paperwork that needed to be processed to allow us to take the car into Botswana and not be stopped as car thieves (a common problem in South Africa), and then finding a car that didn’t have a built-in GPS, as those cars aren’t allowed out of the country. Since the photos we would have inserted here, had we taken any, would be us laying on the floor in a comatose state, I’ll just put up a nice picture of the  fisherman from Colchester instead.

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After an inordinate amount of back and forth, in and out, consulting the manager and talking to the office upstairs, our girl finally got us going. Only our car was at the FAR end of the Hertz garage, and then the GPS didn’t have the necessary adapter, and then the guy had to find the adapter, and then…. At one point, we thought it would be quicker to walk, but we gritted it out and finally got mobile nearly 2 hours after we landed.

We inevitably hit traffic around Pretoria, and then the snarl-ups along the N4 thanks to all the trucks that slow things down. We (foolishly) didn’t grab some water before we left, thinking there would be plenty of places to stop on the motorway (there weren’t; in fact, after Pretoria, there were none); we stuck with the N4 thinking it would, eventually, work out quicker (it didn’t); and we hoped that we would get through the border crossing before dark (we didn’t). Again, the pictures would have been sad, so here are some elephant butts instead.

 

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We spent the next 4 hours dodging insane drivers who had no idea there were lines on the highway or oncoming traffic. The guy in the truck on the right-hand side of this picture isn’t in the oncoming traffic’s lane because he’s passing. No, sir! He’s there because he wants to get where he’s going faster, and he’ll just speed along in whichever lane is clearest at the time.

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Even so, we thoroughly enjoyed the African landscape unfolding before us–flat, semi-arid territory broken only by occasional small, and very ancient, mountain ranges – and it was fun to see signposts for the likes of Rustenberg and Zeerust that really brought back memories of Simon’s time living in Gabs.

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Then we hit terrible roadworks through Swartruggens, which really slowed us down, and then they had the cheek to charge us a R75 toll for using their highway. The police were doing car and truck searches further along, but they seemed to know what they were looking for, because they waved some cars through, including ours. Then we hit construction work. Then another checkpoint. Then more construction. Then the town of Zeerust, which was absolutely bizarre, with people walking everywhere, and our GPS routing us down some side street. Our chances of making it to Gaborone before dark were like the sun; quickly fading.

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We eventually pulled into the South Africa border crossing at about 5.50 p.m., knowing we had a 7.30 p.m. dinner appointment with Andy Taylor at Maru-a-Pula, but also knowing we were only 20km away from the school.

And then we saw it: several miles of trucks backed up at Immigration and, while cars could pass through to the parking lot (where a billion cars were packed together randomly, as if their owners had just slammed them into Park and got out), we found ourselves at the back of a humongous line of humanity to clear South Africa’s immigration.

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Just before we entered the parking area, we had passed a long, terrifying row of filthy, makeshift, tent-like structures where dozens of people were milling about, some of them selling stuff, some just looking menacing. We couldn’t help but wonder if they were waiting for people to park their cars, knowing they’d be in the building for a while and probably had suitcases in the car. We were certain we’d be robbed blind. This picture isn’t them, but it’s close enough. Had we taken the camera out we’re about 99% certain we would have been killed.

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Once inside the building, there were no instructions and no helpful attendants. There were no forms, and no obvious International Visitors windows. After about 20 minutes, someone shouted, “South Africans right side, everyone else, left”, which sped up the process for ten of the two billion people waiting to get out of the country.

The queue we were in was for biometrics and pictures. The biometric system was new, and as each person used it the attendant said, “Press down. Harder. HARDER! Not like that, like this. Put your fingers here. Press. HARDER….!” And that 65 minute ordeal was just for getting an EXIT stamp from SA, and all the while, as we watched the sun set through the building’s tiny window, we had “Never, ever drive at night” running through our brains. These guys are part of the reason why:

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We passed through the vehicle check to leave the country, having opened our car and our suitcases so the attendant could confirm we weren’t smuggling anyone out, or carrying a trunk full of contraband. Then we had to do it all again at the Botswana border post.

