Outbound Travel, May 25, 2016 - In late 2015 my sister, Laura, asked me if I would be interested in joining her and her partner, Michael, on what for them has been an annual trip to South Africa in late May and early June 2016. The itinerary was to stay at The Maharani in Durban for a few days while she prepared for and ran The Comrades ultra (double) -marathon, then enjoy a couple days safari at the Phinda Preserve, a couple days at the remote Thonga Beach Lodge, and a final day at the Teremok Marine in Umhlanga Rocks near Durban before returning home. To sweeten the deal she offered to pay for most of my airfare and lodging, the bulk of the expense for a trip like this.
I hesitated at first as that time of year I usually volunteer to help out at the Sequoia Century and I had been considering a short Sierras bike tour during the brief period between when the passes open and the summer tourist crowds begin. Laura also knows that I prefer the comforts and predictability of life at home over the uncertainty and constant change inherent in living out of a suitcase, even if the accommodations are first-class, and I suspect she wished to encourage me to try something out of my comfort zone. In the end after some rational thought I accepted her offer. The trip was an opportunity for a life experience that was unlikely to be offered again had I declined.
Laura, thank you for inviting, funding (in large part), and encouraging me to join you.
As the departure day approached, my stress level rose, throwing my thyroid supplementation out of balance†. Although unpleasant when this occurs, I'm glad I worked through what I need to do when under stress to get my thyroid supplementation back in balance.
I never enjoyed becoming a ward of the airline travel system as it had become an activity to which with few exceptions in the past I had surrendered myself as a condition of continued employment. My travel from home to the hotel in Durban would be about as long a travel segment between two urban areas on the planet as one could conceive, a total of about 36 hours of traveling, and that was on an itinerary that had adequate if minimal slack. Fortunately all of the flight segments and transfers went smoothly.
Ron Bobb collected me at home and whisked me to SFO during the evening commute hour, arriving a full three hours before my flight. There was no queue at check-in, and the security line took about 15 minutes to pass through. The remainder of the time I alternately passed sitting restlessly in one of the empty chairs near the gate or walking the length of Terminal A. I figured it was my last chance to walk around and work off stress before being confined to a seat for the duration.
Several months earlier I had at Laura's urging reserved extra legroom (ELR) seats for my long-haul flight segments. At first I thought I could tough it out in a standard seat and save myself the $80/leg cost of this small luxury, but in hindsight I'm glad I made the purchase. As it was I had only just enough space for my legs in the ELR seat before my kneecaps were embedded in the back of the seat in front of me. Next time I'll probably choose a bulkhead or exit row seat for the same extra charge, even though these are recommended for passengers with infants. I did not choose these as I was concerned about having to endure a wailing infant on a long overnight flight, but that was only a problem on one of my flight segments.
Upgrading to "Premium Economy" or "Upper Class" would have been nice if it could be done for at most a small additional fee. But, those tickets were twice or five times the cost of an Economy seat at the time I reviewed the options. I don't usually need additional seat width, just legroom, and although I would have preferred a lie-flat seat for sleeping, I have no trouble sleeping upright if I'm weary.
After boarding my flight to London Heathrow I discovered that our row of seats was full. I usually choose an aisle seat as that affords the most space, but for this flight leg I could only reserve a window seat. Ten hours cramped in a window seat with a middle seat neighbour would have made for an uncomfortable flight, even with the extra legroom, which, to be honest, was difficult to see by casual inspection.
Fortunately, the flight was not full. Although the passenger, a gentleman from London, had paid extra for his ELR seat, he found a regular seat further back with no neighbour and volunteered without prompting to move as soon as the Fasten Seat Belt light had been extinguished. This left me with an empty seat at my side that I could spill into and made for a more pleasant trip.
All of my overnight flight segments were on the Boeing 787-9 "Dreamliner". The plane looks small from the outside, but inside it's a long wide-body in the style of a 767. These particular Virgin Atlantic planes are fairly new, and offer improvements over older hardware. I noticed in particular that the toilets (lavatories) were more capacious than those I had used in other aircraft. One could also properly wash one's hands in the sink since the water spout was sonically activated and did not require a thumb or finger on a lever to maintain the flow. The window tint was adjustable by the flight crew so that during the nighttime portion of the flights, all windows would be tinted uniformly and lighting dimmed accordingly for sleep. On the eastbound flight where the night portion of the flight was relatively short, the tinted windows were sufficient to block full sun, affording us a decent number of hours of sleep in the darkened cabin well after sunrise outside the aircraft. The cabin was pressurized to a lower altitude (6000ft instead of 8000ft), and humidity was adjusted higher, making breathing and sleeping slack-jawed while seated upright easier on the sinuses.
It was my expectation of a sleepless night on my first flight that prompted me to reserve the minimum three-hour stay in an Airside Bedroom at the No.1 Traveler lounge in Heathrow's Terminal 3 before my flight from LHR to JNB (Johannesburg). The cost of 20£/hour plus VAT came to about 87 USD, an extravagance that I would have forgone if not for the overall duration of my itinerary. The airside bedrooms are adjacent to the lounge itself to which I had full access, and are within the secure zone of the terminal. The interior of the single-occupancy bedroom was like that of a small camper containing a single bed and a wet bath but no kitchen.
I spent the first half-hour of my visit in the lounge itself snacking on a small meal. I then retreated to the quiet of my dearly-priced bedroom for a relaxing shower—I had brought a change of clothes and toiletries in my carry-on—and a quick nap. Since the lounge staff do not offer wake-up calls, I double checked that I had set my alarm on my smartphone, bearing in mind it was still on PDT, my Verizon phone unable to connect to any local cell towers and update to local time.
It was difficult to nap knowing my alarm would shortly be ringing, so I dozed and checked email until a few minutes before my alarm went off. I then got dressed, packed up my stuff, and left my bedroom, stopping by the lounge desk to return my key to avoid an overcharge.
Gate assignments at London Heathrow Terminal 3 are made at the last minute, usually an hour or less before scheduled departure. This meant waiting on tenterhooks to learn this important information, then immediately starting for the gate that could have been anywhere within the sprawling Terminal 3 complex when an assignment had been made. Fortunately, by the time I checked out of the No.1 Traveler lounge my flight to Johannesburg had been assigned a gate.
When I arrived at the gate a few of us gathered behind a glass partition that was closed. Gate staff hadn't yet opened the departure lounge. When the slightly cramped lounge was finally opened, we streamed in. Some of us milled about restlessly, while others immediately plopped down into one of the seats. Shortly thereafter boarding commenced.
I was dismayed but not surprised to discover that the flight was full. All but a few seats at the rear of the plane were occupied. Fortunately, I had reserved an aisle seat, and my middle seat partner was a small woman from Cork, Ireland who was on her way to a conference in Durban, having had the good fortune of being scheduled over the busy Comrades weekend. She had bought her ticket at the last minute and was spending more than she wished on a hotel room in the nearly-booked city. Apparently her seat had been one of the few available.
As the cabin crew sealed the door and appeared to be preparing for departure, we continued to wait. The captain came on the intercom and announced that an air controller strike in France would delay our departure for 5-10 minutes while the crew secured clearance with French air traffic control. A few minutes after that the captain announced that a cargo loading crane would not detach itself from the aircraft and that maintenance staff elsewhere on airport grounds had been summoned to mend the apparatus. A 10 hour and 20 minute flight became an 11-hour flight.
Finally, just as the sun was setting over the English countryside, our flight left the surly bonds of London-Heathrow and banked sharply south toward France, the Mediterranean, and the Dark Continent beyond.
During the night I managed to sleep again for 5 hours in spite of an infant and a toddler sitting in the bulkhead seats on the opposite side of the plane who would at times awaken, then alternately screech and wail for a surprisingly long time, always in duet, before returning to slumber. I felt sorry for their mother and the opprobrium neighbouring passengers must have directed her way, but I was amazed that the children had energy to produce so much noise for so long during each performance.
After landing at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg I exited the plane and headed for Baggage Claim and Passport Control. But, before I reached those choke points, I stopped by the toilet (restroom). "Welcome to my office!", beamed a janitor waiting at the entrance as I entered. After finishing and exiting, he held out his hand, but I had no Rand yet to give him. He was not pleased by my unintended stinginess.
In South African urban areas public facilities of any sort are attended by official and unofficial entrepreneurs looking for extra income, especially from tourists or visitors. Toilets are attended (and, I might add, are usually cleaner than in the USA), and a tip is expected.
But this offer of service in exchange for a consideration wears thin. In Durban impromptu parking attendants offer to "find you a parking spot", even if it means directing you to hop a curb to park in a patch of weeds. Others offer to provide you with "directions", "advice" or other unsolicited help. Enthusiastic bellhops offer to carry your bags even if you are managing well, doormen stand ready to open a door lest the effort prove too great for a weary guest, and at major street intersections vendors hawk knick-knacks, gee-gaws, electronic accessories, or merely sad stories to occupants of vehicles held captive by robots (traffic signals).
