Monday, August 31, 2015

Groenkloof Nature Preserve and the Cradle of Humankind

On Sunday morning, June 20, 2010, Susan, Nancy and I headed out past the Voortrekker Monument

to Groenkloof Nature Preserve, located just outside downtown Pretoria, for a morning walk.  The park has footpaths and mountain bike paths, as well as some dirt roads for game drives.  Apparently the park is a local favorite - Susan explained that South Africans are very proud of the natural heritage of their country and love to take weekend walks.  Groenkloof has a family of giraffe and naturally we were hoping to see during our walk.  We did get to watch them while driving toward the entrance on the N21, but not on foot. 

We had a nice encounter with the cute rock dassies shown in the photo. 

We also learned about water holes in the park where the giraffe  can often be spotted, and will plan to take that footpath another day.

In the afternoon, we visited the Cradle of Humankind, a 47000 hectare site to the west of Johannesburg containing multiple paleontological sites where a large fraction of the most important recent hominid fossils have been found.

 We started at the Maropeng Museum;

in addition to a Disneyish "boat ride through time" and a footbridge "through the vortex," the museum displays fossil replicas and has a number of excellent exhibits about human origins, many of them interactive.  There was a fascinating ecological, anti-consumerist twist as well; note the photo of a collection of leftist posters. 

Then on to the Sterkfontein Caves, perhaps the most important fossil site in the Cradle, where we took a tour of the cave; among other things, we saw a fossil of an antelope's rib.

While at the Cradle, I ran into Eli Greenblum and his family; I had talked to Eli, a teammate on my over-55 soccer team back in the Montgomery County, Maryland rec league, about getting together while in South Africa but this was a serendipitous meeting.  We took a picture together.  (Amazingly enough, we ran into each other again at the 2014 World Cup).

Before heading home, we visited Gilroy's, a micro-brewery in Muldersdrift.  Most beer in South Africa is Budweiser-ish, but we sampled some excellent ales and Craig bought three cases. 

Craig posing with his beer

While at the brewery, we caught the last ten minutes of New Zealand's humbling of Italy.  Imagine - at this World Cup the mighty Euro powers England, France, Germany and Italy are at risk of not advancing out of their groups!

That night, we were off to the airport to pick up son Sam, whose teaching schedule was finally over; the following morning, our objective was Pilanesberg National Park so that Sam, too, could go on safari.  We'd be going straight to the U.S. embassy from there for a barbecue and pep rally before the US v. Algeria game.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sightseeing near Pretoria

We had a relaxing day; the teens went off on a zip line adventure arranged by the US Embassy, while our host Craig spent the day working on a report. Nancy and I joined our host Susan for a visit to the Irene Country Market a few miles south of Pretoria (it wasn't until later that I figured out that the US team was staying in Irene).  The market combines a “deli” section, where a variety of artisanal foods are sold (and almost was available for sampling), and an arts and craft market.  We picked up some interesting cheeses and feasted on local delicacies including milk tart, a light baked custard (I found the recipe for this dish after I got back to DC, and I serve it periodically) , and Wetkoek, a fry bread stuffed with bobotie or savory ground beef stew.   In the crafts section, we picked up a nice table cloth and painted metal tray for ourselves

 and a variety of other items that might end up as gifts and might end up in our own household.  On the grounds of the market is the historic home of Jan Smuts, a former president of South Africa and a very interesting figure– the visit made me want to take up the History of South Africa that Nancy was been reading.

In the afternoon, visited the Rietvlei Nature Reserve, also located a few miles south of Pretoria.

 We saw our first rhino,


and waterbok. 

We had seen ostrich, duiker and African buffalo at a distance in Kruger, but here we got within 10 to 15 yards of them

(a bit scary in the case of the buffalo, given what our guides had told us in Kruger, but happily he was uninterested in our vehicle).  Eland and zebra were also plentiful, and a number of interesting birds. 

Experiences at US v Slovenia

The day after our return from our walking safari near Kruger, we saw another great soccer game.  Ellis Park Stadium, the local rugby stadium that was the site of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final featured in the film Invictus, is located in the heart of Soweto; we bought tickets to park at a boys high school 2 km away, from which we could walk to the stadium.  This was a great choice for camaraderie and local experience.

