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INDABA 2009 (African Travel Trade Show)

Southern Sky Adventures: INDABA 2009 (African Travel Trade Show)

INDABA 2009 TRIP, MAY 2009

Monday, May 4, 2009

It’s always reason for greater anticipation upon arrival at the airport when flying to South Africa when I have been given access to a Delta “buddy pass”. On my last trip home from Africa after climbing Kilimanjaro with a group of friends in February, I met a retired flight attendant returning from South Africa, as well. She and I found ourselves in New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Spring breakers had descended upon the airport the Saturday we arrived into the US. That fact combined with bad weather in Atlanta created a log jam of fully sold flights awaiting take off. The retired flight attendant, Denise, was interested in entering the African travel business so we spoke for a few hours about the industry. I told her to attend the African tourism trade show in Durban called Indaba (The word is a Zulu translation for meeting).  She called me later in Atlanta and in return for my advice, she offered me a Delta buddy pass. The buddy passes are given to Delta employees as part of their benefit package. The employee can then give the pass to anyone he/she chooses. The recipient then pays the taxes for the flight and flies on a standby basis. The financial benefit is reason enough for celebration but the recipient also has the chance to fly in business class if there are seats available. A business class seat on a 16 hour flight is as close to nirvana as possible for air travel. Being able to fully recline and get some sleep makes arrival into South Africa feel more like a American domestic coast to coast trip.

Turns out I am lucky. I get on the flight and am able to sit in business class. The lesson I’ll pass on here has little to do with making friends with an airline employee that it does about a more practical way to sit in business class – cashing in frequent flier miles. If you, a family member or a close friend is sitting on extra miles, this flight is the one to use the miles to get into first class via economy ticket upgrade or outright ticket purchase.

The flight for me turns out to be an opportunity to sleep. I do not take sleeping pills except when traveling across multiple time zones. On this flight, we depart at about 5PM, EST or 11PM, South Africa time.  I eat the dinner served on the plane, take a sleeping pill and go to sleep. I try to get on South Africa time as quickly as possible. I sleep a good 5-6 hours, awake for the refueling stop in Dakar, Senegal, and then sleep a few hours more before waking up for the last 5-6 hours of the second  leg of the flight.

Our plane lands Tuesday at about 5PM, South Africa time. I spend some time exchanging money, renting a cell phone, checking email and eating a steak dinner at my favorite Johannesburg Airport restaurant, Spur. Spur is a chain in South Africa but I think the steaks these are quite good.  After all is done, I take the shuttle van to the City Lodge near the airport and get to bed at about 11PM.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I’ve decided to visit a safari lodge before and after the trade show which starts on Saturday. Shumbalala Safari Lodge is a 5 star property located in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve adjoining Kruger National Park. I visited the reserve a few years ago with my father when we stayed at nearby Thornybush Lodge. The Timbavati  boasts a small number of lodges and copious Big 5 sightings so guests can be treated to excellent game viewing with few vehicles on the reserve.
My arrival into the camp is secured the owner Jeandra and her husband. Jeandra and her brother, Jean Pierre Snyman, own Shumbalala  and the Franchhoek Country Inn in Franchhoek, near Cape Town. Shumabalala was owned by their father and the whole family used to spend time here together before turning it into a commercial enterprise.

The hostess/lodge manager (whose name now slips my mind thus reminding to post my blog entries sooner), is engaged to the head ranger, Gerhard van Zyl. I am introduced to Gerhard, a typical Afrikaner of stocky build and pleasant demeanor. I am accompanied on the vehicle with Martin, a tour operator from Ireland, Mark, a South African who has been a tour operator for the past 20 years in England, and his friend, Stuart, who is along for the ride. All these guys are plenty friendly and we head off for a 3 hour afternoon game drive with Gerhard in the driver’s seat and our tracker seated on the left front corner of the hood.
We quickly come across a herd of elephant about 30 strong. The proximity to which one can get to wild game is dependent upon the game’s comfort level with the presence of the vehicle. In non hunting preserves, most all game equates the vehicle as a non threatening object. While the animals have not quite determined what the object is, they display a relative comfort with us being nearby. Keeping in mind these animals are completely wild, a tourist to one of the private game reserves many square miles over, can understand better the idea of man and animal living easily within one another’s worlds.