After I passed through Passport Control, where I was given a brief interview about the purpose of my visit, had my passport stamped, and my body temperature assessed using an infrared camera, I met Michael and Laura who after having arrived on a different flight a few minutes earlier had already passed through the same gauntlet. The three of us then proceeded to Baggage Claim where I retrieved my checked bag. We then walked to the domestic departures terminal for South African Airways to check in for our flight to Durban.
It was at this point that Laura discovered to her horror that she had reserved her ticket on this short-hop flight but had neglected to purchase it! She was quite upset with herself at the oversight as it was not like her to forget such an important detail. She walked quickly and with angry purpose to the departures ticketing desk while Michael and I followed her quietly. Adding to her stress she discovered that the flight that she thought she had reserved, the flight Michael and I were on, was fully-booked. She would have to wait for the next flight and then only a first-class ticket was available.
We decided that Michael and I would take our scheduled flight, withdraw Rand from a local ATM, see about my buying a local SIM card for my phone, then secure the rental car. By then Laura would be arriving shortly on her flight, so little time would be wasted.
By the time my seat on this short flight was assigned only middle seats were available. I found myself sandwiched between two young guys, one of whom had just arrived from London on a different flight and was running in The Comrades, the other from Chicago had just arrived in Johannesburg and was traveling to support his wife who was running in the event. Both pegged me for a runner in The Comrades, but I disabused them of the notion explaining that my knees don't run these days unless my life depends on it.
Once Michael and I arrived at the airy terminal of King Shaka International Airport, we proceeded according to plan. In the arrivals terminal a table staffed by young girls was giving away starter SIM card kits for Virgin Wireless. Although my phone recognized the local cell towers with the Virgin SIM card installed (and updated its clock with the correct time), I could not activate the card. After struggling for some time to get the SIM card activated I learned later that I could not do so without the assistance of a Virgin Wireless representative, and they would not activate my card unless I could prove South African citizenship or permanent residency!
It is a policy that I have little doubt is designed to force visitors to use exorbitant international roaming services of their home country carrier rather than the much less expensive, in this case, free, local cellular services. I then wondered why they bother to send out young girls to give these useless kits to tourists in the airport arrivals terminal. I decided to go without cell service since Laura and Michael both had international roaming on their phones, and I had frequent access to WiFi that enabled Skype, WhatsApp, and other connectivity apps.
By the time we had finished our arrival tasks we found ourselves waiting for only 20 minutes in the arrivals lounge before Laura emerged from the exit portal. The three of us walked back to the rental car and then drove into Durban on the N2 and M4.
Michael had volunteered to handle the rental car reservation and to be the primary driver. We agreed that I would be his back-up. Michael had had some experience driving in South Africa, and I preferred not to drive so that I could spend more time sight-seeing and taking photos. In hindsight I was happy with the arrangement as driving in South Africa is more stressful than in the USA for reasons additional to the requirement that one drive on the left side of the road.
As Michael was pulling into a parallel (left side) street parking space in front of the hotel, an irate taxi driver behind us honked and yelled out his window insisting that we were in his spot, although no official signage indicated that the space had been assigned. Before an exchange of heated words could ensue the hotel doorman intervened and directed us to the obscure entrance for the hotel's multi-level car park on the back side of the building.
Thus ended the outbound leg of my trip.
†I discovered on this trip that I needed about one-half to two-thirds my usual supplementation while traveling, or about 75-100 mcg/day of Levothyroxine instead of my usual 150 mcg/day.
Durban, May 27, 2015 - By the time we had settled into our rooms at the Maharani, the afternoon was well underway. The first order of business was for Laura to visit the Comrades Expo to collect her runner's packet and to visit some of the vendors. Since we had all been sitting in cramped quarters for the past day and a half, the exercise of walking to the Expo at the Durban Exhibition Centre felt good, even if much of the walk along busy boulevards was not particularly pleasant.
On the way to the Expo we were accosted a few times by solicitors. Some offered to give us directions in exchange for money. Others offered nothing but a story of their travails. They approached me first, probably because I wore a wide-brimmed hat that no one else on the street wore and I wore my small camera case attached to my belt. I must have looked the most like a tourist and the easiest mark.
Laura suggested I cover my camera case and take off my hat. I refused to remove my hat, but I did pull my shirt over my camera case, and this reduced the frequency of engagements. Now Laura and Michael attracted attention, too. Laura managed to fend them off by not making eye contact and walking fast and with purpose—"Ignore them! Don't make eye contact!", she ordered. Michael and I were too polite simply to ignore people who tried to engage us in conversation on the street, but keeping up with Laura's fast walking pace gave us a good excuse to cut our conversations short.
We got to the Expo, Laura got her runner's packet, and we bought some commemorative gear from vendors at the Expo. Laura took a special interest in the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon. Our walk back to the hotel was in darkness—night comes early to Durban in late fall. Durban lies on the eastern side of South African Standard Time Zone, same as Central European Standard Time Zone, the city lying at a similar longitude to central Turkey, Israel, and Egypt. Oddly, we were not accosted at all on our return walk in the dark.
That evening we dined at Daruma, a nice Japanese restaurant in the Elangeni hotel next door to our hotel. On the short walk to and from the restaurant we were solicited twice for money, once by two white guys who looked like they'd been living on the street for quite some time.
The next day while Michael relaxed at the hotel, Laura and I walked from the hotel south along the Promenade nearly to Ushaka Marine World at the southern end before returning on the beach itself. The Promenade was busy with runners staying in shape for their big day, tourists, street artists, solicitors, and locals. The pleasant beach weather was muggy and warm but not too hot.
I couldn't help but notice the number of black families enjoying the beach, something not seen often in California. Aside from white tourists and locals, I saw a few Indian families and several families from what must have been wealthy Gulf states. In one case I observed several women in full black burqas, covered head to toe, accented with shiny jewelry, a shiny necklace or gold chain worn around the waist. A man dressed in a tailored suit of the style worn by men in the Middle East walked stiffly out in front, and the children acted and dressed like any other children at the beach. Another unexpected sight was that of two priests in full cassock enjoying cocktails on the deck at California Dreaming Cafe. Nearby a group of women rinsed off topless at a public open-air beach shower, and no one seemed to mind. Laura reminded me more than once, "This is Africa."
Along the Promenade artists had constructed detailed sand castles, animals, and other miniatures in the sand. I wanted to take a photo, but Laura warned me that if I produced my camera the artist would appear and demand payment.
That evening we walked down to the Promenade in front of the hotel and dined early at Circus Circus Cafe, which was the best meal I ate in Durban in my opinion. While dining we met Raja, a friend of Laura and Michael they had met at last year's Comrades, who was also running this year. Unfortunately, Raja suffered a bout of salmonella poisoning during the race the next day and had to drop out only 3 km from the finish. He had flown into Durban from the Bay Area the day before us. His tight itinerary had him returning home the day after the race. I can't imagine how he managed his long travel a day after coming down with a digestive illness.
That evening I played bridge online with Dad back home for a half-hour before I got too sleepy to play well.
The Comrades, May 29, 2016 - For Laura and Michael the day began at 0100. I arranged to sleep in, or to try. I still suffered jet-lag and tended to awaken early in the morning after crashing early the night before.
Laura and Michael ate the special early (0200) breakfast for Comrades runners at the hotel, then she and Michael walked to the bus that would take Laura to Pietermaritzburg, the start of this year's "downhill" Comrades. On his way back in the dark from Laura's bus pickup location, Michael observed a gang of youths fighting on the Promenade. No one else was about.
Later that morning I walked down to the hotel restaurant and enjoyed a filling breakfast buffet for about 10 USD. Michael ate his second breakfast at the Ocean View Restaurant in the Elangeni.
After breakfast we departed the hotel and drove to Shongweni Rd. and Old Main Rd. in Hillcrest, as near as we could get to the approximate half-way point on the Comrades route to meet Laura as she passed.
Laura was carrying her cellphone and was running life360 in addition to the Comrades tracker app. We found life360 more helpful as it updated location every minute or so, while the Comrades tracker only updated when the Laura passed certain checkpoints along the course, although it calculated her projected finish time.
We didn't have long to wait before Laura appeared. She looked tired and slightly out of it. I was not surprised since she hadn't trained for this distance at all, running no more than 11 or 12 miles at a time in the weeks before the race. She paused briefly for a few photos before pressing on.
Michael and I returned to the hotel where we both took a jet-lag induced nap like lazy male lions while Laura ran on through the afternoon. A balmy breeze flowed in through my hotel room window as I drifted off to sleep. I fully expected her to take the full 12 hours to finish or to get a phone call to come collect her early.
