Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Twenty Things

Here are twenty things I think I know that you never knew that you need to know about Africa and African wildlife. If you know what I mean.

1. Early European explorers thought that giraffes were carnivorous because they were seen chewing bones. In fact they do this occasionally to supplement calcium in their diet.

2. The female spotted hyena is much larger than the male……..and has a false penis.

3. Ngorogoro Crater in Tanzania is named after the sound made by the bells that hang around the necks of cattle that belong to the local Maasai tribe.

4. A group of Zebra is called a dazzle.

5. Although it is a cat, like a dog, the cheetah cannot retract its claws.

6. Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro is the world’s tallest free standing mountain. (Not part of a range.) Its peak is 19,341 feet above sea level and it stands 16,732 feet above the surrounding plain.

7. A group of rhinos is called a crash.

8. The British empire builder Cecil John Rhodes is buried at the top of one of the granite kopjes (hills) at Matobo Hills near Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The views from the site are stunning, especially at sunset.

9. Soweto – Johannesburg’s most famous township is an abbreviation of South West Township.

10. The elephant’s closest relative is the dassie or hyrax which weighs in at just 4.5kgs.

11. South Africa’s Blyde River Canyon in the northern Drakensberg Escarpment is the world’s third largest canyon and is the world’s largest “green” canyon.

12. The black mamba snake is usually gun-metal grey or dull olive, never black – it gets its name from its black mouth lining. I recommend that you don’t get close enough to check!

13. The iconic flat-top acacia thorn tree of the East African plains gives off a chemical message when a giraffe eats its leaves. It tells other trees in the vicinity to produce tannin which the animal finds bitter and so moves on to another area to feed, thus the trees aren’t decimated by the animals. Isn’t nature incredible?

14. A group of giraffes is called a journey or a tower.

15. More people are struck by lightening at Matobo Hills (See No 8.) than anywhere else in the world. Apparently it’s due to the granite. You can test this yourself by waving a golf club above your head at Cecil Rhodes’ grave during a thunderstorm. (Disclaimer - No responsibility taken for death or injury caused to anyone stupid enough to do this.)

16. The “Big Five” were originally so called because they are the most dangerous animal for humans to hunt. They are – lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhinoceros (specifically black rhinoceros as they are more aggressive than the white variety).

17. Both white and black rhinos are the same colour – grey. The name white is a corruption of the word wide – as in wide mouthed rhino. The black rhino was so called just to differentiate. Actually they have a prehensile, hooked upper lip. White rhinos graze, black rhinos browse.

18. One of the world’s greatest early travellers was an African. The Moroccan Ibn Battuta was born in 1304. His travels took him as far east as China, and as far south as West Africa. He also visited central Asia and India. His full name was Hajji Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta, but his Aussie mates called him “Ibbo”.

19. The Zambezi River which thunders spectacularly over the Victoria Falls is one of very few major rivers in the world to have no industry or major cities on its banks. It can probably claim to be one of the worlds cleanest. It is the 4th longest river in Africa after the Nile, the Zaire (Congo) and the Niger.

20. As well as a “Big Five” there is also an unofficial “Little Five.” They are the leopard tortoise, the ant lion (We get these in Australia too. Look for small conical holes in the dust – they live at the bottom of them.), the buffalo weaverbird, the rhinoceros beetle and the elephant shrew.


WHAT: A Maasai Warrior comes to talk
WHEN: Thursday 4 November 2010
WHERE: Ucango Travel & Cruise Centre, Maroochydore
TIME: From 6.30pm

Possibly the only Maasai Warrior in Australia, Sianga Kuyan will speak of the problems and challenges faced by the Massai people today as well and will speak about the Future Warriors Project - a not for profit organisation set up to empower young Maasai to build a strong, sustainable future for themselves, their families and their communities.

Sianga will also speak about travel to the region and promote his upcoming fully guided Maasai Culture & Wildlife Tour of Tanzania in March 2011. This unique 14 day luxury camping tour will visit Sianga's village, Ngorogoro Crater, The Serengeti and Lake Manyara.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What's For Dinner?

The worst thing about travelling to Africa from Australia is the jet lag. Going west it’s not too bad at all. You’re a little tired for 24 hours and then it’s all over and you’re back to your normal sparky self. Coming back is a different matter though. At least it is for me. I always feel dopey and fuzzy headed for at least a week. (Some unpleasant people might suggest that this is my normal state.) I always go straight to sleep when I go to bed, but then wake up at 1am and stay awake until 6am at which time I feel like falling asleep again. Experts tell you that to reduce the effects of jet lag one should avoid the consumption of alcohol while flying. Such people should be dismissed as mentally unstable.

Anyway, I’ve just spent two days at Cheetah Plains Lodge in the Sabi Sands Private Reserve adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, and I must say that it was truly delightful. It’s a compact lodge surrounded by whitethorn bushes and marula trees. It has an electric wire around its perimeter to deter elephants who rather like to dig up water pipes and push over large trees, but apart from that the animals are free to wander through the camp.

The rooms are fairly small, but very comfortable. I guess you’d describe them as 3 star, but the good thing is that there are only eight of them, so even when the place is full it only hold sixteen guests, which makes for a very personalised safari camp experience. The food at Cheetah Plains is anything but 3 star. It is sensational and it seems that there is an opportunity to feed your face every half an hour or so. At 5.15am you are woken for your morning game drive. Having washed and dressed you then make your way to the restaurant for coffee, cereal and toast with all manner of fresh fruit and yogurt. Then halfway through your game drive it’s time for a coffee break in the bush. More food – usually muffins.