In the lot, we met a family from the DC area and Boston who offered to paint our faces; some of us accepted the offer

Me with Arlington resident Cynthia, who painted our faces

Cynthia's extended family

Then a stroll through the neighborhood, both middle class bungalows with great views and poorer houses within blocks of each other.  We walked past past vendors of various kinds (note the sign offering "vuvu plugs" to lessen the pain of listening to vuvuzelas).

 Some families were out selling food and drink; I downed a boerwurst on the way in and a spicy beef stew on the way back to the car.

On the way back to our car, some local kids celebrated with a Seattle fan we met along the way.

In the gorgeous and historic Ellis Park stadium

we were in the upper level, at about the 18. All five goals were scored right in front of us (OK, one was disallowed).  We had a  great view of a painful first half, made all the more painful by two England fans sitting two rows behind us who were rooting for Slovenia (my comment to them - you are too cheap to go to Cape Town to watch your own team).  But take a gander at their (blurry) faces when we scored our goals. 

(Actually, after the second goal, one of them leaned forward and said, you deserved that).  Nobody could figure out why the third US goal was disallowed.

We drove back to Pretoria for dinner; the nice place we had reserved was rejected because Max, a family friend of our hosts and an ardent England fan, who arrived from London last night, wanted very much to see England play Algeria. He dutifully rooted for the US while in our company at the stadium; we could not deny him England on TV.  We headed over to Dros, a local chain restaurant that specializes in grilled meat.  Sad for Max – his England team managed only a scoreless tie against Algeria.  Algeria remains for the US, and a victory would be enough to see the US through; that will not be easy.  We were polite in Max’s company, but oh, if those two England fans had been sitting with us this evening......

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Walking Safari near Kruger National Park

We left Pretoria in the morning after the United States game against England in Rustenberg and drove north toward our first major tourist adventure, four day walking safari in the very far northern section of Kruger National Park.  Our drive began on highway 1 through Polokwane to Louis Trichardt, a/k/a/Makhado, where we turned east to Thohoyandou; there we spent the night at the Bouganvilla Lodge.  I had persuaded myself that this location might be culturally interesting, but it was a very long haul from Pretoria and we arrived exhausted, with very little light remaining, so there was no chance to explore the town beyond finding something to eat.  Leaving Thoyoyando the next morning, we began to see the local population in less developed contexts than during our previous days in and around Pretoria. 

We entered Kruger itself and began to see occasional wild game including zebra; but we had to make good time to meet out guides at lunchtime in the Makuleke Concession just north of the official park boundary.  I had aimed to have our Kruger safari adventure be in the park itself, where the prices were lower, but those tours were all booked up by the time we knew what our game schedule was; I did research the best I could and chose this outfit because they were able to match our availability dates, placed precisely between the first and second schedule US. games. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Impressions from USA v. England

We were off for our walking safari the following morning, so I dashed off a few impressions from our first game of the World Cup - England v. USA in Rustenberg

We were joined by our hosts, the Welsby-Karps, as well as Meg Macy, an American based in Durban and her friend Val.  Meg and Val (and Susan Welsby) traveled in our car while Nancy and the teens all traveled with Craig.  Traveling to the game, it seemed that most of the fans (including us) were on the N4 from Pretoria (and Johannesberg).  This is a one lane road most of the way, with toll plazas every 40 kilometers. So, at the Marikawa Plaza about just before Rustenberg, there was a huge backup, maybe 45 minutes to travel a mere 2 or 3 km.

We arrived in Rustenberg hoping to find something to eat before the game -- I had some listings noted down -- but it was getting a bit late and it turned out that we had to go beyond Rustenberg to the stadium, so we made a beeline for the stadium parking areas. The cars were divided into several park-and-ride areas, and one park-and-walk area.  The arrival system was well-organized with buses and vans to take fans to the stadium.  We aimed for the park-and-walk, but the directions were confusing and we ended up about 2 kilometers from the stadium. Still, it was a straight shot down the R565 from our parking area, so most of our party walked; Val and Meg chose to ride, and they got to the stadium first and back to the car first as well.

Walking down the 565, local residents were out by their houses, blowing vuvuzelas and cheering the fans as they walked toward the stadium.  (South Africans have gone out of their way everywhere, as they have noticed us, to tell us how welcome we are in South Africa and to hope that we are having a good time).  We got to the stadium 90 minutes before kickoff and joined the party outside in the bars along the 565.  This was our dinner as well as our drinking (when we got into the ticket area, the Budweiser sponsorship meant that was our only choice, not that South African beer tends to be much better)  There was great fan spirit, mostly partisan and bedecked in jerseys, many England fans dresses as crusaders.