I awoke with a chill. The sun had passed to the opposite side of the hotel, and a cool breeze flowed in from the ocean and now shady side of the building. I checked Laura's location and tracker. She had found a second wind and was now on track to finish in ten and a half hours! We didn't have long to get ourselves down to the finish line at the Sahara Stadium Kingsmead if we wanted to be there to greet her.
I called Michael to give him my report, and a few minutes later we were walking quickly to the stadium.
Entering the inner green required us to climb over a narrow set of slick metal steps that crossed the outer track. These steps had too shallow a tread and too high a step to be safe. They would not pass the building code in the USA, but Laura's refrain went again through my head, "This is Africa."
The inner green was packed with runners and their friends and family. We entered the International Tent, but it was too crowded to move about easily. All positions against the railing at the track were taken. I missed Laura's arrival, but Michael has his cellphone camera ready and snapped a couple of off-angle shots of Laura (1, 2) as she made her final few steps of her marathon.
We exited the claustrophobic International Tent and found Laura near the long bank of toilets. She looked completely spent. We sat with her for a few minutes before she was ready to stand and walk out of the stadium and back to the hotel. I felt uneasy with crowds at such a density that could result in a deadly stampede for the narrow and non-USA-code-conforming exit steps should an uncontrolled crowd have reason to panic. Laura felt similarly and wanted to leave the crowd as soon as she could stand and walk.
On our way out Laura paused to heave, but nothing came up. Her stomach was already empty. A moment later she felt well enough to move, and as soon as we cleared the stadium boundary and the crowds thinned out she looked much better, walking with renewed purpose back to the hotel.
After getting a shower, a massage, and an ice bath, Laura was ready to go to dinner. We went again to Daruma where Michael and I ate well, but Laura ate little, her appetite not yet having returned. Before leaving her for the evening, I gave her a few ibuprofen to help speed her muscle recovery.
She must have slept well in the night as the next morning we gathered for breakfast brunch at the Ocean View in the Elangeni and ate a hearty morning meal.
Durban to Phinda, May 30, 2016 - After enjoying one last hearty breakfast at the Ocean View buffet, we checked out of the hotel and were on the road shortly after 0900. Laura wanted us on the road by 0900 so that we could maximize our time at Phinda, the priciest phase of our trip, and partake in the afternoon game drive.
I sat in the front seat next to Michael while Laura set up office in the back seat, helping with directions and announcing other important facts about our destination and the communities we passed through.
We started our drive north on the N2, the major north-south motorway along the east coast of South Africa, paying a total of 62 Rand in road tolls, less than 5 USD. Near Durban this highway is like any interstate in the USA, except the speed limit is 120kph (75 mph) and the lanes narrower than would be found on a US interstate. At many of the highway junctions, people wait in the medians, some with their hands out in a hitchhiking gesture. We also saw pedestrians crossing the highway when a break in traffic occurred.
As the N2 continued northward, it reduced to one travel lane each direction with a generous shoulder. Due to frequent slow vehicle traffic, mostly lorries (trucks), an unwritten but pragmatic rule of the road has developed: if one notices faster traffic approaching from the rear, it is expected for you to move at least part way into the shoulder and drive there until the faster traffic has had the opportunity to pass. Then, if you are passing slower traffic, it is reasonable to expect opposite traffic to move into its shoulder, if necessary, to allow you to pass. The hazard of this approach is that quite often the shoulder is occupied by stopped vehicles, pedestrians, slower vehicles such as bicyclists, or debris, and it's critical to be aware of this if you expect traffic moving opposite to you to move into the shoulder to allow your safe pass.
Michael followed this rule as well as a native, although if I had been driving my cautious nature would have had us lingering behind a slower vehicle until there was no opposing traffic or until a pass fully on the left side of the centerline could be made.
The US State Department recommends tourists avoid driving in South Africa at night, and I can now see why.
I can also see why many South Africans ride share. The price of gas is tied to some extent to the dollar and does not appear to be subsidized in South Africa, costing local residents approximately 3.25 USD/gal.
Further north small bus shelters are placed next to the road near villages. These shelters are served by a local bus transit that used Toyota Hiace vans of the type I hadn't seen since I visited Asia 10 years earlier.
As we drove through the towns and villages north of Durban it became clear to me that South Africa includes both "first world" and "third world" environments, there being still a great disparity between the wealthy and the poor.
Out in the countryside roads turn quickly to dirt. Houses are mostly stone or modest wood frame with toilet buildings (outhouses) some distance from the main dwelling, suggesting no indoor plumbing. Yet in some neighbourhoods one might find amidst these primitive dwellings a modern McMansion-style house with modern windows and 2-car garage as one might find in a USA suburb.
In addition to the usual motor traffic one might expect on the N2 and the secondary road (R22) that we traveled, we saw many pedestrians, herds of domestic animals, usually cattle or goats, often accompanied by a shepherd carrying a long stick or flag, occasionally loose chickens, and young schoolchildren some of whom couldn't have been older than 9 or 10 years walking alongside the road more than a kilometer from the nearest junction. We exercised special care when passing animals, especially cattle, as they can be unpredictable and stubborn.
As we passed through the villages, people stared at us in our shiny rental car. This made Michael and Laura slightly uneasy, Laura adding, "They're frowning at us." I saw it more as a squinting in the glare reflecting off our windows to see who might be in the car, but I never felt threatened. I waved a few times, and roughly half the time one or more would wave back, sometimes tentatively.
Although black folks in South Africa have legitimate reason to be suspicious of the white minority who until 30 years ago relegated the non-white majority to second-class status, they seemed in their manner and interaction with us to be carrying less grievance than do African Americans in the USA. I suspect our being tourists visiting their country and spending money didn't hurt. Most of the staff at the rural lodges live in the nearby villages, and our visit provided a boost to their local economy.
On the other hand one characteristic of South Africa stood out to me: most of the properties in urban or suburban areas that suggested valuables might be within are fenced not with decorative fences or walls of the style we usually see in the USA to mark a boundary but by high walls or secure fences topped with barbed or razor wire designed to keep people out. Whether this was a style that persisted of habit after a period of strife or to satisfy current security fears was unclear to me.
In the USA black folks live mostly in urban and suburban areas and are seldom seen in rural areas, while in KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa the smaller villages and rural countryside is the domain of the black population.
When we arrived in Ekuseni we turned off onto D675 and headed for the Phinda Preserve entrance. D675 quickly turned to graded dirt. We turned right on D448 and continued for some distance to the gate of the preserve, whereupon we were directed by the gate keeper to our destination at the Vlei Lodge.
Phinda Game Reserve, May 30, 2016 - Upon arriving at the transfer location for Vlei Lodge, nothing more than a dusty cul-de-sac with one wooden bench, we met a staffer from the lodge holding a plate of moist towels. We were instructed to leave the car unlocked, and queried about whose luggage was whose. A valet would park our car, and our bags would be taken to our rooms. All this seemed unexpectedly formal and solicitous for what appeared to me thus far to be a dusty and primitive safari camp. (Since Laura had handled all of the reservations I hadn't done much research on Phinda before our visit.)
We complied and after toweling off made our way to the comfortable main lodge a short distance away through the trees. At the lodge we were met by its manager, Seskia, who held a tray of drinks for us. She showed us over to the lodge deck and invited us to sit on the sofas that enjoyed a sweeping view of the vlei while she gave us an orientation, had us each sign a liability waiver, and asked if there was any special food or meal we wished to eat during our visit.
We learned that we would be the only guests of the lodge for our first night, a rare treat.
After our orientation she showed us to a table on the deck that had been set for three where we would enjoy our luncheon. Everything had been prepared for our arrival. I was impressed.
We sat while Jabu brought out a delicious light lunch buffet that was the right amount of food for us given that we had eaten a hearty breakfast and had been sitting in a car for the last 5 hours.
After lunch we were shown our bungalows that featured a free-standing tub, separate shower room, outdoor plunge pool (unheated), deck with two chaise longues, four-poster king sized bed with mosquito netting, and separate rooms for the toilet and changing clothes. Everything was spotlessly clean.
I was in Number 5 while Laura and Michael were in Number 6. Our bungalows built with dark-stained eucalyptus and thatched roof in the traditional style of the Zulu people were designed with wildlife viewing in mind. The walls facing the deck and the vlei were sliding glass doors with screens that could also be shuttered from the inside for privacy.
I was advised by Jabu to drink the bottled water provided at the bathroom sink and in the well-stocked bar refrigerator (where all drinks and snacks were included in the lodging price), that while the tap water pumped from "a bore" was "not poison, the minerals will make you ill if you drink much."
Seskia recommended we sleep with the windows open but the screen closed so we could hear the night sounds. On the first night I tried this, but the late fall/early winter season of our visit was a little too cold at night to leave the windows open and remain comfortable.
After we had settled in we met again at the lodge at 1530 for the afternoon/evening game drive where we met our ranger, Dylan Royal. He asked what animals we wished to see, and we rattled off the usual list with no particular preference.