Elephants are smarter than most of the animals we will encounter and while they still are unsure about the vehicle, they know in this reserve that the vehicle will do them no harm. So we drive through and over the scrub bush, breaking limbs along the way until we are within 10 feet of the herd—10 feet away from a 12,000 pound animal provides an awesome front row seat. The herd is filled only with females and their offspring. Once the males reach sexual maturity at about 13 years, they drift off to form bachelor groups, interacting with the matriarch and the females and young males every so often and during mating times.
These elephants are extremely calm. The adults do little but take a glancing look at us. The younger ones are curious and because their mothers and aunts are comfortable with us, they can explore their curiosity in safety. As Gerhard is telling us about some of the habits of elephants, one such bold yet innocent youngster comes ever so much closer. Gerhard does not even notice Martin rattling off photos as the adolescent stops to within 5 feet of us and slowly lifts his trunk to cover the last few feet. We are stopped with the engine off. The trunk traverses the distance like an unfurled new garden hose until the tip is but a few inches from Gerhard’s head. Taking in our smells, the elephant lingers for a few moments as Gerhard and the four of us enjoy the moment. As slowly as he arrived, he saunters off to find his family.

We stop for drinks along the way, further defining ourselves in conversation. One of the larger unsung bonuses of visits to the safari lodge is the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. Some groups like to maintain exclusivity of a lodge with their own crowd and that theme can work well with a large group. But if on honeymoon or travelling with a small group, the Europeans, South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders make for excellent company. Martin, Mark and Stuart are no exception. Martin shows me his photos of the recent experience with the young elephant extending his trunk, I tell him how much I like it and he takes my business card assuring me that he will email the photos when he returns home.
We return back to the lodge where we are met by the staff and escorted to our rooms. Dinner in the main dining room follows and we all retire to our rooms at about 10PM. My room overlooks the watering hole where game will come for a drink. A lone light is shines upon the small pond and while showering on the outdoor deck, I watch a lone impala ram drink from the pond.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Morning wake-up call comes at 5:30AM, followed by some tea, coffee and scones at 6. Mark and Stuart had to leave early so Martin and I head out for the morning drive. Mark and Stuart will be sorry they left early.
Rhinoceros come as both black and white in species. The term “white” for rhinoceros derives from the Dutch word for wide, “wid”, pronounced, “vit”. White rhinos have a flat horizontal set of lips, thus appearing to have a wide mouth. Englishmen arriving into South Africa after the Dutch settlers thought the Dutch were saying “white”,not “wide”, and the misplaced translation stuck.

The black rhinoceros is a bit smaller than the white (1.5 tons versus about 2 tons for an adult) and are more aggressive. Black rhinos also are foragers, feeding on the branches and leaves of small trees and bushes where their larger cousins are grazers, feeding on the grasses.  Black rhinos have more of a pointed lip which has been perfected for pulling leaves from tree limbs. Where white rhinos have been a remarkably successful conservation story having bounded back from a few hundred animals in the 1980’s to more than 12,000 in Kruger Park, the black rhino remains on the endangered species list with only about 400 in Kruger Park.
We are lucky enough to see a big male black rhino in the middle of the road during our morning drive. Rhinos have excellent hearing and sense of smell but poor eyesight. Opportunities exist to get within 20 feet to rhino if we are downwind and make our presence known. Rhinos prefer to know you are there versus being snuck up upon. So we drive slowly towards this endangered animal and enjoy his company for the next 10 minutes as he browses his way down the dirt road. At this point we are only 30 feet behind the rhino and soon as he appeared, he has disappeared. Hard to imagine that a 3000 pound animal , his dark skin color set against the hues of the late fall lowveld bush can disappear . Whether it be prey or predator, these animals know how to hide when you might be staring right at them. Thus, the need is strong for a good ranger like Gerhard and his local born and bred tracker.

Just as we lose sight of our prized black rhino, Gerhard learns from another ranger on the reserve that these are fresh leopard tracks near the dry creek bed. Leopard’s are the most elusive animal to find in the bush due to a number of factors. Adults choose to travel alone unless a mother is raising her cubs. Males will travel alone unless searching to a female with which to mate. In addition, these cats are primarily nocturnal and more comfortable around thickets and bushes near the river’s edge. These qualities make them hard to track, whereas lions usually travel in larger prides and have no predators as adults so they are happy to stay further in the open for game viewers like us.

