July 25, 2012

Out of Africa... an outstanding Safari Adventure in Madikwe South Africa

Sundowners on Safari

Close your eyes and imagine the safari of your dreams…what does it look like, elephants trumpeting, gathering around a watering hole? Lions guarding their kill from a jackal? Giraffe loping along gracefully eating from acacia trees?  Think about all that in Day 1 and you have our experience in Madikwe Game Reserve

Road to Madikwe from Johannesburg
Located 4 hours drive-time northwest of Johannesburg along the Botswana border, or a short flight to a small airstrip, Madikwe Game Reserve was established in 1991 covering 185,000 acres. Encompassing a wide variety of terrain - wide savannah, rocky cliff areas, bumpy mountains, and brush Madikwe is famous for its abundance of wildlife including 66 mammal species including all of the Big Five and is popular with families because it is one of South Africa's few malaria-free reserves.  

Our drive from Johannseburg takes us through small villages where people still make their living farming.  Young kids gathered around the water pump wave and smilie as we drive by. Goats wander the sides of the road. A small outpost marks the entry where a sign holds the park "unaccountable for death or injury"…hmmm - should we be worried.  But the guard at the gate offers a warm welcome and we're off down the bumpy dirt road. 

As I look out over the trees, my mind plays a trick on me…every tree looks like a giraffe or elephant - what great camouflage for them. But then, I do a double take, it is a giraffe! It's slim, graceful neck raising its head to the tallest tree where it delicately nibbles the leaves with its extremely long tongue.  Around the next bend we find a watering hole where a couple of elephants and zebras take an afternoon drink.  Soon the rest of the elephant herd arrives - about 30 in all - and they take to chasing the zebras and impalas from the water leaving a dusty cloud behind them as they trot around the hole.  Within our first mile into the reserve - and not yet technically out on safari, just on our transfer from Johannesburg to the lodge - we have seen elephants, giraffes, zebras and impalas.

Safari Lodge Room
At Madikwe Safari Lodge we are greeted by friendly staff who offer cool, damp washcloths and juice to refresh us from our journey. After a short rest in the common area, which is open to the surrounding brush, we are shown to our bungalow, which is luxurious. A fluffy white bed and living area open with huge glass doors to a wide porch overlooking the brush.  On the path to the room, the boys spot elephant dung and the attendant confirms that elephants occasionally make their way through camp, which is why we must travel with a  guard at night. Adventure in the making! The boys are ecstatic!

After tea and treats, we head out on our afternoon safari with Andres.  His warm, open style and dry humor gels perfectly with the boys and his unending patience for answering all their questions makes for a peaceful - and quite informative - ride for all the guests. The boys love the open-top safari jeep and the raised seats make it easy for everyone to see.  As we start out over the bumpy road, pounding through the bush Nathan comments that it is like the Indiana Jones ride in Disneyland. He says "I never knew if that was real or just for fun, but now I know that's really what it feels like on safari". 

Lion with a kill
We "rollercoaster" past impalas and zebras, birds of all types, a bull elephant in musk - a time when they secrete oil to attract female elephants - that the driver stays his distance from because they are unpredictable, and then comes that National Geographic moment… we stumble upon two male lions with a fresh kill - a wildebeest. One lion appears to be dead asleep and the other puts on a bit of a show for us - yawning and grooming himself - then walks to the other side of our jeep to take a rest - laying within ten-feet of Seamus.  As we watch the lions to each side of the jeep - both within ten-feet - we spot a jackal sneaking in from around the other side of the bush trying to get a sample of the wildebeest. As the jackal sneaks closer and closer, darting forward and then back in a jittery dance, the lion who had looked to be dead asleep leaps up and chases the little dog like creature off. It happens so fast it makes us all jump!

Sunset on Safari
As we leave the lions to their resting, we head just down the road and Andres pulls over, sets up a table and offers us "sundowners" drinks and and appetizers in the bush. We enjoy our treats as the huge red sun ducks down the horizon beside an acacia tree - an idyllic African scene. The boys wonder what the lions are doing - since we left them less than 1/2 mile back up the road. I joke that they should walk down the road and find out. Luckily they didn't because within 100 feet of driving back down the road, one of the lions walks towards us from the other direction. Andres says they too use the road as it's easier than walking through the bush. We find the other lion busy chowing away pulling the wildebeest into the bush for better protection - guess he didn't want to share. I'm glad they gave us blankets and told us to bundle up because as soon as the sun goes down it gets really cold! We are received back at the lodge with a steaming cup of hot chocolate.