With that we set off to the transfer area where an open air jeep and Mr. T, our tracker, were waiting.
We headed out toward the northeast corner of the preserve, the part of the preserve that had been a former pineapple plantation and was becoming an open grassland of the kind that seemed to attract the most wildlife.
On the way we heard trumpeting elephants in the forest nearby and waited for them to cross the road in front of us as we headed out to the area where most big game are spotted.
Elephants have the first right-of-way and are given the most deference on the preserve. It was a treat to see a wild herd of elephant on the move as is their nature. When we arrived at the grassland area we could see in the distance, wildebeest, cape buffalo, and giraffe, their long light-colored necks sticking above the dark thorny acacia trees like loading cranes at some distant harbor. Nearer we could see the dark shape of a white rhinoceros with an intact horn nearly as long as its head—Phinda is in the process of removing all of their rhinos' horns to discourage poaching. Also spotted in the grass nearby was a baby rhinoceros.
As darkness began to fall over the land, we stopped to exit the jeep while Dylan and Mr. T set up a snack table with drinks. This was the only moment on our trip when we were aware of mosquitos, although they did not seem to be hungry. They just buzzed around us in the still air of dusk.
As darkness fell we watched the stars of the southern sky brighten above us. When it was nearly dark we headed back to the lodge where a fire had been lit in the fireplace and the bar was open.
After a brief happy hour we took our seats at the long dining room table for dinner. It was clear we weren't going to go hungry during our stay at Phinda. Although I felt strangely guilty at first having the entire lodge staff waiting on us like royalty, I decided to enjoy the experience for the rare opportunity that it was.
As dinner ended we learned that the morning game drive left at 0630 as mornings and evenings were the best times to observe the animals.
After dinner we returned to our rooms escorted by Oscar with his bright flashlight. We also were advised that under no circumstances were we to leave the lodge or our bungalow at night unescorted. Wild animals were free to roam anywhere within the preserve. Later we learned that the only fatality at the preserve occurred shortly after the preserve opened in the early 1990s when a guest returned to her room unescorted at night and came upon a lion in her path. Since then all guests have been escorted at night.
When I returned to my bungalow I saw that a turn-down service had been provided. My first night at Phinda, my fourth night in South Africa, was the first time on the trip that I slept well through the night.
I was up a half-hour before our wake-up call so that I had time to do my morning exercises. At 0630 the sky was light, so I walked over to the lodge unescorted and met Dylan and the lodge staff who had set out a small early breakfast snack and drinks. As soon as Laura and Michael appeared we headed off on our first morning drive.
Again we proceeded in the direction of the open grassland area. We paused along the border fence to study a tunnel that had been dug under the fence. Wild dogs or hyena had passed under the fence at night. Laura had wanted to see wild dogs, but Dylan told us that might be difficult as they are reclusive.
We proceeded to the grassy area. In the cold morning air I donned all of my clothes, including my chartreuse shell. At first I worried I'd stand out too much and attract large predators, but Dylan reassured me that I looked less like food and more like a poisonous bug.
Then Dylan heard over the radio that the local lion pride had just brought down a wildebeest. We took a direct route to the location and spent some time along with other rangers and Phinda guests (who were staying at a different lodge within the preserve) watching the lions finish killing and then commencing to dine on a wildebeest. One of the women in the other jeep turned her head away.
As the lions ate their fill they wandered off one by one to clean themselves and digest their meal. When we had seen enough we drove some distance away and stopped to set up the traditional snack and drink table while we chatted about what we had seen.
After our break we went in search of a lone cheetah that had been observed nearby. After some searching for the exact location, Dylan parked the jeep about 40 feet away from a cheetah lying low in the grass. At one point it raised its head to gaze impassively at us before flopping back down to enjoy its late morning nap.
When it was clear the cheetah would provide no further entertainment we drove back to the lodge to enjoy a full breakfast buffet.
After breakfast I had some slack time to relax on the deck of my bungalow and watch wildlife wander by. But my relaxation was short-lived.
Laura had apparently recovered sufficiently from running The Comrades that she wanted to do a short run. I don't know where she gets her energy. Since she couldn't wander on the preserve roads unescorted even in daylight, Dylan offered to escort her on a run through the Sand Forest. Michael joined her, and I followed along with Dylan in the jeep as we proceeded through the rare and beautiful sand forest of Phinda.
After her run we stopped at the Forest Lodge to check out the facility and to buy some mementos in the gift shop.
We returned to Vlei Lodge as we could hear elephants trumpeting in the forest between us and the lodge. Dylan suspected the herd may be returning to the plunge pools of Numbers 5 and 6 for a drink. He drove a little faster so that we might return in time to see them. As we arrived we could see that the herd had just finished drinking at our pools and was already moving toward the far side of the vlei. Number 6 was the most popular judging from the amount of elephant dung on the vlei nearby and the "zoo water" color of its water.
We decided to wait at our rooms a bit longer as Dylan told us the bull elephants often follow the herd some distance behind and had yet to take their drink. It didn't take long for a lone bull to stride quickly to the edge of the pool at Number 6 and take its afternoon drink.
After witnessing a wild elephant from close-up, and after we were sure the elephants had returned into the forest, we walked over to the main lodge to enjoy lunch. Lunch was excellent, and just the right amount of food.
As I was eating my lunch, Laura sitting across from me, began to shout, "Oh, oh, oh!" Just then I felt something furry brush up against my left arm, and before I knew it my bread roll that had been perched on a small plate at the edge of the table was gone. One of the bold vervet monkeys had taken advantage of my inattention to steal my roll. Afterward we could hear the other monkeys squabbling over it in the nearby trees. Laura thought the monkey might beg at the table like a dog, so she did not alert me in a way that gave me sufficient warning to grab my roll or my camera to record the caper. And she was too busy hooting like a primate to whip out her iPhone and do likewise. We all had a good laugh about it afterward.
After lunch we returned to our bungalows to relax for less than an hour, then met again at the lodge at 1530 for the evening game drive.
As before we headed to the northeast corner of the preserve where we observed zebra, wildebeest, and giraffe. Word came over the radio that a Cheetah with kittens had been spotted near the eastern edge of the preserve boundary. We spent some time observing mom and kittens looking for a safe and comfortable spot to bed down for the night.
While we were watching the cheetah, the radio crackled to life again. This time the guests who had arrived that afternoon but too late to catch the start of the afternoon game drive were ready to join us. There were being driven from the lodge, but we would have to drive some distance back to collect them.
After newlyweds, Max and Sarah, transfered to our jeep and we made the round of introductions, we headed back to the mother cheetah and her kittens before it was too dark to see them. After enjoying another good look at them, we returned to a quiet spot to enjoy an evening snack and drink as stars appeared in the darkening southern sky.
Our drive back to the lodge in complete darkness took a road we hadn't driven before. We spotted an African hare, and along the road westward we overtook the local lion pride's dominant male who was out on his own marking his territory, stopping to spray bushes by the road every 20-30 meters.
The great lion's belly was full and swayed side to side as he walked. He occasionally farted, and as we were following we got to enjoy the odor. He was unfazed by our lights and duly continued his marking without breaking stride.
After some time we came to a junction and turned left, while "Simba" continued straight on the road into the darkness.
When we arrived back at the lodge we discovered that preparations had been made for a dinner outdoors on the vlei itself. We visited the bar in the lodge to enjoy a short happy hour, meeting a family from Colorado Springs who had just flown in that afternoon (and who like they had been traveling for the last 36 hours) and would be occupying the remaining vacancies at the lodge.
On the vlei torches had been placed in a circle around two long tables that had been set up with a wine bar in the center. Staff brought our meals from the kitchen. Although dinner al fresco was a nice touch, I couldn't get out of my mind the knowledge that Simba was heading in the general direction of our dinner party, there being no fences or defences other than our lights to keep him at bay should he burst into our midst. Talk around the table was light, but I noticed Oscar occasionally shining his bright flashlight out over the vlei to watch "for glowing eyes", as he told us later. Fortunately, he saw none during our dinner.
That evening I slept soundly again, rising at 0530 so I had time to do all my morning routine before reporting to the lodge for our morning game drive.
Again we headed out to the grasslands, stopping to inspect the tracks of hyenas that had passed beneath the perimeter fence during the night. We had hoped to see an elusive leopard on our visit, but that was not to be. Apparently, not even the rangers can keep constant track of the leopard's whereabouts. But, we did get word that the lion pride were resting on the old dam at the western end of the grassland area, so we headed there to get good photos of them.
The rangers are most cautious around elephants, hippopotamus, cape buffalo, and black rhino, as they have been known to charge the jeeps and can be unpredictable. Although lions are fearsome predators, their behavior can be more easily read and predicted. "They're like big house cats," says Dylan. The lions do not see prey when they see a vehicle with people inside, and as long as we stay seated in the vehicle we appear as one large piece of furniture on the landscape.
