Monday, June 27, 2016

Sailing the Kalahari

A couple of South Africans we spoke with back in Simon's Town had the same advice to us about seeing the natural of South Africa. Go to the Kalahari, they said. Kruger is great, they explained, but the Kalahari is wilder.

Well, who could resist? Certainly not the Galactics. Soon our initial plan of a two-week overland tour had blown out to a month, with plans to take in the Kalahari and points north in Namibia.

(The three-day trip between Kruger and the Kalahari still resonates with us. Alisa met a woman from Jo'berg recently who said, "You did that with kids? You're brave."

Surely it couldn't have been that risky?)

Our target was the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which is shared among South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.

A trophy moment for us - a leopard stalking and catching a bird. Here, the pounce...
A quick reaction as the bird tries to get away
And success - we couldn't ID the bird, but you can see it in the leopard's mouth.
Galactics are quite bloodthirsty in our wildlife viewing - we love seeing
acts of predation.
The Kalahari is much drier than Kruger, but at least in the bit that we saw, it isn't quite desert. More of an arid savannah.

We found less car traffic in the Kgalagadi than we had in Kruger. And there was much less camaraderie in the Kgalagadi. In Kruger, everyone was forever rolling down their windows to share tips for recent sightings. In the Kgalagadi we struggled to get people to talk from their vehicles, and then found ourselves giving up and generally keeping our own counsel. Remarkable how quickly you fall into line with the social norm.

Pale chanting goshawk
Ostrich - much brighter plumage than we've seen in captive birds
Secretary bird - a raptor that has evolved to be a stork
So we spent our days driving the sandy roads of the park, watching the wonders of the world through our truck windows. The megafauna populations of Africa are highly fragmented, hanging on in various scraps of protected habitat that are quite widely separated. Long-term, the prospects for a lot of species aren't that hot. See "southern ground hornbill" and "African wild dog" and "theory of island biogeography". And both rhino species are in a poaching-fueled free fall, with not much further that they can fall. But it is still possible to rent a truck and drive around with your family to see the wonders of southern Africa for yourself. Too cool, and a great example of reveling in the state of the world as you find it.


Cats. We always look for the cats.

The kids running around the rig to burn off energy in the middle of a long day of sitting and riding. Note that this picnic spot is unfenced. Consider the photo above and wonder about the potential consequences. We were pretty vigilant.

Our redsand campground.

Finally, there's this photo below that Elias got with the point-and-shoot. He was so proud of it, and so keen that it be posted to the blog. I think it encapsulates a lot about how much he and his brother are getting out of this side trip.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Just Fun

The Galactics, watching wildlife
Well, courtesy of the patchy cell coverage that we have enjoyed in the out of the way places that we've been visiting, we're now nearly three weeks into our car camping trip through South Africa and Namibia and the chronicle of our doings in this space is hopelessly out of date.

I want to post this brief note to say that in spite of the inevitable hassles of putting in long days in the car with a six year old, and the occasional moments of travel uncertainty, we have been having almost nothing but fun, day after blessed day.

Now, having fun is about the only goal that some yachties need in their approach to sailing and life. (Thinking of you, Fatty Goodlander.)  But fun, to be perfectly honest, usually bores me to tears.  I outgrew fun, as a pursuit, right around the time that I flunked out of college for having too much of it. The idea of traveling the world in a small boat just to have fun seems completely ridiculous to me.  Why not stay home and watch You Tube? That would be more "fun".

I am not at all fit to keep their company, but the travelers who I look up to are the Ryszard Kapuścińskis of the world, the Bruce Chatwins and the Bill Tilmans.  I admire people who travel far  afield out of an overabundance of human spirit, who travel out of an incurable romance with the idea that whatever there is to figure out about life, it won't be figured out sitting at home.

What did any of those three men know about "fun"?

The land yacht
The braai

Nonetheless, that's what we've been doing on this trip - having fun. We've been hitting the national parks in a supremely comfortable camper and seeing the iconic wildlife of southern Africa. Every night we braai (barbecue) under the stars. The beer is cheap, the wine is cheap and good, and we can afford t-bone steaks. Both boys are mad for birding, and nothing makes them happier than spotting a species that is new to the family - in our lexicon, a "lifer". I have a good book to read, and just before this trip I finished up a huge push of science work.

So who wouldn't be having fun?

And, well. There might be something to be said for this fun stuff, after all. It's not like the gloomy and serious among us have all of the answers. So, for this month at least, I'll be satisfied with the company of my dear wife, and the hundred smiles that my boys grace each day with, and the supreme good fortune that sees us able to undertake this trip together.

But we take our fun seriously! Up at 0500, making sandwiches to see us through the day...
Eric and lion

All funned out

So, cross us off your things to worry about in the world.  We're having fun.

I'll post some specifics soon...

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Place You Never Heard Of

Blue wildebeest duking it out
It's the same way over and over.  You arrive in a new country, and start to hear about some place that you've never heard of before. Soon it becomes obvious that it is the place, and that you should really go see it for yourself.

In the case of South Africa, that place is Kruger National Park, in the northeast of the country. Our Rough Guide describes the Kruger experience as "democratic game viewing". And it really is that, at least in terms of democracy for people with the discretionary income to take some time out for game viewing.

We were in the park for seven days and six nights.  The campgrounds are fenced in to keep out the animals with a taste for tourist flesh.  The gates open at six in the morning, and then you go out and spend the day driving around the park, looking at the incredible, iconic macrofauna of Africa.

Again and again, I marveled at how Pleistocene these animals are.  Why did their analogs in North America and Europe and Australia go extinct with the arrival of Homo sapiens, while the African mammalian spectaculars persisted?

