Written by: Greg Ellifritz
I recently returned from an epic two-week trip to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana.
I had previously been to Africa twice. I went to Egypt in 2005. I returned in 2008 to climb Kilimanjaro, visiting both Kenya and Tanzania. I got really sick climbing Kili (high altitude cerebral edema) and got jacked by a corrupt cop in Tanzania, so I wasn’t really excited to return to the “Dark Continent.”
After 10 years of avoiding the continent, my desire to see some of the cool wildlife got the better of me and I booked a trip back to Africa.
I did a few days on my own in Johannesburg, South Africa and then joined a National Geographic/G-Adventures safari tour of South Africa and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. At the end of the tour, I booked a separate local tour of a large game park in Botswana and then flew home from Zimbabwe.
It was an amazing trip. I was excited to see both Victoria Falls (the biggest waterfall in the world) and all the African game animals. Both exceeded my expectations. I would highly recommend a trip like this to anyone who is interested in natural beauty or seeing exotic African critters.
Getting to South Africa was a bit trying.
It took 21 total travel hours. Fourteen of those hours were spent on a single plane that had no functioning entertainment system and the heat pegged to about 85 degrees during the entire flight. I’m not a big fan of South African Airways.
The dude in the seat next to me changed into red plaid flannel pajamas as soon as he boarded. He reclined his seat and cuddled up hugging a five pound bag of Nutter Butter cookies for the whole flight. He never ate any, but he held on to them as if he were deathly afraid that someone would steal his precious cargo.
I breezed through customs and immigration in South Africa without a single question asked or form filled out. In most other countries, the entrance inquisition is nothing like what we get coming back to the USA.
Before leaving the airport, I tried three different ATMs to get local currency. All three rejected my card. My ATM card wouldn’t work at all in South Africa. That’s the first country I’ve been to (besides Cuba) where my ATM card didn’t work. That made life challenging, but I was smart enough to bring an emergency stash of American cash that I was able to exchange in a dodgy black market currency transaction (arranged by a taxi driver) for some local South African Rand.
I can understand why some folks don’t like traveling.
I booked a room in guest house on a farm outside of Jo-burg. Outside, there was an eight foot cement wall topped with an additional four feet of electric fence surrounding the entire property. It’s was crazy to see that every rural house was a completely walled estate. The South Africans really like barbed wire and electric fences. Almost every house was enclosed by a wall with an electrified fence.
I spent most of my second day in Jo-burg at the incredible Apartheid Museum. It was one of the most powerfully moving museums I’ve visited. What an incredibly cruel and messed up government. I had no idea it was as bad as it was.
The ticket you purchase for the museum randomly assigns you to the “white” or “non-white” line. For the first hundred meters of the museum, you are separated from your party and you get to experience life as it was under apartheid as most people seemed to be randomly assigned one category or the other with little relation to their actual genetic heritage. Each separate line showed how life was very different for the “non-white” or “colored” (mostly of Indian or Asian origin) under Apartheid.
I was speaking with a couple new friends from Luxembourg who were about my age. We were in college when Apartheid was being overthrown by the South African people. All of us remembered a little bit of news coverage, but commented that the government overthrow really went virtually unnoticed by both the USA and Europe.
It’s scary when you get honestly educated about the atrocities that happened in this country and realize that this wasn’t 100 years ago. They occurred in my adult lifetime.
If you get a chance to go to the museum, go. Budget three to four hours for a basic visit. It takes at least five hours to do it right.
After a sobering education about the Apartheid regime, I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner out.
The high end restaurants near the rural suburb where I was staying are all associated with casinos. I went to one and was shocked to see an almost exact replica of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, moving sky scenery and all.
I ate at a restaurant that specialized in African wild game.
This platter was from left to right:
– Ostrich in a plum sauce. It was served rare and cold inside. It looked like a tuna steak and had the same texture. The meat was virtually flavorless.
-Impala- Somewhat chewy and tough. Almost like a beef skirt steak.
– Bacon wrapped warthog- A surprise favorite. It was like a fattier, tastier, juicier pork chop. Delicious.
-Kudu stuffed with a thick cheese sauce- a very tender and mild tasting steak. Very good.