As we approached the lions Mr. T left his seat on point and took a seat in the jeep with the rest of us.
It was while I tried to hold this rational explanation of lion behavior in mind that Dylan maneuvered the jeep to within 20 feet of the lions as they lounged atop the dam and came down to the small lake within its basin to drink.
One juvenile male lion walked past the jeep and plopped down onto the ground less than ten feet behind us. As I reached my arm out the side of the jeep to snap its photo, Laura hissed into my ear, "Bill, don't!". Laura was nervous with the lions so close. "Well, if they knew we were here, they could just reach in and grab us.", she explained later.
As we prepared to move on, one of the mature lionesses caught motion in her eye and began to stalk. We drove out of the lake bed and onto the dam itself to see what might have caught her attention.
It was a warthog sniffing around the edge of the meadow. Watching through binoculars I could see that the warthog was on the far side of a termite mound and upwind of the lions so was not aware of the lioness's approach until she was nearly upon him. One of the juvenile males became enthusiastic and almost gave away the element of surprise, but the warthog's attention was on the ground in front of him.
The lioness crept to within 15 feet of the warthog on the opposite side of a low termite mound, then in a flash she was upon him in one long pounce, catching him between her two great front claws. The other lions quickly gathered around, not quite knowing what to do.
This may have been a teaching moment for the younger lions in the pride. She released her grip slightly on the warthog as it struggled and squealed piteously, swinging its tusks wildly in desperation. But instead of applying a fatal bite, the young lions recoiled in surprise, and the warthog slipped free!
But, it was not unscathed. One of the enthusiastic male juveniles had already started nibbling at the warthog's exposed soft bits. I silently gasped and instinctively pulled my legs together.
The warthog ran off down the road a couple hundred meters then dashed into the brush, blood streaming between its hind legs. The lions gave a half-hearted chase, but stopped short of entering the brush. They were not hungry this time.
My initial reaction was to feel like a helpless witness to this appalling scene, as a spectator to blood sport, the warthog merely going about its day grubbing for a meal almost becoming one itself, then escaping minus a pair of its vitals. It all seemed less fair than the scene with the lions and the wildebeest from yesterday. Whether it was the size difference between the animals or that the wildebeest had already been subdued by the time we came upon the scene, or that the lions did not appear to be especially hungry or in need of a meal this time, I am not sure why I had a different reaction today. I reminded myself that as long as lions and other predators live in the wild, scenes like this occur every day unwitnessed by humans. We humans who live in the modern world are shielded from the brutality of life in the wild.
Dylan, our ranger, reminded us that even sated lions will go after easy prey, that they're "very greedy".
Aroused by the hunt the frustrated lions looked around, alert for any sign of the warthog. The ranger in another jeep nearby played back a video of the event on his camera that featured the audible squealing of the poor thing. The lions all perked up their ears and headed toward the squealing sound, which was in our direction. Laura was not happy with that ranger.
But there was no warthog, only the large metal jeeps.
The lions turned and walked the other direction toward a mother rhinoceros and her baby. This time mom lifted her head and with surprising agility positioned herself between the lions and her baby as if to say, "If you want my baby you have to get past this!", and put her sharp horn front and center.
The lions immediately lost interest, then turned to find a shady spot to rest. We left them as they gathered under a small bit of shade with a view of the grassland.
We retreated some distance from the lions before taking our break, after which we returned to the Lodge.
Back at the lodge we enjoyed a hearty breakfast buffet while we watched a family of baboons crossing the vlei. The cheeky vervet monkey who had stolen my roll at lunch yesterday was afoot, and Michael and his slingshot were nowhere nearby. The monkeys run at the mere sight of the slingshot. I got up and stared down the vervet who appeared to have every intent on stealing another morsel off our buffet from right under our noses. The monkey scampered off into a tree nearby, but he continued to watch us intently. These smart monkeys know an easy meal when they see it. When Jabu came out to clean up I pointed out our uninvited guest in the tree and suggested she attempt to take all the leftovers back into the kitchen in one trip, if possible.
After breakfast we said our goodbyes to Dylan, Max, Sarah, and the other family who had arrived the prior evening and to whom we had not spoken since then as they had been assigned a different ranger for their game drives. We returned to our rooms to pack up, then we reported back to the lodge while our rental car was delivered to the transfer area and our bags packed into the car, the final bill including tips was settled, and a parting photo was taken. We said our final goodbyes, and departed Phinda.
Phinda was a highlight of our trip. The accommodations and staff were all first-class, and the cook(s) excellent: not one off meal during our stay.
Although we enjoyed our visit to Phinda, Laura and I had one lingering thought: Phinda Preserve is completely fenced with an electric fence to keep most of the animals within. Although it was obvious that the animal displays were un-staged, no one in the bushes was releasing animals on cue to "appear for us", we both wondered if the density of game in the park is held higher than would occur naturally so that guests had a high likelihood of a satisfying visit. We did see all but the wild dogs, hyenas, hippopotamus, and leopard, and that was in less than 48 hours.
Phinda to Thonga Beach, June 1, 2016 - We departed Phinda with sufficient but not excessive time to make the one and a half to two hour drive to the Coastal Cashew car park and catch the last shuttle of the day to Thonga Beach Lodge.
Along the way we played the "gas game", a heated discussion over whether we should get petrol (gas) before we reached Coastal Cashews. In the end we decided we had enough in the tank to get to Coastal Cashews and back to Mbazwane (the last petrol station on our northbound route) on our return drive and that arriving at Coastal Cashews before the shuttle departure time was more critical. Missing the shuttle meant we had to return to Phinda (which other than cost was not an unpleasant proposition), return to Richards Bay (a long drive in the direction of Durban), or to find local lodging for the night, which was not recommended by Thonga Beach Lodge. I thought we had enough petrol to get back to Hluluwe after our visit to Thonga Beach, but both Michael and Laura dismissed that idea.
After passing through Ekuseni, Mbazwana, Mseleni, and a section of Isimangaliso Wetlands Park (through which travel on the road by foot or bicycle was prohibited, probably due to the presence of dangerous animals) we arrived at D1849, the secondary road that would take us to Coastal Cashews.
We turned right and began a short trip on a washboard dirt road. A few kilometers later we came upon the Coastal Cashews facility.
Thonga Beach, June 1, 2016 - Aftering entering the Coast Cashews facility under an archway where a woman inside the attached office directed us to park around back to await the Thonga Beach shuttle. We asked about using a toilet and were given a key to the toilet on the far side of the facility.
We found the toilet in an unassuming cinderblock building behind the main garage. Animal dung was lying around the toilet building, and a prior user of the toilet had, unfortunately, carelessly tracked some of this into the room itself. Michael was not impressed. Yet, in spite of this, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the toilet had running water and a decent supply of soap, paper, towels, and a lonely flower placed in a small vase on a shelf within. It was clear that in spite of the tracked animal dung some effort had been directed toward maintaining this toilet for guests of Thonga Beach Lodge.
Fifteen minutes later the Thonga Beach Shuttle, a covered but open-air 4wd pickup or jeep adapted for carrying three rows of seated passengers—no seatbelts—remember, "This is Africa."—in the rear bed, appeared. Two other parties were also schedule to be on this shuttle, Digby and Jennifer from Cape Town, and an English-speaking couple from Luxembourg whose names I don't recall. The Luxembourg couple arrived a few minutes before we were scheduled to depart for Thonga Beach, and the woman was concerned there would be insufficient space for all of us, our luggage, and a wooden duck she carried, a memento she had bought elsewhere on her holiday. But somehow Sthembiso, our driver, managed to fit all of us and our luggage into this jeep.
I noticed that only one latch of the rear gate was functional, so I sat directly in front of my suitcase and kept an eye on our luggage lest any item be lost on the rough dirt road. My suitcase sat at the outside atop the rearmost seat, and as we traveled the bumpy road I noticed that it was at risk of sliding or bouncing off the rear, so I kept my hand on it. Apparently, even Sthembiso was concerned about losing our luggage as he stopped once after we had forded a few mud bogs along the way to check that we hadn't lost anything. Fortunately, no one's luggage had been ejected into the mud.
Most of the trip was on a road through large groves of logged eucalyptus, a road that deteriorated the further we got from Coastal Cashews. Most of the wood structures in the area are made from fast-growing eucalyptus or gum tree that are cut when their trunks are about 20-30cm in diameter.
As we approached the village of Mabibi we entered an area of grass and jungle-covered dunes and the graded dirt road gave way to a rough dual-track that became steeper and sandier as we started across the final high forested sand dunes above Thonga Beach. Even with a rental 4wd SUV I would have been leery of any of us trying to drive this road and was happy to let someone with local experience do the driving, even if the vehicle was barely able to contain us and our luggage.