Up close with rhinos
Day 2 of safari starts out bundled under thick blankets with warm water bottles. We plow through the thorny bush and down a dusty road across wide swaths of tall grass turned a golden hue by the rising sun where we happen upon four rhinos - a male, two females and a calf. The bull steps forward to protect his brood and stares down the front of the jeep. He walks towards the car kicking dust along the road coming within ten feet of where Seamus sits in the front seat. Andres says not to worry…he's just marking his territory - showing us who's boss. And sure enough after a few minutes of cold stare-down, he turns back to his family. Just down the road, Andres pulls up to a cliff where baboons scamper through the trees. He jumps from the jeep and scouts the area on foot, a rifle strapped over his shoulder for safety, telling us that an old bull buffalo, who can be quite dangerous, sometimes hangs around. Upon the "all clear", we jump off the jeep and the kids have a blast exploring the area on a mini-foot-safari.

During the afternoon break, Andres gives parents a chance to relax at Madikwe Safari Lodge while he teaches the boys how to shoot their catapults (slingshots) and how to track animals using their dung. There is also an Eco Center with snakes, spiders, scorpions and more so that kids can learn about some of the smaller animals in Africa.

Giraffe Crossing
The afternoon safari offers giraffes and warthogs. We cross a bridge covered with about three-feet of water where impalas and zebras drink lazily in the sun. Up another hill, we are arrive in an entirely different terrain - a forested area lining a stream - where monkeys and baboons swing through the tree creating all sorts of havoc.  After watching some elephants gathering around the watering hole, we break for sundowners and an amazing sunset view with some friends from home who are staying at a nearby lodge.  The kids have fun playing together, exchanging stories and roasting marshmallows.

With Rosenbaums having "sundowner" overlooking
the African plains
Breakfast in the Bush
Day 3 of our Madikwe safari finds us tracking a lion who is apparently roaming his whole territory and moving very fast. After watching warthogs muzzle into the ground for food with their prickly snouts, we break for a bit of food ourselves with brunch in the bush. Madikwe Safari Lodge has set up tables and barbecues in a clearing and is serving up eggs and bacon in style.  After brunch, we head over to the dog den where twelve wild pups chase their tails, topple over each other and rest in the shade. In the afternoon, we find our lion who lazes in the shade of a tree, barely bothering to lift his head for a glance as we pull up.  We end the night watching a rhino and a bunch of guinea fowl at a watering hole. During sundowners the kids pretend to be animals as other safari jeeps going by comment on the "wild animals".  At dinner that night in the boma - a sandy area surrounded by campfires and lanterns - Andres tells us other stories from safaris past and growing up in the bush.

The safari is everything we expected. But more importantly in the new way of "plan every moment of a trip" way of travels, it was so much that we didn't expect... and that creates the most memories, the best stories. The spontaneous and unplanned is what travel is all about. The kids have an amazing time learning about all the animals - and getting to see them so close-up and their wild habitat - we are all fascinated watching the majestical wildlife, and most importantly of all we enjoy a true adventure together!

For more information on a family safari adventure in South Africa, contact Destination Southern Africa.  Terry, the owner, is from South Africa and has traveled there many times with his own children and knows all the best places to stay and things to do!

Playing with new friends from London at the lodge. No video games or TV!

Driving to the lodge in our taxi!

Looking for lions

July 15, 2012

Soweto South Africa: A History, The Street Life & Some Playtime

"Mayibuye Afrika!", meaning "Let Africa come back!", a phrase often shouted in the decades long fight against apartheid, the laws of segregation put in place by the ruling minority of South Africa in the 1948 - which ended just less than 20 years ago, rings in my head as we wander the streets of Soweto, the township in which the freedom struggle was born, with our kids. I've just finished reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography "A Long Walk to Freedom" and am not sure what to expect from this once crime-ridden area of extreme racial tension near Johannesburg, but I am about to find out.