The white food in the bowl is “mieliepap.“ It is a ground corn porridge that has the consistency of mashed potatoes or polenta. It is a traditional South African carbohydrate that takes the place of rice or pasta in most local dishes. It was served everywhere. People covered it with something like a pasta sauce that they called “tomato gravy” (bowl to the right). It was kind of tasteless. The tomato sauce had a lot of different variations and created most of the flavor.
Overall, I enjoyed the South African food. Their traditional dishes are served at a “braai” which is the local word for “barbecue.” You can’t go wrong with grilled meat at every meal.
On my third day, I hired a private tour guide (recommended by the owner of my guesthouse) to give me a tour of some of the grittier parts of Jo-burg. That was an education just as potent as the Apartheid museum.
There are entire parts of the city classified as “no-go” zones. If you don’t live there, you are not welcome. There are constant protests, roadblocks and tires burning in the streets of some neighborhoods. The downtown area of Jo-burg is a wasteland. Most of the skyscrapers are empty as large corporations have fled to the safer suburbs. Many buildings have no utilities, but were nonetheless inhabited by squatters.
I’ve never seen so many homeless people in one place. There were thousands of homeless people squatting in dozens of buildings without any electricity or running water. People defecated openly by the side of the road. There were huge trash drum fires and lots of people aimlessly hanging out in the streets.
While driving through the downtown area, we had to keep changing routes due to large amounts of rubble placed in the roadway as a roadblock during recent protests. I’ve been a lot of places. Downtown Jo-burg looked more apocalyptic than any other location I’ve visited and gave me an idea of what things would look like if our power grid fails. It wasn’t a happy thought.
Following the tour of downtown, we drove into some of the “townships” or slum areas. The most famous Jo-berg township is SOWETO (South Western Township) where Nelson Mandela lived. The townships had lots of ramshackle buildings, but the people seemed much more organized than the squatters living downtown. People were poor, but worked, had families and a purpose for existence. The townships I visited didn’t seem dangerous at all. The townships were kind of like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro without all the open air drug sales.
The South African national electric company is widely considered a failed enterprise. None of the townships I visited had working traffic lights. The power companies stage rolling blackouts (euphemistically called “load sharing”) to ration available electricity. Certain neighborhoods were without power for a large part of the day. There seemed to be more “load sharing” in the poor townships than in the affluent suburbs I visited.
My tour guide was a former soldier, a gun owner, and an avid shooter. He explained that residents of South Africa could own a handgun and two hunting rifles with the proper permits. He owned a Glock 17 that he bought for 7000 Rand (about $500 US). Concealed carry was theoretically possible, but my guide didn’t know anyone who actually had the necessary permits to carry legally.
The cops in Jo-berg wore external plate body armor and often carried long guns (R-4 or R-5 rifles that are South African Galil variants). I only saw two cops armed with handguns. Both carried Beretta 92s. One was carried in a cheap nylon IWB holster that placed the gun so deeply in the beltline, that the grip was barely visible. The other carried his Beretta in a 1990s vintage Uncle Mikes “twist draw” retention holster on a duty belt with a big can of pepper spray.
I didn’t see any support gear like handcuffs or batons carried by the local cops. That fact might be a useful fact for you travelers to notice. When the cops aren’t carrying handcuffs, they clearly expect criminals to either submit to arrest without incident or be shot. No half measures.
No thanks. I’m good. I prefer to stay far away from cops who don’t train and carry less lethal weapons.
Kruger National Park and Karongwe Private Game Reserve
Day four started with a day-long drive on the Panorama Route to Kruger National Park. Kruger is one of South Africa’s most famous parks and consists of 7000 square miles of public land designated for wildlife preservation.
Some of the views from the stops along the way…
When I booked the tour, I noted that in Kruger, the accommodations consisted of “safari tents.” I’m cool with tents. I don’t demand much luxury. I was a little surprised when we arrived at the “safari camp” and I got to my tent. It was on a raised wooden platform and had electricity, a king-sized bed, air conditioning, and a flush toilet! Life was pretty good.
We spent a few days at Kruger. Kruger is a public park, so people don’t need to be guided. Anyone can just pay the admission fee and then drive around the park roads. That made life a little annoying because most of the cool animals had crowds of cars all around them. We had a guided tour in an open-topped Land Rover twice a day. The guides did a good job trying to avoid the crowds and get us really close to a lot of very cool animals.