After your game drive the ranger will offer you a walk – just a short one to stretch your legs. Then it’s time for brunch. Eggs done any way you like, sausages, bacon, mushrooms, you name it. Then before you know it it’s time for high tea prior to your afternoon game drive. This time it’s quiche, sandwiches, sausage rolls and cakes. The afternoon game drive halts at sundown for a drink – a glass of wine, a beer, a gin and tonic – whatever you like, and you guessed it – more food. Samosas, biltong, maybe a marinated chicken leg. But wait, there’s more. When you get back to the lodge it’s time for dinner. Three courses of supreme cuisine and great South African wine. My final meal there was thick ginger and pumpkin soup with a freshly made crusty bread roll, chicken breast stuffed with camembert and spinach and a creamy white chocolate mousse.

Oh yes, and we saw some animals too.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Cotswolds Safari

Yes I know this is supposed to be an Africa blog but I’ve just spent a couple of days in my favourite part of Britain – The Cotswolds. I started off in Shakespeare country – Stratford on Avon. Now as far as I know Bill never went on Safari, which is a shame because it may have livened up some of his work.

King Richard might have said “A zebra, a zebra! My kingdom for a zebra” for example.

Julius Caesar could have come out with the immortal line – “Friends, Romans, Countrymen. Lend me your binoculars.”

His sonnet No18 might have read – “Shall I compare thee to a hippopotamus?”

He may have written “The Taming of the Elephant Shrew.”

Shylock would probably have said "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if we get out of the game viewing vehicle shall we not be eaten by a lion or something?”

But enough of this frivolity. Verily I saith to myself – Get on with it!!

Stratford oozes history from every half timbered house. There’s Shakespeare’s birthplace, his grave, Anne Hathaway’s cottage, you name it, it’s all there. Meanwhile the River Avon flows languidly by, liberally peppered with beautiful white swans and overhung by shady weeping willows. From there I drove to Evesham, another charming town on the river and well worth a visit. Broadway was next. I love this place. It’s a little less touristy than some of the other spots. It nestles at the foot of an escarpment and at this time of year – mid autumn I think it is at it’s very best. The leaves are just starting to turn to orange and red and the gorgeous apricot coloured stone buildings seem to glow with an inner warmth in the late afternoon sunshine. It is all heartbreakingly lovely.

Then on to the sinisterly name Slaughters. The tiny hamlets of Upper and Lower Slaughter are about a mile apart. A nice little stream runs through Lower Slaughter and there is an interesting museum there along with the usual collection of fairy tale houses. There’s a bit more to see at Lower Slaughter but it’s a pleasant walk on a nice day to Upper Slaughter.

My last stop was Bourton on the Water which is only two or three miles from the Slaughters. With it’s fish filled stream running through it’s centre it looks like a full size version of those model Olde English villages you see everywhere. There were quite a few tourists about, people from pretty much every corner of the globe. There were Japanese, Spaniards, Dutch, Aussies and Americans. (“Say Hank! Why couldn’t these damned limeys build this place closer to London?”)

Then I found that I’d run out of time on my Cotswolds Safari and I hadn’t even got to Stow on the Wold – another of my favourites. And there are dozens of other wonderful places to explore in this part of the world. Even on a cold, wet day it’s lovely just to sit in a Broadway pub with a blazing log fire inhaling both the history and a pint of Bishops Finger.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

World of Beer

Most travellers do not stay more than a day or two in Johannesburg either because they think there is little of interest there or because they think it is unsafe. They are wrong on both counts. It’s a shame to miss out on what this vibrant city and Gauteng province in general has to offer. Here are a few examples of how to fill in your time there.

Golf enthusiasts can play the world’s most talked about par 3 hole, the “Extreme 19th.” Set high up on Hanglip Mountain, the hole is accessible only by helicopter and played to a green in the shape of Africa 400 metres below.

Do a half or full day cycling tour of Soweto accompanied by local guides. Stop for a local burger – kota or take a beer break at a shebeen. At the end of the day you’ll return to the hotel with a totally new perception of this often unfairly maligned township.

See a stage production at The Nelson Mandela Theatre, Tesson, Thabong and Peter Roos theatres. Shows are mainly local productions – musicals, ballet and comedy. The incredible Soweto Gospel Choir regularly perform here too.

There is caving at the famous Sterkfontein Caves and 10 kilometres away at Maropeng is a world class visitor facility which tells the story of the Cradle of Humankind and brings to life the history of humankind in entertaining, educational and inter-active ways.

Visitors should not miss the De Wildt Cheetah Research Farm. This is a guided tour in an open safari vehicle with experienced, qualified guides. You will gain an understanding of these beautiful big cats and learn all there is to know about their habits, nature and their struggle for survival. You’ll also see the king cheetah – one of the rarest animals on earth.

There is also hot air ballooning, an amazing Lipizzaner horse show and the Magaliesberg Canopy Tour. This is a unique eco-adventure that takes visitors down the spectacular Ysterhout Kloof in the Magaliesberg Mountains. The tour essentially involves zigzagging down the Kloof (cliff), stopping at each platform to admire the views and surrounding ecology. Two trained guides assure the safety of each participant while describing interesting facts about the indigenous plants, bird life, ecology and geology of the area.

Then there is my favourite – the SAB World of Beer. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday and is a real fun-filled showcase of brewing. Enjoy the tour and finish it off with 2 free ice cold beers. The tour unveils the heritage of beer from ancient Mesopotamia, through Africa and Europe all the way to a honkey-tonk pub of Johannesburg , mining camp days and a traditional Soweto shebeen. Delicious lunches are available in the Tap Room from where you can take in panoramic views of the city. Try it. It’s a lot of fun and the beer’s not bad either.