American embassy blues band house party

We capped off our second day in South Africa by attending a house party for a blues band consisting of guys affiliated with the American embassy (including our host, Craig Karp).  

Like all such groups with diplomatic ties, they are breaking up as their members are moving on to new postings this summer.  So this was their last hurrah -- and a nice hurrah it was.  Good music, good dancing.

Two others from the audience, US fan Meg and England fan Val, are going to ride out to Rustenberg with us this afternoon.  The US Embassy is sending a busload to the game, but we have decided to drive so that we can get home quickly and get an early start tomorrow -- we will have a few hours driving up to Thohoyandou, whence we will leave for our safari in Kruger National Park.

Voortrekker Monument and the Pretoria Fan Fest ... NOT

We began our second full day in South Africa by sleeping in and, hopefully, completing our recovery from jet lag.  In the afternoon we visited the Voortrekker Monument, a rather ugly structure atop a hill overlooking Pretoria.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Our first day in South Africa: The kickoff concert!

Our trip to South Africa was uneventful.  Eight hours to Amsterdam, a painless transfer at Schipol (no need even to go through customs, as we have often had to do on international travel recently even just switching planes).  The plane from Amsterdam was full of orange shirts, but there was a smattering of fans from other countries.  I had a nice chat with a young Honduran fan who had already been going 24 hours from San Pedro Sula.  Our friend Craig met us at the airport and guided us to his home in Pretoria.

On Thursday morning, we headed down to the Brooklyn Mall to take care of the mundane details - get our tickets, pick up a local cell, and get some local cash.   Craig and his wife Susan had snagged tickets to the kickoff celebration at the Orlando stadium in Johannesburg,

So Joe and Nancy and I went along with them and their children Shona and Theo (shown pictured with Joe)

Charming airline reservations

For our internal flights between Cape Town and Johannesberg, we have been reserving on Mango Airlines.  They have a mandatory "green fee" (not much, so hard to complain), and then there is the option of taking your bike on the plane for an extra $25.

The web site operates bizarrely. Unlike American airlines, where the low prices are available early on, then steadily go up, lower fares appear pretty much at random, so if you don't like the fare you see one day, hold on and try the next and it may well go down.  In the end, we can fly 4 people roundtrip between Johannesberg and Cape Town for $520 or $605 depending whether we are following the Group C winner or the Group C runner-up. Not bad for such a long flight (800 miles).

Our route to the World Cup in South Africa

I was introduced to soccer in the late 60's at Reed College in Portland.  I grew up a political activist, otherwise very much a nerd.  But our school had a bunch of prep school graduates plus one ringer every year, our British exchange student, so we actually had a reasonably strong soccer team.  Some of my friends played on the team, so I did too.  We regularly beat University of Portland, for example; this was before the days of Clive Charles and their strong soccer program.   Its program, and Portland State's, revolved around their students from the Middle East.   I played a bit of intramural soccer during law school at the University of Chicago, and a bit of pickup soccer with Antioch Law students when I first got to DC.  Then I totally forgot about the sport until my older son started playing Stoddert; as a supposedly experienced adult, I started coaching.  Slowly but surely I got hooked again, playing pickup and watching our two children playing recreational and travel soccer.

South Africa retrospective

Back in 2010, before I created this blog, the Washington Post had the nice idea of increasing its coverage of the World Cup in South Africa by inviting readers who were going to be in attendance to post text and photographs about their experiences at the games and in the country in between the games.  Over my time in South Africa, I posted roughly twenty pieces, some short and some long, accompanied by photographs.  I was one of about a dozen readers who responded; the experience gave me a taste for blogging about my travels and led directly to the creation of this blog, hoping that others can learn from my experiences in planning their own travels.

Recently, one of my colleagues as work planned a trip to South Africa, and I wanted to pointed him to my Washington Post blog to get my recommendations, as I have pointed others to my blogging about Norway, Argentina, Utah, Brazil, Tanzania, and other places for a summary of my experiences and recommendations.  But I noticed that only a small group of the blog posts were easily found, and that the photographs were no longer posted. 

Over the next few weeks, I'll be restoring my 2010 World Cup blog posts online by posting them here, along with the relevant photographs.  I hope others will find them useful.