The animals generally ignored the safari trucks and we were able to get extraordinarily close to some amazing wildlife.
It’s summer in South Africa. The normal temperature is about 90 degrees. At Kruger, we had four days of really unseasonable cold and torrential rain.
It was about 50 degrees and pouring rain. That’s less than ideal for wildlife watching, but we still saw a stunning amount of animals. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the peak viewing season.
After Kruger, we made our way to the Karongwe Wildlife Reserve. This was a private game park that only offered guided tours. That made it better than Kruger fror two reasons; no tourists, and the guides could drive off road to get closer to the animals.
We saw a lot more cool critters at Karongwe than we did at Kruger.
The monkeys in camp were an absolute menace. A group of about 20 raided our camp and began grabbing people. As I was trying to clear them off a neighbor’s porch, they tried an ambush attack.
I actually had a Mexican standoff with a growling monkey as I had my OC spray ready to hose him down. He kept growling and advancing. As soon as I pointed the OC canister at him, he stopped, stared at me for a few seconds, and then walked away.
He righteously should have gotten some spicy treats, but I didn’t want to forever be known as the dude who pepper sprays monkeys. The vervet monkeys are such a problem in some parks, that the government employs people armed with paintball guns and slingshots to keep them away from tourists.
Our other animal encounters were much more sedate.
At Karongwe we were also able to take a hike in the bush. Since all of the “Big Five” most dangerous African game animals live on the property, we had to be accompanied by a guide and a “gun bearer.”
The gun bearer walked up to our group. He had a beat-to-shit CZ .458 Win Mag bolt gun. There was absolutely no finish left on the barrel. The wood stock looked like some small varmint had chewed on it.
The rifle was unloaded. The bolt wasn’t in the gun. The gun bearer was carrying the bolt stuck behind this belt in the appendix position. He was wearing a leather loop cartridge holder full of 10 rifle rounds at the four o’clock position behind his hip.
I thought: “Wow, they are actually sending us out into the bush with our ‘protection’ carrying a disassembled and unloaded rifle. What could possibly go wrong?”
We walked about 100 meters away from the camp and the gun bearer installed the rifle bolt and loaded it with five rounds. He took the rounds from the most forward cartridge loops, thereby guaranteeing that he would have to reach far behind his back to access the remaining cartridges should he have to reload in a hurry. Brilliant.
The gun bearer made an elaborate show of loading each round into the magazine. He then pushed the cartridges down with his thumb and moved the bolt forward. Once the bolt was over the top of the cartridges in the magazine, he closed and locked the bolt with a flourish, stating “Now we are ready.”
I normally shut my mouth in the evidence of such stupidity, but I couldn’t hold back.
“There’s no round in the chamber. You aren’t ‘ready.’ The gun is in a better condition to fire now as compared to when you brought it out unloaded, but you are far from ‘ready’.“
He kind of looked at me sheepishly. I continued:
“Don’t worry. When the lion attacks you while you are trying to get the gun in play, I’ll be there. I know how to run that bolt. I’ll pick up your rifle off the ground, chamber a round and shoot the lion off your corpse.
It’s great having a plan. Now we’re ‘ready.'”
Neither he nor the guide really had too much to say after that.
Absolutely frightening muzzle discipline displayed during the whole hike. When the guide talked, the gun bearer stood with the rifle butt placed on his boot, leaning forward with both hands covering his muzzle. He was essentially using the muzzle of a loaded .458 Win Mag as a hand rest.
It’s a real good thing the leopards and lions weren’t hungry that day.
On one of the other excursions, we came across another group of tourists out in the bush on horseback. Their guide didn’t even have a rifle. He was armed with a holstered Smith and Wesson Model 29 .44 magnum revolver with a six inch barrel.
I really like the .44 magnum and own the exact same gun. It works great to shoot deer in Ohio. I don’t know if it would be an optimal choice for a rampaging Cape Buffalo in Africa.
Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls
After a couple days in Karongwe, we flew into the failed state of Zimbabwe to see the world’s largest waterfalls.