We pick up speed in the open top Land Rover in order to help with the tracking of the leopard. These dirt roads are meant for speeds of about 15 MPH but we quickly get up to 25MPH, passing many of the plains game species en route, including a beautiful male kudu with its spiraled horns, many impala with skin so elegant they look as if they are headed to a dinner party, a few families of warthog, startled by our quick arrival.

About 15 minutes later, we crest a small hill and see a dry river bed in the distance, about 75 yards away. Between us and the river bed is heavy brush filled with the thorn tree acacia, a plant that is everywhere in this part of Africa. The needles on this tree are long, some up to 4” long, and sharp at the end. To watch us drive over a free like this you would believe a flat tire would be inevitable but I have yet to experience that problem. Neither Martin nor I see what is in the bush, but the tracker does. With ease he directs Gerhard which tree to avoid and which bushes are OK to drive through or must be driven around due to size while never losing his line of sight. Not until we are within 30 feet do we see what our tracker has seen from 3 times that distance. Resting comfortably in a position similar to the Egyptian Sphinx, a female leopard is sprawled on a nicely worn down grassy knoll. Again, like the elephants, she is not bothered by our presence. She takes note of us but does not run away. Her coat is resplendent with color in the morning sun. My favorite game viewing time is early morning with the crisp, unfiltered sun serving as the best lighting to appreciate the color of such an animal.

She sits as if she is posing for our pictures, the bright yellow base of her skin reflecting the morning sun. Female leopards are not big, perhaps 100 pounds, but her presence in this setting makes her feel much bigger to me. Set within that bright yellow are rings white covering a solid black spot. The contrast  of this highlighted yellow and white on black in the direct morning sun pushes the form of this leopard onto a canvas of my mind. She plays with a few of the flies buzzing above her head with both her front paws as well as her lengthy, chalk white hair tipped tail. Her tail has a life of its own, often casually swirling about her head in a peaceful motion and then quickly snapping like a mute bull whip, relieving her head or eyes of a problem fly in the air.

Without making a noise on the grass, effortlessly, she rises and walks toward the dry river bed. Leopard spend much of their hunting time near the river. A leopard’s favorite food could well be the bushbuck. This plains game animal is a dark brown color and travels the rivers and streams of South Africa in search of fresh grass with its mate. Bushbuck mate for life, so more than not, a pair is seen at the river’s edge. This desire for bushbuck’s to feed near water falls into the crosshairs of the leopard’s desire to hunt in easily camouflaged spots along the same river’s edge.  We watch as our female leopard walks into the dry river bed and begins to scout the edges for any possible movement or sounds. I have never been fortunate enough to see a leopard walk down a sand filled area as wide as this seasonal now dry river. With the brown sand as the pallet, her colors are even more vibrant than described before.

We start by driving behind her, watching her tail rise high above her head as she marks her territory, following each spray with a minor pawing of her rear legs. Again, she knows we are here but she pays us no attention. The sound of these vehicles are of no concern to her or her possible prey standing nearby as both have learned the vehicles and the objects within are of no threat to them as long as we remain in the vehicle. As we pass to her right about 20 feet away, the power of her muscles appears in her stride. We pull ahead of her and await her exit from the tall grass on the river’s edge. Despite her difference in color to the neighboring grass, she is well hidden until her full body is exposed.   To show her indifference to us, she takes a rest in the shade on the cool, brown sand.

With her actions, we have gotten conditioned into thinking this feline is similar to a lazy house cat, concerned about nothing but we are snapped to attention as there is a rustling in the bushes. Before any of us in the vehicle can spot the source of the noise, our female leopard has sprung onto her front paws and is staring down at one spot up the bank, her head motionless. She and we are both waiting with anticipation to determine the source of the noise. Was it a bushbuck foraging in the tall grass unbeknownst of its impending peril? The leopard warily takes a few short steps, her feet treading so lightly she looks like she is walking on hot coals, sometimes one of her feet lightly tamping the grass seeking the quiet place to apply her weight. She takes 3-4 tepid steps when suddenly a rush of activity exits from the spot where she and we were staring. The grass is too tall to determine what it was but one can imagine there was prey of some kind and it must have caught wind of the leopard and correctly made haste in its exit.

Filed under: Africa Travel Trade Show,South Africa Safari Lodges · Author: admin

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