Oh, the agony and frustration at the lack of instructions/assistance/forms that needed filling out/any shred of human compassion. It took a full 2.5 HOURS to clear both sides, and pay P152 (the equivalent of $1.30) for our vehicle at the Botswana Customs office (“the blue building on the left” which we were supposed to find in the dark and which most certainly wasn’t on anyone’s “left”. We never did figure out if it was blue). At 8.30 p.m. and in pitch dark we drove across the border, missing 3 cows, a white goat, and 2 donkeys grazing along the highway.  Welcome to Botswana.

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Our GPS steered us through the sprawling Gaborone suburbs, which had been nothing but bush and a few dirt roads the last time Simon was there. We stopped at a gas station for water and a bag of Simba Mexican Chili Chips, having only split a chocolate bar for lunch and knowing we were WAY too late for our dinner appointment. 7 hours into a journey that should have taken 4 hours, we arrived at the school, and we were HUGELY grateful to be greeted at the gate by the security guard who was waiting for us. “Andy Taylor has long since given up and gone home,” he assured us as he conducted us to the school’s guest apartment, a spacious and wonderful setting with all we need for a 2-week stay.

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Never, EVER again will we try to drive into Botswana. Never. And we are totally unanimous on that. And as a fitting PS to the day, after all that massive, time-consuming effort with the Hertz paperwork, not ONE person at either border crossing asked to see it!

Next blog: The Prodigal Son Returns.

Want to see more photos? Check out our Into Africa album on Veness Travel Media on Facebook. We will be adding to the album as each blog goes up.

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Tracking Africa’s Big Five

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We said a fond and emotional goodbye to David the next morning, and headed back towards Port Elizabeth. We were sorry to leave, but heartened by the idea of today being a real “vacation” day at Addo Elephant National Park. During the pleasant 3-hour drive we stopped at a typical South African service station for a restroom break and a thorough perusal of their snack food. We had missed breakfast, so we sampled the Ghost Pops maize snack and the Diddle Daddle caramel corn, but saved the rest for later, which would prove to be a very good decision.

We checked in at Africanos Country Estate and, Wow! It was as smart and stylish as they come. We had a wonderful lunch of chicken tikka wrap and a chicken sandwich in their pretty courtyard, and were then shown to our room, which was immense, and as good as anything in the Four Seasons/Le Meridien bracket.

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We didn’t hang around, though. Addo was awaiting, and we still had a full four hours of daylight to play with. It would be our third “vacation” in 14 years, and we weren’t going to waste a moment!

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We paid our entry fee at Addo and headed out under our own steam, and in less than a minute we saw what Simon thought was giant boulders in the distance, but our binoculars confirmed were elephants. Then we rounded a corner and spotted something freaky lumbering toward us, and just as we both said, “What is THAT”, we realized it was a warthog. Her babies came trotting up behind her.

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Next we came up on a herd of Kudu, with huge ears and gentle eyes. Most were grazing or just standing there staring at us, but some of the young males were feeling their oats, and were having little sparring matches.

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Soon after, we came upon a herd of around 60 elephants off to one side of the road. They were moving away from us, so we watched a closer group of about 8 or so, including babies and yearlings. Suddenly, the larger herd turned and came steamrolling across the veldt, oblivious to the road and traffic, and motored on into the distance. They ended up crossing the street right behind us, while cars and touring trucks were stopped along the road to watch them.

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As they continued on, some of the babies were quite funny, running all over the place like toddlers do.

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Meanwhile, the smaller group kept getting closer and closer until one of them could have reached out with its trunk and touched our car. Susan rolled up the window just in case it decided to pull her out and trample her.

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In just a limited drive of, maybe, a fifth of the park, we saw zebra, mongoose, eland and tortoise. We also saw black-backed jackals feasting on the carcass of two Cape buffalo who had been killed the night before. They were ripping and eating quickly, and we would find out why on our game drive the next day.

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We stayed in the park until closing time, then headed back to Africanos for a first-class dinner washed down with a nice bottle of wine, all for a total of R339 (about $35). An absolute bargain (the wine alone was R105). We were SO impressed with the value and quality of the resort and wished we could stay for a week.