And while the rhinos and elephants and great cats and on and on are breath-taking, we also had the diversion of fantastic birding. We spent long days in the truck, and while we might have wearied at times, we never got tired of the experience.

Lilac-breasted roller


We don't have a high-end telephoto lens, so our ability to fill the frame of these photos speaks to how close we were to the animals.

The boys were completely over the moon, again and again.

We shared almost all of these sightings with other cars. There's a great feeling of camaraderie and information sharing among visitors. Lots of tips get shared between lowered windows of vehicles. At times there are some pretty big conglomerations of viewing vehicles, but there were never so many that we couldn't get a great look ourselves.

We had a memory card meltdown in our point-and-shoot, so I can't share any pics of the camps or our poptop camper.  Those will have to wait for the post on the Kalahari...

Klipspringer. They live in rocky terrain and walk on the tips of their hooves.
Peak moment!

Spotted hyena

Yellow-billed stork

Impala and oxpeckers

We watched this lion mating with a female three times in half an hour, about 30 meters from the road.

Chacma baboon and young
And, while there's plenty more to write about this land trip of ours, I am blessedly limited in internet access, so will leave this post as a somewhat hasty photo dump.

More soon!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

But Is It Safe?

We've just spent six days in Kruger National Park, in the province of Mpumalanga in northeastern
South Africa.

Our experience in the park was completely over the top (above).  More about that in another post.

What I'm thinking about today is the people side of South Africa.

First, there was the pleasant surprise that the crowds at the campgrounds we stayed at in Kruger were almost entirely South African. I had expected an international crowd, but we only saw two or three other groups of obviously foreign campers during our stay.  The language spoken in the campgrounds was overwhelmingly Afrikaans, which made a nice contrast with the English dominance that we are used to from the Western Cape.

But it was also hard not to notice that the Kruger scene was very much a "white Africa", as Alisa put it.  The visitors were overwhelmingly white, and the workers overwhelmingly black.  I'm not keen to see our visit to South Africa in nothing but terms of race, but it's very hard to avoid.  Kruger was another one of the gated, all-white scenes through which we are experiencing the country.

As we've tried to figure out what is safe for our family here and what is over-reacting, we have carefully assessed the advice that we've gotten from South Africans, either solicited or unsolicited.  And we've noticed an interesting divide in that advice.

On one hand, people have been tremendously cautionary.  The mother of one of Elias and Eric's friends at the yacht club in Simon's Town warned Alisa about the risk of child abduction.  And adult abduction, for that matter. A number of South Africans warned Alisa, when she said that we would be driving across the country between Kruger and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, that we should be very very careful on the trip.  A woman whom we met in Kruger commented on how wonderful an experience our visit must have been for the boys.  And then she said it was good we were doing the trip now, "while you still can".  She summed it up by saying "South Africa" and shaking her head.

Driving the highways around Jo'berg, you see road signs warning  of "hijacking hotspots".

At times, this advice, and some of the horror stories we've heard, have really scared us.  Is this the kind of place we should be traveling with our boys?

So we ask more questions of the locals.  And there is a second line of response, beyond the more obvious cautionary advice.  A lot of the country really is safe, especially for a local who knows what's what.  When questioned, some South Africans tell us that we're at no more risk than we would be in Paris or New York. This sort of reassuring talk often seems to spill over into downplaying any sort of racial animus in South Africa, and I wonder how much of it is wishful thinking, or a desire on our interlocutors' part to be positive about their country.

The great shame about all of this from our perspective is that we have decided that our only reasonable course of action is to continue acting like the very wealthy people that we are by the standards of most South Africans, and to use our money to insulate ourselves from the problems of the country.  Outside of Kruger, we have been paying $15 or $20 US a night to camp in private lodges or game reserves.  There is an ocean of largely-black humanity between these little gated refugia that we come to rest in, and that ocean of humanity remains completely mysterious to us.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Winter's Tale

It's June, and the boys are still swimming.  So far the Cape winter has been toothless.

As far as we know, the only other foreign yacht that is currently in South Africa but still planning on heading up the Atlantic this year is Kestrel, our friends and fellow South Georgia travelers.

The normal routine is to leave South Africa during the summer, so as to beat the hurricane season in the Caribbean.  But being (as far as we know) the last yacht in South Georgia last season, as well as taking six weeks or so for me to catch up on science work once we arrived here, meant that we missed out on any chance of heading up the Atlantic before winter arrived.

But that's ok - I'm nurturing a theory that leaving Cape Town must be a lot like leaving San Francisco, in that it's possible in any month of the year, as long as you're willing to wait for the right weather.

We Galactics, we're very good at waiting for weather.

And even though we might have missed the choice season for leaving South Africa, hanging around has meant that we have set ourselves up for the prime season for overland travel.

While the Cape gets cold and rainy in the winter, in most of South Africa winter is the dry season.  And as the seasonal water bodies disappear, the unbelievable megafauna of southern Africa is forced to congregate at the remaining water holes.  Wildlife viewing gets very good indeed.

Which is why we have rented ourselves a four wheel drive pickup with a poptop camper, and why I am writing this far from Galactic, which remains tied to the dock in Simon's Town while we take in some winter sights in inland southern Africa.  Just now we're in Kruger National Park, on the border with Mozambique and Zimbabwe.  We'll be heading onwards to the Kalahari desert, and then to northern Namibia.

We have never traveled overland from the yacht in the nearly nine years that we've been sailing, but this time we're doing it with a vengeance.  We don't expect to be returning to southern Africa any time soon, after all.  And Eric, at six, is just hitting the point where a trip like this is likely to be fun.

What we've seen so far has fulfilled every boyhood dream that Elias and Eric might have been nurturing about African wildlife.  More about that soon.  For now I'll sign off with this one image that captures how radically our vistas have changed over the last week: