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Iceland, Finland, Estonia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Thailand, Cambodia and South Korea

Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Denmark

Hawaii, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Nepal, India and England

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Highlight Reel 5: Stunning South Africa

After reading this post, I hope you will agree that it was an easy decision to have our visit to South Africa merit its own Highlight Reel. 

We spent two plus weeks in the amazing country, starting in Johannesburg often called Joburg and Jozi - on November 22nd by visiting the city's Apartheid Museum, located strangely enough in the Gold Reef City Casino Theme Park of all places. From the first step into the museum, we were made starkly aware of the harshness of apartheid when our tickets arbitrarily identified us as white and non-white and we therefore had to enter through different turnstiles. We were startled by the designation, but it put us in the mindset to learn more about apartheid.
Spending three and a half hours walking chronologically through the apartheid years and eventually reaching the country's first steps to freedom with the democratic elections in 1994 was an emotional journey. Steven and I had both been intellectually aware of what had transpired in South Africa when apartheid was the rule of that country's land since it happened so relatively recently. However, experiencing a taste of the pain and suffering so many South Africans had to live through was gut wrenching.

The natural follow-up for us was a private guided tour of the vast township of Soweto, an 
acronym for South West Townships, where the student anti-apartheid uprisings began. 
Before this tour, Steven and I had always thought of Soweto as having exclusively slums, so when our guide, Booysie, drove us first to this very attractive middle class area of Soweto, our jaws dropped. 
Our first view of Kliptown, the oldest residential district of Soweto, was what I certainly had imagined all of Soweto would look like. Unemployment there was officially listed as 55% although others report it as high as 72%. 
Walking among the Kliptown residents and their homes and seeing first hand their living conditions was shocking and heart breaking, all the more so, I think, as it was so close to a city of much wealth.
A visit to Soweto would have been incomplete without seeing the Hector Pieterson Memorial, the site where students gathered to peacefully demonstrate the implementation of Afrikaans and English as dual mediums of instruction in high schools in June, 1976. Violence ensued and 13 year old Hector Pieterson became the subject of an iconic image of the 1976 Soweto uprising when a news photograph of the dying Hector being carried by another student while his sister ran next to them, was published around the world. The photographer, Sam Nzima, was arrested as he had exposed the horrors of apartheid to the outside world. The student carrying Hector was forced to flee South Africa for his own safekeeping.
Vilakazi St., the street where the uprising took place, is one of the most famous streets in Soweto and also the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners lived: Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
It would be impossible to describe our visit to the Apartheid Museum and subsequent tour of Soweto as uplifting experiences. However, I feel that our visit to Johannesburg would certainly have been incomplete without seeing both as we gained a greater understanding of a horrific part of South Africa's history.

After a quick visit to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, we returned to Johannesburg on November 26th and left the next morning in our rental car for the long but stunning drive to Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa where we'd stay for the next five nights.

After the 350 mile drive from Johannesburg, we were so glad to be finally entering Kruger National Park which was founded in 1898 by Paul Kruger, president of what was then the Transvaal Republic. Our first animal sightings in the park were these steenboks, small graceful antelopes identifiable by their very large ears and brick-red coat.
We, like I would imagine most people visiting Kruger, also hoped to see as many of The Big Five animals as possible over the course of the next few days: the elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and buffalo. Steven and I joked that we were 'Junior Rangers' checking off the animals we spotted in the very long list in the guide. We doubted we'd come anywhere close to discovering the 43 mammals, let alone the 100 or so birds and the 12 reptiles and amphibians.

This elephant made us realize we were on 'Africa Time' as we had to await his slow passage from the bush and along the road before we could pass him!
On 11/27, we came across blue wildebeests aka gnus because that's the sound they snort when they're alarmed!
Finally, we spotted a hippo and could check that off the list of mammals in the back of our guide - yeah!
The adult plains zebras in Kruger had brown stripes unlike their adult counterparts in Kenya who had black stripes.
We were so excited when we saw these four rhinos as that had meant we'd now seen all the Big Five animals that most visitors to Africa's game parks give their eyeteeth to see. The rhinos were the only one of the Big Five we'd not caught a glimpse of in Kenya's Maasai Mara. We hoped to discover still the other members of the Big Five here in Kruger but it was early days yet.
We took a short detour to the Nthandanyathi Viewing Area as that was the first opportunity we had that day to get safely out of the car.
I was so glad I had my inexpensive Canon focused on these two hippos facing off against each other at the perfect moment.
On a three-hour sunset jeep game drive later that day, the ranger pointed out a spoon bill stork.
We and the other passengers in the jeep thought that these two giraffes were simply cuddling or 'necking'! But the ranger indicated that in fact that they were both males and were battling for supremacy. 
In the southern part of Kruger, sunset, known as 'African Fire,' was at 6.
On November 28th, we were so excited when we caught sight of a leopard, our final Big Five animal at Kruger! 
When we then saw these two female lions, it meant that we had seen the Big Five animals all in one day - yeah!!
What a treat seeing a huge number of ostriches, the largest of the 8,600 bird species existing today. 
We had great fun watching elephants as they made their way across the Orpen Dam at the Lookout our last day at Kruger. Seeing so many beautiful animals and stunning terrain while spending about 12 hours a day for 5 straight days in the park was a phenomenal experience. To think we still only managed to discover the southern and central areas of the park means that there would be so much more to view if we're ever lucky enough to return.
On 12/1, it was certainly with mixed emotions that we left Kruger National Park and drove to the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. The famous landmark and biggest monument in Africa, completed in 1949, honored the Voortrekkers who journeyed into South Africa's hinterland between 1835 and 1854 in search of independence and freedom. 
That same day, we returned to Johannesburg for a few hours to visit Constitution Hill including the Constitutional Court as well as the Old Fort Prison Complex known as Number Four. The latter was where thousands of political prisoners were incarcerated, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, iconic Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi as well as students from the 1976 Soweto uprising.

December 2nd marked our first day in South Africa's gorgeous city of Cape Town. First up was a stop at Bo-kaap, a mostly residential area with brightly colored homes located on the slopes of Signal Hill overlooking the city. 

In downtown Cape Town was Company's Garden, established in 1652 by Dutch settlers to grow fresh produce for shipping on long voyages, At the end of the walkway was the Iziko SA National Gallery Gallery that I enjoyed immensely while Steven rested outside.
While the country's seat of government is in Pretoria, the legislative capital is in Cape Town. In 1994, the country's first democratic elections were held and Nelson Mandela opened Parliament in Cape Town.
It was important for us to stop by Cathedral of St George the Martyr, the seat of the Anglican Church in southern Africa. During the height and collapse of apartheid, the Archbishop was Desmond Tutu, the beloved clergyman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate renowned for his anti-apartheid passion.
The Iziko Slave Lodge, the second oldest building in Cape Town and the country's oldest surviving slave building, was another key to understanding South Africa's racial history. Up to 9,000 slaves, convicts and the mentally ill are believed to have been confined in the building between 1679 and 1811.
There we read a speech most eloquently written by Nobel Peace Prize winner and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. "The story of South African slavery is one that needs to be told. They were the stonemasons, the blacksmiths, the carpenters, the people whose hands helped build this country. These are the people who had the first thing they were ever given taken from them - their names. They were stripped of the very thing that made them who they were, because they were property. Yet they lifted themselves up. You mustn't forget your roots - we tend to forget that too easily. Your roots make you who you are."
On 12/3 we toured Robben Island, quite possibly the most well known island-prison on the planet. It was 'home' to Nelson Mandela, one of the world’s most famous prisoners, statesmen and leaders who spent 18 of his 27 years there as a political prisoner.  Unlike other prisoners, Mandela was only allowed one 30 minute long visit a year and he could only write and receive one letter every six months. Thanks to our incredible guide, himself a former prisoner at Robben Island, I left in awe of the prisoners' strength, will and humanity when faced with such desperate times. Mandela's cell:
After the heart-wrenching prison tour, we later wandered around the Victoria & Albert Waterfront where there were a collection of shops and restaurants. I loved seeing these beautiful bowls made from telephone wire that I'd first noticed in Zimbabwe.
 Almost from the moment we stepped foot in Cape Town, we began falling in love with the city. Driving along the scenic coast south of the city and seeing the nearby gorgeous beaches on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Cape just reinforced those initial feelings, certainly for me at least.
The woman wore a traditional indigo skirt common in South Africa for the last 100 plus years.
On 12/4, we drove south of the city to the Cape of Good Hope, located only 60 miles away. 

This one's for you, Lil Red, as I know how much you love penguins! We were so intrigued seeing the African Penguins at Boulders Beach as they're the only variety of penguin that breeds in Africa and are restricted to the coastline and seas of southern Africa.
One of the most stunning drives we've ever taken was the 5.5 mile long Chapman's Peak Drive as we returned to the city. It had 114 curves and skirted the coast halfway up the sheer cliffs. Luckily, the speed was limited to just 15 mph.

We spent a good chunk of the next day at Kirstenbosch National Garden, located just eight miles from the city center, and the largest of a countrywide network of ten botanical gardens. Covering over 1,500 acres and with over 7,000 plant species, including many rare and endangered species, it was the perfect place to visit on a sunny day. Walking on The Boomslang,  a curved steel and timber bridge that wound and dipped its way through and over the trees of the Arboretum with the spectacular mountain backdrop, was extraordinary.
It was nothing short of perfection munching our sandwiches and snacks while relaxing in a shady spot and having this spectacular view in front of us. For a while, it was our own Eden. Looking at this photo, I feel transported to that place and time once again. 

As much as we loved Cape Town, we were always aware it wasn't the safest of cities. 
Since we'd visited the Cape of Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park, we also wanted to discover Table Mountain itself. The mountain is known as one of southern Africa's most beautiful and impressive natural wonders. The mountain rises more than 3,500 feet above the city and its distinctive flat top is visible to sailors 40 miles out to sea.
After taking the cable car up the mountain, we felt like we were on top of the world!
I'm so glad Steven didn't dare take another step as it was straight down from there!
A couple of days later, we were entranced by the colorful bathing boxes at St. James located in False Bay about halfway between the city and the Cape of Good Hope. 

In the adjacent hamlet of Muizenberg was the humble Rhodes Cottage, named for Cecil Rhodes, one of the richest men in the world in his time, who spent his last days there. Rhodes shaped southern Africa like no other individual: he had two countries, which he virtually owned, named after him and he was a colossus in the diamond industry.
On December 7th, our last day in South Africa, we explored some of the wineries in Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, two of South Africa's most famous wine growing regions. In 1971, the renowned Stellenbosch Wine Route was founded and it is still one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Western Cape. Though more than 200 wine and grape producers were included on the Route, we only had time to visit a smattering of them. That just means more to look forward to if we ever return to the country!

As regular readers of the blog know, we were lucky enough to visit so many great places on our four month trip. One of the countries that will always hold a special place in our hearts is definitely South Africa because of its magical location situated at the tip of the continent, the amazing game parks, the beautiful city of Cape Town, the combination of mountains and ocean views, the emotional intensity of Johannesburg and Soweto PLUS learning in great detail the horrors of apartheid and the bravery of those who fought against it.

At long last, the final post coming soon: Highlight Reel of United Arab Emirates and Denmark!

Posted from Grayton Beach State Park, Florida on May 31st, 2017.

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