The next morning we had a full-day guided tour booked for Addo and Schotia private game reserve. Our guide Zane (yes, another Zane!) picked us up at Africano’s, along with another couple, Johann and Wendy, from South Africa. We started at 9am in Addo and saw elephant, zebra, Cape buffalo, Red Hartebeest, Kudu, warthogs, dung beetles, and a puff adder.

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Zane, an ex-schoolteacher, spent a lot of time explaining what we were seeing, which proved helpful when we stopped along one of the park’s roads to watch two dung beetles. The female was rolling a massive poo ball, but kept falling over on her back. Each time her husband looked like he was going to help her get back up, he fell over too.

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She would get back up, crawl up the poo ball, turn upside down and start to roll it again, only to fall over seconds later. Zane explained it was the female’s job to roll the ball to some secret location, and the male was there for moral support. We weren’t sure if this couple was on their honeymoon, so they were new at bringing home a poo ball, but they just couldn’t stay upright. We laughed at their misfortune. A lot.

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Zane drove us to Hapoor Dam, where we had seen jackals eating dead buffalo yesterday, and today one of the carcasses was nearly stripped clean, while a male lion was lying next to the other one, having eaten the whole back end. His buddy must have eaten the stripped carcass, because he was laying feet-up a bit further back, sleeping it off in the sun. A jackal was pulling the last bits off the ribs.IMG_5741

We moved on south, heading toward the Colchester area, and saw our first ostriches, and a secretary bird.

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When we reached Schotia we were treated to a nice lunch of chicken a la king, then toured the park in two parts. First, the main part of the private reserve, which included giraffes, hippos, crocs, wildebeest, impala, springboks, nyla, water-bucks, kudu, Cape Grysbok, and more elephants.

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After a refreshment break (rolls with honey, butter, peanut butter or Bovril and coffee, tea, or hot chocolate) we went off to find some lions.

We found a young-ish male lion and his mother, who were relaxing after having killed and eaten an impala. They were completely indifferent to us and our jeep, which was a comfort, since they were very close, and quite intimidating.

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Then we saw the young male’s father. He was huge, with a long, dark mane that went down his back and along his stomach. He walked further up the hill, then started roaring for his wife and son. But they didn’t care. They just laid where they were and he finally laid down, all sad and dejected. No dinner for him tonight.

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It was our turn for dinner, which was in Schotia’s Lapa, a semi-covered building made of wood and thatch. It was a traditional village-style set-up with a superb setting of open fires and torch-light, with a small stream running through it. The atmosphere was enhanced by a guitar player and harmonica player, and a dog who howled as they played.

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We had tea, then wine, and dinner was rice, oven-fried potatoes, mixed veggies in a cheese sauce, chicken, beef, and gravy. A sticky toffee pudding type of dessert called Mulva Pudding was served, along with a delicious mini shooter cocktail of Amarula, Kahlua, and cream.

One of the guides is an incredible artist, and we bought prints of two of his pieces—an elephant and a zebra. Too soon, it was time to go.

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We had done a short night-shine before dinner, and did one again on the way out. Zane said he hoped we’d see “South African kangaroos”, and sure enough we found several of them, with eyes that glowed in our high-powered flashlight beams. Their real name is the springhare, but their back legs are so long and their front legs are so short, they hop like kangaroos when they run away.

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We saw so much, and were so exhausted by the time we got back, that we were just too tired for tomorrow’s early-morning game-drive, so we cancelled it in favor of a good, long sleep. What a truly brilliant day – SO good for the heart and soul to see so much natural wildlife and landscape.

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Next blog: Simon Returns To Botswana

Want to see more photos? Check out our Into Africa album on Veness Travel Media on Facebook. We will be adding to the album as each blog goes up.

 

 

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Spotting Two of Africa’s Big Seven

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We had been in Johannesburg for six full days, and those bloody hadeda birds really needed to go! There were so many noisy birds that there was no chance of sleeping through the dawn chorus, which went on, and on, and on.