Our final approach into the Lodge was a descent so steep that Sthembiso had to put the vehicle into 4wd "lo", and that logs had been placed across the road to provide sufficient traction.
Upon our arrival we were given the by now customary warm wet towel and a drink while our bags were taken to our rooms. We were then given a short tour of the grounds, including a short stop at the dining room where high tea was set out, before we retired to our rooms to unpack and clean up for dinner which was served a couple hours after dark at 1930. The schedule at the 20-guest capacity Thonga Beach Lodge was more laid-back than at Phinda, and meals were served on a later schedule. After the full schedule at Phinda we were looking forward to having some additional slack time to relax and explore on our own
Laura and Michael had been assigned Number 3 and I had been assigned Number 12, some distance away. Each room was a detached round hut with straw roof and a combination of straw, wood, and curved sheetrock walls. Our rooms had a nice sweeping view, mine of the forest, and Laura and Michael's of the forest and distant ocean. Each room had dual sinks, a deep bathtub, and separate toilet and shower rooms. As at Phinda half of the interior space was devoted to the bathroom.
Before dinner the three of us walked the beach at sunset. Thonga Beach was long, broad, and flat, which made for easy walking on the damp sand at the water's edge. The tide was still ebbing and near its low, so there was lots of flat damp sand.
We walked almost a mile north in the balmy air as the glow of sunset faded to black before we turned back. We saw no one else on this remote beach. Laura wondered how many Comrades ultra-marathons she'd have to walk before reaching the Mozambique border. (It's a little more than one). Although most of South Africa lies south of the Tropic of Capricorn, Thonga Beach at the northeastern corner of the country and next to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean is considered subtropical with mild seasons.
After sunset darkness closes relatively quickly. Although our eyes adjusted to the darkening skies, I was surprised how dark it became on this moonless night after the sun had set.
Looking out to sea we could see distant lights. I knew we were too far from Madagascar to see any lights along its sparsely-populated southwestern shore, and the lights did not move as they might were they from a large ocean-going vessel. A stationary fishing vessel was our best guess.
As we returned to our starting point I could just make out the wooden deck structure that marked the main beach access point.
With the late dinner seating I had time to shower and dress for the occasion. Although the lodge had a small dining room, guests were served outside under candlelight on a large deck adjacent to the small dining room that probably gets used only when the weather is damp. The temperature was mild and humid, warmer than at Phinda, but not muggy or stifling, and the atmosphere relaxed. Other guests spoke in hushed voices while staff quietly moved about.
After dinner we returned to the deck at the main beach access, and lying atop beach towels we gazed for a short while at the southern night sky. Although the stars overhead were bright and I saw a few shooting starts, clarity was lost as our gaze moved toward the horizon due to the humid air.
Just after we rose and started back to our rooms other guests came down the walkway and might have trodden on us splayed out on the deck had they come a minute earlier.
While Laura and Michael rose early the next morning to go snorkeling, I lingered in bed to get a full night's sleep. Then I rose in time to enjoy an ample hot breakfast buffet.
While Michael decided to catch up on some R&R (reading and relaxation) at the beach, Laura had scheduled a late-morning outing to visit the Mabibi Community, where most of the lodge staff live. Although I had wanted a less scheduled day at Thonga, I decided at the last minute to join her.
At the family compound we learned that the round houses were built for the ancestors but were not lived in. A niche in the outside wall of one of the houses was used to hold the family cell phone in a location where its ringing could be heard throughout the compound. Laura purchased a small carved turtle from one of the local artists. Although the baskets looked beautiful, they would be difficult to carry all the way home.
At the medical facility we toured the building, but it did not appear to be ready to receive patients, the rooms being used for storage. Sthembiso told us that the interior was being painted, but we saw no painters. Laura was suspicious that more than the intended government funds may be finding their way into auxiliary facilities, such as the lodgings for the "nurse sister" who runs the place and other permanent staff who live in modern houses within the guarded compound.
We visited the school during exam week, which meant that students did not hold a regular class schedule. Most of the students we saw were playing the schoolyard.
Both the medical facility and the school were surrounded by barbed wire fencing, the medical facility being actively guarded. It was difficult for me to imagine that crime was a big problem as we were at least 15 miles from the nearest paved road, and like most small villages, everyone knows everyone else. Yet, Sthembiso told us that recently the school had been burgled of its computer hardware. I then recalled that all of the establishments we had visited had at least been monitored by guards or doormen, even the rough road into Thonga Beach was guarded and gated.
We returned to the Lodge in time to enjoy a quick lunch before my forest walk. One other guest, Jennifer from Cape Town, joined me on the Forest Walk, while Thulani was our guide.
We started into the jungle just off one of the lodge's beach access paths. Clearance was low in the jungle for someone tall, then the trail climbed steeply to the top of the dune before plunging again to the beach below. Featured on our walk were a variety of vines, Milkwood trees, fruit trees, open grassland at the top of the dune, a fire ant nest that looked like a spider's nest, and occasional glimpses of vervet monkeys that were a tad more shy at Thonga than they had been at Phinda.
We returned to the lodge along the beach, after which we had just enough time to report for the Sundowner trip to Lake Sibaya. Fortunately, Thulani was also leading us on that trip, so even though our Forest Walk finished late, we did not miss this worthwhile trip to the freshwater Lake Sibaya on the inland side of the dune.
Perhaps because we started late, Thulani drove quickly on the rough roads through Mabibi, past a group playing soccer on a darkening field near the high water mark of the lake, and out to the dry edge of the lake where we watched a beautiful sunset to the west over the lake while listening to the distant snorting of the hippopotami bathing in the lake that sounded like intonations on some great contrabassoon.
Thulani told us that at night the hippopotami leave the lake to graze at its shore. It is dangerous to venture out on foot at night in Mabibi for fear of encountering an ill-tempered hippo. They are one of the few animals that will charge someone shining a flashlight in their direction, and they can bite a person in two with their great jaws.
After sunset we returned to the lodge, passing the group still playing soccer in near darkness.
We had time to shower and change for dinner, but this time I was unable to coax hot water from my tap. My desire to wash the day's sweat, dust, sunscreen, and mosquito repellent off was stronger than my aversion to a cold shower, and Laura's refrain played again, "This is Africa."
I figured a trip to Africa wouldn't be complete without an unexpected cold shower, so I plunged in and showered in spite of this shortcoming. Fortunately, the cold water was not too cold, probably around 17-18C, and as always after a cold shower, after I finished and while I toweled off, I felt warmer. At dinner I wore my light jacket in the balmy evening air as I was still a bit chilled after my shower.
I figure there must have been a snafu in the kitchen that evening, perhaps connected to my missing hot water. Between appetizers and the serving of the main course elapsed an interval of a half-hour. Meanwhile staff were rushing about with an urgency inconsistent with the smiles on their faces. I couldn't help but think of the Fawlty Towers episode, "Gourmet Night". At last the main course arrived.
Laura and I had ordered the vegan dish, but it was a strange affair: an admixture of potato and/or hummus or something with similar flavor and consistency topped with both spicy tomato sauce and pesto sauce, a little of everything it seemed. It was edible, but the flavors did not at all go well together in the same dish. But, to the chef's credit I slept well that evening.
The next morning Michael and Laura rose early and ran several kilometers north along the beach, catching a colorful sunrise behind a mixture of tropical clouds. Meanwhile I rose slightly later but well before breakfast to enjoy a short dip to my knees in the Indian Ocean. I couldn't travel halfway around the world only to regret later that I did not dip a limb into the Indian Ocean. The water temperature was slightly warmer than room temperature, although I felt that had I fully-immersed myself I would eventually have chilled. I thought I had been alone on the beach, but apparently Jennifer from Cape Town saw me—where had she been hiding?
We all met at 0830 for a full breakfast. Then we packed up our things and caught the regularly scheduled 1030 shuttle back to Coastal Cashews. Upon arriving back at our rental car, we said our goodbyes to Sthembiso (our driver), and began our long drive south to Umhlanga Rocks.
Thonga Beach to Umhlanga Rocks, June 3, 2016 - As we left Coastal Cashews and began our long drive south toward Umhlanga Rocks our first discussion centered around stopping for petrol in Mbazwana. According to the car's computer our range was 1 km short of reaching Hluhluwe, the larger town on the N2, but although we had no tight deadline at our destination, neither Laura nor Michael were in a mood to see if the computer was slightly underestimating our range as I suspected.
When we arrived in Mbazwana Michael deftly maneuvered our rental car through the chaos surrounding the Engen station. As we approached the pumps an attendant asked, "Diesel or petrol?"
"Petrol.", Michael answered.
We were guided to a pump at the far island. We remained in the car while the attendant filled our tank.
After paying our 580 Rand and getting us back onto the R22 we resumed our southerly drive, crossing through the Isimangaliso Wetlands Park, and passing the villages of Mseleni, Ekuseni near Phinda, and Hluluwe, after which we headed south on N2.