A passenger on the flight from South Africa to Zimbabwe said the following as we were disembarking and walking into the sweltering airport:
“We aren’t in South Africa anymore. That place is like ‘Africa Light.’ Now we are in the real deal.”
That’s a quality analysis.
Zimbabwe is a nightmare failed state with 70-90% unemployment (government says 70%. People say 90%), the third lowest annual income in the world ($253 a month), and crushing poverty. The country went through a period of hyper-inflationary economic collapse from 1982 until 2008. The currency inflated 900,000,000 times during that time period.
I did a quick tour of the town where I was staying (the most prosperous in the country) and a local food market. As I was walking through the food market, I saw bags of what looked to be red dirt for sale. The seller explained that it was, in fact, red dirt and that it was high in iron. People who don’t eat meat regularly (too expensive) have low iron. Pregnant women literally buy and eat dirt from a local market to get the iron they need to keep their babies healthy.
I visited a local family and had dinner at their house. Thirteen people in four rooms with no electricity or air conditioning. Running water is rationed, so they survive by catching and storing the meager amount of rain that they get.
This is me eating a fried mopani caterpillar. This is a staple food in local villages. During the rainy season, these fat caterpillars feast on the leaves of the mopani (Mopane) tree. They are widely available.
Locals collect the caterpillars, dry them, and use them year round as a protein source. The dried caterpillars are first boiled and then fried in oil. They weren’t bad but they weren’t overly flavorful either. Kind of like the texture of eating cardboard with the flavor of the oil in which they were fried.
Dinner with the local family was insightful. The host explained the economic realities of living in a failed state and discussed quite a bit about dating and relationships in the incredibly patriarchal country. Parents don’t like it when their kids date. They want a quick marriage. Marriage equals a dowry for the bride’s family. Dowry money is how many families survive in the country. The dowry is still payed in cows. Generally, the dowry is high enough that the future husband has to make payments to the bride’s family for the rest of his life. Few can afford the dowry in a single payment.
Outside of the town I visited, the entire country survives by subsistence level farming. There are no agricultural farms. There is no manufacturing. The corrupt government makes it difficult for citizens to own businesses. Everything is really expensive because it all has to be imported from South Africa or Botswana. There is no domestic production of any manufactured goods.
Gasoline was rationed and often unavailable at any price. The photo below is the line of cars waiting for a fuel delivery at the town’s only gas station. The line stretched about half a mile. Folks waited for hours on the off chance that one of the irregularly-arriving fuel trucks might come and replenish the gas station’s supply.
Despite the depressing economic conditions, Victoria Falls was very cool. It is the low season with regards to water flow rate, but it was still stunning to see, hear, and feel the water.
After the official tour ended in Zimbabwe, I stayed around for a private tour of Chobe game park just over the border in Botswana.
This trip made me happy. Since arriving down there I had done nine separate safari drives or boat trips. It was really cold with non-stop rain on the first week of the safari trips. When it’s cold and rainy the animals hide in the bush and don’t wander around. Their being stationary makes animal viewing very difficult.
Even though the conditions were horrible, I was able to see four of the “Big Five ” list animals in the first couple days here. The lion remained elusive.
I saw two different leopards (very rare to see one in the day). I also saw the critically endangered African wild dog. Both of those critters are next to impossible to find; yet the much more populous lions refused to make their presence known.
Chobe was a different story. It was warm and sunny. I spent the morning on a truck safari and then spent the afternoon cruising along the Zambezi river looking at animals. I was finally able to see a lion in the wild.
In the Chobe National Park, this sleepy mother lion was relaxing in the shade no more than 30 feet away from the safari truck. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to see all of the large African cats.
There were lots of other cool animals in Chobe.
The border crossing back into Zimbabwe was a bit challenging as neither side of the border had electricity due to the “load sharing”. There was no way to scan passports. Everything had to be done by hand with obsolete paper forms. The guide shrugged it off saying: “TIA.”
“TIA” stands for “This is Africa.” It’s a commonly-used expression by locals whenever they encounter difficult conditions or situations that are inefficient. It is a useful acronym.
I had a wonderful time on my trip to Africa. If you all would like to see the amazing wildlife and the stunning scenery, I would highly recommend a trip there.
I will close this article with the gift of a most excellent cover of Toto’s popular song “Africa.” Enjoy.