On the sixth morning we were up at 7 a.m., washed and ready for breakfast at 7.30 in preparation for our flight to Port Elizabeth, along the southern coast. There was one more file we needed to look at in St. John’s library, and we needed at least one day with the Alexander Education Committee, so we decided to come back to St. John’s for two days before flying home.

Our view of South Africa from 30,000 feet was bit hazy as we flew down to the coast, but we got a good look at the Transvaal–very flat, brown, dry, and desolate-looking at first, with few villages or cities, until we reached an area with sporadic mountain ranges, many in a circle or partial circle. The landscape gradually gave way to more mountains and more green, then suddenly a beach appeared alongside an inlet, and then we were out over the sea. Port Elizabeth was very built up, and the sea was an incredible bright blue.

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We picked up our rental car and headed west along the Garden Route to Plettenberg Bay, stopping to admire a massive gorge at Storms, the size of which does not translate well in pictures. Suffice to say, Simon couldn’t wait to rush out onto the bridge over the gorge while Susan insisted the fauna on terra firma needed serious inspection.

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Further west we saw signs along the highway warning not to feed the baboons, and while we were wondering if baboons came up to the road we came across a small troop just off the highway. They were far too quick for Susan to grab her camera, and we ended up with the first of many pictures we like to call ‘The Butts of Africa’. There would be more baboons as we drove, but they were equally quick to turn tail just as the Canon came out. We had just begun to get used to cows, goats, and donkeys grazing along the roadsides and walking out in front of our car unexpectedly, but baboons…that was something special.

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We were staying at David and Hilary Matthews’ guest house, David having been the deputy Headmaster at Maru-a-Pula, and Simon’s math teacher. When we reached their house—a pretty main house and separate guest house, nearly “off the grid” with rain being its only source of water, though it did have electricity—we were greeted by 3 dogs (Tim, Tom, and weenie dog Oscar). David’s nephew, David Matthews from the David Matthews band, stayed there with his wife and 3 kids the week before we arrived.

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The whole set-up was extremely comfortable, with a jaw-dropping view of the Tsitsikamma mountain range.

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Our main purpose in Plettenberg Bay was to see David Matthews again, and to interview him for the book. We would have three days to do that, and between interviews we were able to enjoy the stunning landscape, which was filled with birds, flowers, and happy, frolicking dogs. Oscar became Simon’s best buddy.

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We also had time to drive around the city, and it was there that we had an up-close view of one of South Africa’s “informal settlements”. In the states we would call them slums, but to be honest, there is nothing in the States like the slums we saw in South Africa. Crowded, filthy, and as home-made and ramshackle as it comes, these “settlements” were absolutely heartbreaking; a terrible reminder of what happens to human beings when every right and every opportunity is stripped away from them.

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We would be heartened to hear about the bursaries (payment of school fees) provided by Maru-a-Pula and St. John’s College that pulled a small percentage of the children from slums like these out of their terrible circumstances and gave them the education that would allow them to prosper personally, and in doing so, help their village or their “settlement”. We were disheartened—and terrified—to discover there are worse conditions in South Africa than this. More on that later.

Our first full morning we went to Lookout Deck, a seaside restaurant David and Hilary frequent, and as we sat down Hilary mentioned the fact that it was the bay where the Southern Right Whales come to give birth each September. Even as she spoke, we spotted two whales in the distance, lazily trolling along the bay. During the course of the meal, they moved closer and closer to the Lookout Deck and we were astonished at such a sight as we sat and had breakfast.

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We had driven in separate cars because Hilary had to leave to catch a bus to Cape Town to mind their grandchild for a few days, and David had to take her there, so we explored the bay on our own for a while. We went down a pathway to the outcropping where the whales were hanging out, and spent a happy hour or more watching them, along with several other visitors. The two of them (mother and calf) came right up to the edge of the rocky point of the bay and lolled about in full view. We were able to walk out most of the way to the point, barely 100 yards from the whales, and got a truly stunning close-up of this wonder of nature.

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We also watched a seal surfing in the wave, and as we stood there laughing at its antics, a local joined us. During our conversation, she told us to go to Robberg Nature Reserve where we could look over the sea, get a view of the seal colony, and possibly see great white sharks. There was no way we were going to pass up that chance, so that was our next day’s adventure.

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We paid our 80 Rand admission ($5.85 US) and entered the park the next afternoon. Robberg is a big rocky promontory in the middle of the Bay, and it was quite a tough hike along the cliffside, down some very precarious stone stairs, and along a much more secure boardwalk, but it was well worth the effort. As we were watching a group of seals playing in the water among the rocks at the base of the cliff, two women came by and asked if we’d seen the Great White shark trolling along the shoreline. We hadn’t, and were disappointed when they said it had already gone around the bend.

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A few minutes later we were shocked to see its dark outline coming toward the seals below us. It was 10 feet long or more, and we could see its tail and fin clearly, and its body a bit less clearly. It cruised back and forth along the shoreline, and the seals were clearly agitated. It couldn’t quite get into the base of the rocks, and the seals weren’t taking any chances, so it was something of a stand-off. Had the sun been brighter we would have had a crystal-clear view. Even so, we could see every move, and we watched it swimming back and forth for about half an hour. It was something we’d hoped for, but didn’t really think we’d see. In doing so, we checked off two of Africa’s Big Seven (Southern Rights and Great Whites). Incredible!

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It started to cloud over and got a bit dark, so we made our way back to the guest house, stopping to watch another group of seals playing in the surf at the lower edge of the long, empty beach. We saw a mongoose running across the road as we left, so we felt pretty lucky for our 80R.

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We had a wonderful lamb dinner with David, compliments of Hilary’s hard work the night before, along with conversation that included the settlements near town. David explained they used their roofs as storage areas, which was why we’d see things like bedsteads or bicycles on them, and how the buildings we saw, if you can call them that, were actually a step up from the worst poverty. True squatters’ buildings were made of cardboard or any other material the people could scavenge. If it had a corrugated metal roof, it wasn’t a squatter’s home.

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It was hard to imagine it could get much worse than the tiny one-room hovels we’d seen. Hard to imagine having to share an outhouse with god knows how many other people. Hard to imagine the filth all around, and your children playing around big junk piles. It was not hard to imagine how bitter and resentful you’d become when the people who took over your homeland were prospering while you lived behind chain link fence in the kind of dwelling most Americans wouldn’t find fit for their dog. I was reminded of our own shame at how we treated the native cultures in the United States. What is the answer? How do you right such tremendous wrong? How do you even start?

They were questions we would ask ourselves again and again, and would find partial answers to as we talked to the people who were actively working to change the situation. But until then, we enjoyed the good company of David, the beautiful place we were blessed to be surrounded by, and the knowledge that we’d be on the track of the remaining Big Five during our upcoming game drives at tomorrow’s destination, Addo Elephant National Park.

Next blog: Addo Elephant National Park, where the wildlife truly goes wild!

Want to see more photos? Check out our Into Africa album on Veness Travel Media on Facebook. We will be adding to the album as each blog goes up.

 

 

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Into Africa

We have been talking about going to Africa since 2010, when Simon reconnected via Skype with Deane Yates, his Headmaster from Maru-a-Pula (translated as “clouds of rain” in Tswana, which symbolically means “blessings”). Listening to their conversations, and having heard Simon talk about his years of schooling in Botswana and the great man and his wife Dot, who not only began the school, but worked tirelessly their entire lives to prove black children and white children could thrive together in a school setting, I said, “His story should be a book. And you should write it.”

With the help of the American Friends of Maru-a-Pula, we made arrangements to travel to South Africa and Botswana to speak with the people who helped Deane and Dot make the school the internationally respected, highly successful environment it is today. Their story will be told in book form. The following blogs will be our story of discovering and rediscovering Africa.

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Saturday, September 2, 2017

The taxi picked us up at 1 p.m. for our easy 1-hour flight to Atlanta and then the long, long leg to Johannesburg. Fifteen and a half hours later, with no sleep overnight and in seats that were the narrowest pitch we’ve come across in ages, which made our legs feel like they were in a vice, we arrived. It was 6 p.m. on Sunday, noon U.S. time.