Today must have been "water day" in Mseleni as we saw many people rolling blue 200-liter plastic drums to and from public water spigots near their homes.
The trip south on N2 was much like the trip north. We paused three times to pay road tolls, a total of 62 Rand, we got caught up in a couple of construction-related traffic jams, and many times we overtook slower truck traffic in the style I described earlier.
As we drew nearer our destination traffic thickened, and the driving became more difficult. I offered to relieve Michael of the driving, but by this point stopping to switch drivers would have been inconvenient. We were only about 20 minutes from Umhlanga Rocks, so Michael pressed on. But, it was clear he was reaching his tolerance limit for driving in South Africa.
Some heated discussion arose about where we would eat dinner that evening. Michael wanted to eat at Mali's Indian Restaurant in Durban, but we'd need to drive or hire a car to get us there from Umhlanga Rocks. After our long drive none of us wanted to make another drive into Durban at night and back, and hiring a driver seemed an extravagance, not to mention the extra time required.
Laura had changed our lodging from the Fairmont Zimbale Beach to Teremok Marine shortly before our trip departure in an effort to try something new that might offer a better overall value than the touristy Fairmont resort that, Michael reminded Laura more than once, featured a restaurant with good curries.
While we were still uncertain where we would be dining that evening, Laura used her phone's GPS-aided directions to guide us to the entrance gate for Teremok Marine, the day's destination and lodge for our last night in South Africa, where we were met by the manager on duty who directed us to an available parking spot near the front door and welcomed us to this boutique hotel.
Umhlanga Rocks, June 3, 2016 - After making our introductions to the manager and hotel staff, we were shown our rooms. The three of us were in rooms on the top floor of the establishment. Laura and Michael were assigned a nice suite with a spacious balcony, and I was next door in the "Juliet" room with a tiny decorative balcony but an enormous bathroom equal in area to the bedroom.
The Juliet room was decorated with a decidedly feminine accent. I felt a little like Paul Hogan's character must have felt in Crocodile Dundee as he stood before the bidet while I surveyed the decorations in my room. But, I'm certainly not complaining. The bed was large and comfortable, the shower felt good after our long drive, and the internet service was the fastest and most reliable yet we had enjoyed on our trip.
As our dinner location was still an open question, I suggested we try one of the local restaurants in Umhlanga Rocks that another guest at Thonga Beach Lodge had recommended, Little Havana, located only a few blocks from our hotel. The manager at Teremok volunteered that someone from the hotel could drive us to Little Havana and return to collect us afterward, that it was only a few blocks away. That made our dinner decision easy.
An hour and a half later we met in the lounge and each enjoyed a small glass of port or sherry—I tried the port. Then we were driven to Little Havana.
Our meal at Little Havana was good, and certainly the price was right. I opted for more of a comfort food selection of side orders from the menu: steamed veggies, baked potato, rice, and salad. I didn't want to experiment with my diet the day before I was going to be traveling for the next 36 hours. Laura and Michael each enjoyed their meals.
After finishing our dinner, Laura rang the hotel, and soon our driver appeared as we waited by the curb in front of the restaurant and whisked us back to the hotel.
That night I spent some time catching up on email and phoning home before I turned off my light around 2230 local time.
The next morning I was up early before the serving of hot breakfast in the dining room. I decided to go down anyways and check out the cold breakfast selections. The woman behind the counter had just finished serving another customer, and I asked if I was too early for the hot breakfast. She told me she could make me something even though it was a little early. So, I remained in the dining room and ate my customary large breakfast.
By the time Laura and Michael arrived to eat I was finishing up. Laura suggested I take a walk up the promenade along the beach and back.
I walked the promenade from Durban View Park to the Pier. As I was standing at the end of the Pier taking individual frames of a panorama photo, Laura appeared. Together we continued north to the end of the promenade and then onto the trail through the Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Preserve. We did not explore the nature trail to its end as Laura had to return to the hotel for a spa treatment appointment, and she didn't want to be late.
Instead of returning on the Promenade we walked south on the beach. Near the lighthouse Laura decided she had to walk faster than my pace, so she returned to the boardwalk while I continued on the beach as far as Durban View Park.
Once back at the hotel, I started to gather my things and pack some, then took one last shower before starting my long travel home. As I was getting dressed the phone rang. Brigitte, the manager that day, asked if I was aware that check-out was at 1100. I said I was but that Laura had arranged for us to check out at 1300. Time was about noon.
"Oh, that was only for her room.", Brigitte replied. "We need to prepare the Juliet Room as our next guest has arrived early." A tone of desperation entered her voice.
"Can you give me ten minutes to finish packing?", I asked. "If you don't mind I can wait in the lounge until Laura is finished with her massage." I was slightly irritated that this change of plan had not been communicated to me earlier, but I was glad I had already finished my shower.
"Oh, that would be great!", she sighed in relief.
So, I quickly packed my stuff and brought it downstairs to the lounge. Michael joined me 20 minutes later.
"Would you like anything, tea perhaps? I'm just about to make some for myself," Brigitte asked as I waited in the lounge. Perhaps she felt a little guilty for not letting me remain in my room, but I took her up on the offer.
"Do you have any rooibos tea?", I asked.
Rooibos tea is popular in South Africa, and Laura recommended I try some.
"Of course.", she replied.
A few minutes later she brought out a small tray holding a cup, saucer, and a small pot of steeping rooibos tea.
Forty minutes later Laura emerged from the spa, and we settled the hotel bill, left tips for the staff, and started our long journey home.
Inbound Travel, June 4, 2016 - Our first air flight segment departed King Shaka International Airport north of Durban at 1535 local time, so we resolved to leave Teremok at 1300 so we'd have time to fill the rental car with petrol before surrendering it at the airport. Although we left Teremok a half-hour late, our schedule had some slack.
While we were filling the car with petrol I noticed a poster in the window of the next door auto shop for Pedego, an e-bike manufacturer based in southern California. It seemed strange to see a dealer for these bikes so far from California, about as far from its headquarters as one can get and still be on the surface of Earth. Even though I saw no one riding a bicycle, e- or otherwise in Umhlanga Rocks, the location of the dealership, a tourist beach town, was not inappropriate.
We then proceeded directly to the airport and found the rental car drop-off zone.
I secured a luggage cart, and we then unloaded the car, inspecting to make sure we hadn't left anything valuable. The only thing we had to leave were the two 5-liter jugs of water we had brought with us in the car.
We stopped at the car rental counter where Michael settled the bill and to confirm that he wasn't going to be overcharged.
We continued into the spacious airport terminal to the departures counter where we checked our bags for the short flight to Johannesburg.
After checking our bags we proceeded upstairs to the quiet South African Airways departure lounge where we took our last group photo before boarding our full flight to Johannesburg.
Laura, who had bought her last-minute first-class ticket at the start of our trip, was seated alone at the window in seats that looked just like the usual economy seats. For her extra ticket price I was told she got a slightly better snack than the rest of us in the back of the plane.
I was seated in a window seat next to a quiet Indian couple, who carried South African ID. The woman was sitting in the middle seat, but after I took my seat, the man took the middle seat. They did not speak to me the entire flight.
As we lifted off the runway, my seat on the left side of the plane had a good view back toward Durban and the coastline as we banked and turned inland. As we descended to land in Johannesburg I noticed that Johannesburg is a city of immense sprawl; neighbourhoods and townships radiate out from the city center for many kilometers. Some neighbourhoods looked nice, others more primitive. I could see that almost all individual houses were walled off from the street and from each other.
After exiting the plane at O.R. Tambo International Airport we walked directly to the baggage claim area to retrieve our checked bags before re-checking them on the international flight segments. After we located a baggage cart, our bags issued one by one from the small door on the moving beltway.
We then proceeded across the ground level of the terminal to a bank of lifts that would take us to the departures counter. On the way we fended off offers of transport or other assistance from men standing near the doorway to the arrivals zone outside the terminal building.
As we proceeded through the crowded departures area, Laura disclosed that a security alert had been issued for Americans visiting Cape Town and Johannesburg. (Later I checked the US State Department web site and could find no mention of any security alert for South Africa, so I wonder if she was joking.)
We proceeded to the check-in counters for our respective airlines. I was traveling on Virgin Atlantic, while Laura and Michael had managed to secure a business class upgrade on SwissAir in exchange for a somewhat less direct itinerary through Zurich and London, with a rather tight one hour connection in Zurich, although no worry if Swiss planes are as prompt as their trains. I would be connecting once through London with a four and half hour layover.
I checked my suitcase and carried my pack and laptop bag while Laura and Michael checked in for their flight. There was no queue for my flight as I was about three hours early, but Laura and Michael's flight was scheduled to depart in two hours, so their queue was longer.
I managed to get through the next checkpoint at Passport Control before them. I waited on the far side for them to be let through.
The three of us then went to the South African Airways lounge to eat a snack and relax before our long overnight flights.
At the lounge entrance our plans hit a snag when the attendant at the entry disallowed me into the lounge since my flight was not on a Star Alliance carrier. But, after some hemming and hawing, he relented and let me pass.
The lounge was busy; almost every seat was taken. We found a group of seats in the corner near a window and the food bar. Then we browsed for our snacks and drinks while checking last-minute emails and charging our phones and laptops.
It wasn't long before Laura and Michael had to leave the lounge to walk to the gate for their flight. This would be the last time I saw either of them before arriving home. We said our goodbyes, and they were off.
I relaxed for another 45 minutes, then stopped by the toilet one last time before exiting the lounge and proceeding to the gate for my flight to London.
When I arrived at the gate a long queue had formed, but no passengers were being admitted. I took a short stroll through the nearby terminal area next to the duty-free shops to work off mounting stress, and when I returned, the queue had grown longer. A Virgin-Atlantic representative came through the crowd to apologize for the delay, due, she said, to extra security checks. Maybe this had something to do with the alert Laura had seen earlier.
At long last the gate staff began to admit passengers, but half-way down the ramp, another check was being done. Some passengers were being asked to stand aside while their paperwork was checked again.
Then once again just before we entered the aircraft, we had to present our ID and boarding pass yet again.
Finally I got to my seat on the aisle on the right side of the plane. Both seats to my right were already occupied, the window seat by someone who sounded like an American (USA), and the middle by a Brit. I heard many American non-accents and learned that a large group were returning to Atlanta via Virgin Atlantic. The plane was full as far as I could tell.
I set aside the small pouch provided by Virgin Atlantic that contained a toothbrush, toothpaste, eye mask, and earplugs. The eye mask and earplugs would come in handy later. I tucked the blanket behind my back as a lumbar cushion for take-off.
As our 787-9 prepared for departure, a flight attendant walked up and down the aisle with what we were told was a "harmless" insecticide fogger and that sensitive passengers might wish to cover their nose and mouth with a handkerchief. I did this but felt a bit silly since no one else seemed to mind being fogged. And, I'm not sure if my handkerchief reduced my exposure.
Then the pilot came on the intercom and apologized for the delay that a lingering mechanical issue with the aircraft had been mended. Extra security checks? Mechanical issues? Who knows, and better yet, now that we were underway, if an hour behind schedule, it mattered little.
After we lifted off, we were given drinks, then dinner. After I finished dinner, I fell asleep and slept well during the flight, something between five and six hours, rising only a couple of times to use the toilet during the night. Although my legs ended up getting twisted uncomfortably while I slept, forcing me to "toss and turn" in my seat, I was getting accustomed to sleeping in a cramped economy seat. Neither wailing children, turbulence, nor my quiet seat neighbours woke me in the night. When we were two hours from landing and were flying over the Mediterranean south of France, flight attendants did their "Wakey, wakey" by raising the cabin lighting, reducing the window tinting, and serving breakfast. Both meals I had ordered the vegan option, and those were delivered without fail. Both meals were edible, although I did not eat all of the spicy sauce on the pasta for dinner nor all of the plain steamed mushrooms for breakfast.
After breakfast we had a short interval to use the toilet again before beginning our final descent into London Heathrow.
Upon landing we went through the usual aircraft exiting traffic jam where everyone stands up at once and attempts to retrieve their carry-ons from the overhead bins. Ten minutes later the queue toward the exit began to move, and thus began my long walk down the corridors of Terminal 3 to the transfer passenger security re-screening zone. Despite the long walk it felt good to get some exercise after sitting for the last 11 hours.
As usual the screeners were forcing us to toss out any bottles of water—I drank the contents of my bottle to avoid losing it. I also learned that each passenger was only allowed one zip-loc bag into which to put our liquids and gels. This time I avoided the full-body scanner and the pat-down, passing only through a metal detector.
After clearing security—for the last time, yeah!—I proceeded to the Virgin Atlantic Transferring Passengers counter to check-in for my flight to San Francisco where no Virgin Atlantic representative was available. A sikh Delta ticket agent in full turban speaking incongruently in perfect East London accent advised me to return a half-hour later when someone could check me in. I was advised not to skip checking in if I wanted my checked bag to arrive home with me. This step is needed to make sure that checked baggage for passengers on multi-leg itineraries stay with the passenger, not the itinerary.
I walked the short distance to the duty-free shops that even at this early hour were open for business and browsed, but I didn't find anything interesting to buy, mostly just liquor and perfume. When a half-hour was up I returned to the Transferring Passengers counter to check in. This time I succeeded.
I then walked to the No.1 Traveler lounge to check in for my three-hour stay in an airside bedroom that I had reserved. After depositing my bags in my room I returned to the lounge to eat a second breakfast at the buffet. A half-hour later I returned to my room to take a relaxing shower, then changed into fresh clothes and relaxed on the 2-meter long bed that was barely long enough for me.
As before I was not in the mood for sleep, but the shower and opportunity to find a quiet place to get away from crowded airplane cabins and lounges was worth the expense I would otherwise be inclined to spare. I checked email and worked through most of the accumulation I had neglected during the trip, so I had little catch-up to do by the time I got home. Then as my reservation expired, I packed up and returned my key to the lounge desk.
On this occasion my San Francisco-bound flight scheduled to depart in just over an hour had not yet been assigned a gate. I asked the lounge representative if I could linger in the lounge until my departure gate had been announced.
"When is your flight scheduled to depart?", she asked.
"In about an hour."
"Ok, you can stay until then," she concluded.
The lounge was about as busy as the South African Airways lounge in Johannesburg the night before, but I found an interesting seat in a hanging wicker basket in the back corner of the lounge and relaxed as best I could for the next 10-15 minutes.
I checked the departures screen again and discovered that my flight had been assigned a gate. After stopping by the toilet I proceeded to the gate.
At the gate a long queue had formed, but this time there was no delay boarding the aircraft.
According to the accents of my fellow passengers, most were British, although I noticed that a number of them held passports from other EU countries.
After boarding the A340-600 for my daytime flight to San Francisco I found I was sitting in an aisle seat next to a woman who had bought her ticket a few days ago and was flying to San Francisco on business for four days. Again the plane appeared to be full but for a few seats against the rear bulkhead.
After we took off we were served drinks, then lunch. Instead of sleeping I watched two movies, Tina Fey's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Of the latter I recall little as I drifted asleep while it was playing.
When I awoke some hours later I noticed my tray table had been lowered and a warm sandwich in tight cling-wrap had been laid upon it. I slowly woke up, peeled back the wrapping, and forced myself to eat. I had tried to stay awake for the entire flight to help adjust to Pacific Daylight Time but resigned myself to a longer period of adjustment.
I peered over my neighbour and out her window after she pulled up the shade. It appeared we were over the Canadian Rockies as we were a few hours yet from landing.
I chatted for a time with my seat neighbour, but the airplane noises made communicating difficult.
As we approached the Bay Area I began to recognize various landmarks below: Mt. Lassen, Sacramento Valley, Capay Valley, Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, San Pablo Bay, southern Marin County, San Francisco itself and the Golden Gate Bridge, then the Peninsula. Finally we banked sharply over midtown Palo Alto as we lined up for our final and usual approach to SFO from the southeast.
As the perky flight attendant came around to check on passengers' preparations for landing, I noticed with some amusement the choice of words she used when asking passengers to do something which they would be naturally disinclined. American flight attendants might make the request, "Sir, could you please put your seat in its full upright position?" While British flight attendants add a layer of indirection to the request, asking you if they can ask. "Sir, can I ask you to put your seat in its full upright position?"
After exiting the aircraft I followed signs for US Citizens and Permanent Residents but must have missed one of these signs when I found myself later in a queue of Brits waiting to go through Passport Control. I was apparently correct in that few US'ians were on my plane as everyone was in the foreign nationals queue.
My phone rang. It was Ron Bobb. He left a voicemail asking if I was ready to be collected curbside. I couldn't answer yet as signs in the area expressly forbade cellphone use.
Beyond Passport Control I collected my checked bag and exited the customs area after being sniffed by a cute little beagle hard at work sniffing people's baggage for banned food and other odoriferous items. As soon as I got out of the terminal and onto the curb I called Ron and gave my report. He was at the cellphone parking lot and had seen my plane land.
While waiting on the curb I noticed that every other person waiting outside was puffing away madly on a cigarette. There was no escape from the second-hand smoke. Perhaps the curbside is the only place where smoking is not forbidden. No doubt most of the smokers had been enjoined from lighting up for many hours beforehand and were now compensating.
After a brief greeting Ron drove me home where I found things much as I had left them almost two weeks ago. Only the garden had become a bit rangy.
Thus ended my trip.
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