With only a few agents on duty at Immigration, the lines were enormous. Two hours later we were through, but there was no sign indicating where our luggage carousel was—and no luggage. Thirty worried minutes later we found our cases with some random airport employee, intact and (surprisingly) with nothing stolen. Both of Susan’s bottles of Lysol arrived. Success!

Our shuttle driver for Southern Sun hotel at Tambo introduced himself as Elvis, and said, “You’re tired now, but Elvis is here to take care of everything.” Just by saying that, our stress melted away. From that moment on, we threw ourselves fully into the Africa experience.

We checked in and made a drink in the bar our first priority. Susan has a lot of food rules, even more so when we travel, and tap water or ice were definitely off the menu. We ordered two Castle beers, figuring that would be a safe choice (no ice), but the first thing the bartender, Zane, did was rinse the insides of the glasses with water. First food safety rule broken!

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The conversation with Zane was lively–from why on God’s green earth anyone in the U.S. voted for “that circus clown” Trump to the personalities of all the U.S. basketball players. He asked where we were going to visit, and when Simon mentioned Sophiatown, Zane said, “It’s just like Cleveland.” We were surprised, and asked if he’d been to Cleveland. He said, “No, but I’ve seen it on TV.”

Our 2 beers came to the equivalent of $3.50, but the company was priceless. We felt an easy friendliness from Zane, which would be a hallmark of our 32 day adventure.

We were picked up at 6.45 the next morning  by Daniel Pretorius (the House-master at our first stop, St. John’s College), and made the 35-min journey to the school through morning rush hour, marveling at how built up, hilly and DRY the place was. All the houses had enormous walls with barbed wire and electrified fences at the top. It was a sobering reminder of the legacy of Apartheid.

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On the way we saw women setting up stands along the road, to sell fruit and other items we couldn’t identify. Mini shuttles zoomed past us like they were being piloted by crazed, drunken drivers. Daniel told us they were locals who started transport companies due to the terrible public transport and unsafe trains, and that hopeful riders used finger signals to let the driver know which route they needed. One woman we saw raised one finger, others pointed two fingers outward, to indicated the route, they wanted, and the shuttles either stopped or sped on.

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After our rather harrowing encounter with Johannian traffic compliments of drivers whose general level of skill is either absolutely world-class or completely lacking and without an ounce of safety training, we arrived at the school alive. St. John’s College was built in 1907 and has the look of a classic British public school, in a completely self-contained (and secure) campus.

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Our accommodation for the next 5 days would be the Old Johannian B&B on the college grounds, just separate to the school. It would prove cozy and comfortable, and gave us supremely convenient access to the library, along with a restaurant just steps away, with indoor and outdoor gathering areas we would use extensively for interviews.

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With only 3 hours sleep the night before due to jet lag, we were exhausted. It was much colder than we expected (around 60F), but springtime for South Africa, and there was no indoor heating other than plug-in electric heaters, so our time going through boxes and boxes of material from the school’s archives required several mugs of hot coffee and tea to keep the chill away.

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Still, the next 5 happy, busy days of research and interviews passed far too quickly, and by the time we had to leave for our flight to Port Elizabeth we felt we had made many new friends.

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We were thrilled and excited beyond words to finally be in Africa, and the initial impression more than lived up to expectations. It was a rich and fertile source of story material with massive amounts of background and atmosphere, from the noise of the Hadeda (ha-dee-dha) birds, (Africans say the hadeda screech while they fly because they’re afraid of heights), to the bustle of the boys around the school. The Chapel alone was stunning and the brick buildings were redolent of the major English public schools.

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The tower clock chimes; the Chapel bells ring; the organ plays in the background. We’re in a safe bubble of English gentility. It’s hard to remember we’re also in the cradle of humanity, Africa.

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Next blog: Plettenberg Bay, where we see two of the continent’s “Big Seven”…and an unexpected troop of highway baboons!

Want to see more photos? Check out our Into Africa album on Veness Travel Media on Facebook. We will be adding to the album as each blog goes up.