Soweto, which stands for South West Townships was created by the ruling Apartheid government as a place to re-locate black citizens outside of Johannesburg. We are about to head into the center of Soweto with our two children Nathan, 11 and Seamus, 9. Our guide - arranged through Destination Southern Africa - Lynda is from Soweto and takes us to three areas - the three layers of Soweto.  There is the "wealthy" area where blacks were able to own property before Apartheid and then, with major restrictions (like paying rent on your own property), during apartheid. The brick homes look similar to what you find in the USA with walled yards, garages and gardens. He points out that this area is backed by hostels, which is transitional living between the slums and a better life.  These government subsidized dormitories don't have running water - a pump supplies the community as water is considered a human right and thus supplied by the government at pump stations for washing clothes, dishes or themselves outside. There is no electricity. This is slowly being replaced by new housing with modern amenities.  Lynda is proud of the progress, but he is quick to tell us that all of Soweto is not like this - the next and lowest layer of the of the onion. 
Nathan and Seamus playing with kids
from un-official settlement in Soweto

Soweto Township South Africa
After a stop at the Freedom Monument and a nearby lively street market full of friendly faces selling everything and anything your could need, we meet a friend of Lynda's who grew up in an unofficial settlement - a shantytown in Soweto called Kliptown - and now works with Kliptown Youth Program.  He is about 20 years old and speaks passionately about the importance of education to improve quality of life. He offers to show us this lowest end of Soweto. He leads us through narrow dirt streets which wind through tiny corrugated shacks that look as if they could fall over like a stack of cards.  The small, dusty alleyways are full of kids and some of the poorest of Soweto packed into a beehive of interesting Third World real life that our kids get to experience first hand. He points out fences made from old mattress box springs stressing that everything is used again and again - recycling out of need vs environmental purposes. Walls are pieced together with scraps and boxes and wires. Kids with no shoes wander past as they smile huge grins and give us the "thumbs up" sign. The kids find a group of local kids plain with a top and are invited to join in the fun. 

Nathan and Seamus playing with kids
at Kliptown school, Soweto
Finally, our guide leads us to a school - the school he attended as a small child. A few small rooms and a place for naps and lunch, a bowl of rice.  His principal, Mrs. Mfaxa, greets us with a huge smile and a warm hug for her former student as our kids instantly make new friends. They share everything they have with them instantly.  He tells us that attending this school under her guidance has made all the difference in his life. Mrs. Mfaxa invites us in for a look around and Nathan and Seamus are instantly swarmed by groups of school kids aged 2 - 5.  They sing songs for us, play chase with Nathan and Seamus, grin from ear to ear and teach the kids the Zulu thumb handshake.  

Though they live each day with nothing - most in a small one-room "house" with walls so thin you can hear neighbors on each side, dirt floors and mats instead of beds, they seem happy.  They find joy in a simple top or a can tied to a string.  They use their imaginations. They crave to learn and value education, most walking a mile or more to school each day. And according to our new friend that craving does not go away.  Education is their hope…their hope for a better life. And it is that hope among the youth of today that is so different than their families from just a few years ago when the youth lived in fear - fear of persecution, fear of arrest and even worse.

Kids at Pastoral Centre Pre-School and Creche in Kliptown
We say goodbye to the dozens of smiley faces and singing kids we met in the dusty slums of Soweto's "un-official settlement" and head to where the student uprisings began just a few decades ago.

Seamus looking at memorial at
Hector Pieterson Museum
Just down the street from Kilptown, we visit the Hector Pieterson Museum.  This museum is on exact the site of the 1976 student uprisings that brought the apartheid struggle to an international level in the media. On June 16, 1976, students, frustrated by a system that offered no hope, staged a peaceful protest. A new government rule, added to an already failing "Bantu" school system (for black South Africans), stated that all classes must be taught in Afrikaans - the language of the Afrikaner minority who controlled the government.  The only place in the world that spoke in Afrikaans was South Africa. The students wanted to keep learning English instead of a language foreign to them - a language they said which was that of their oppressor. They marched down the street from their school with signs, singing and chanting, joined by children from other schools. As they neared the end of the street they were met by police who threw tear gas and open-fired into the crowd. Many children were injured and died that day, including 13 year-old Hector Pieterson; a day that brought the struggle to the attention of the world (a picture of a boy carrying Hector's body and running from the police was published around the world), and started protests in Soweto that would continue for more than a decade. 

Danny showing kids bullet holes in
windows from Regina Mundi Church
During this time students - or any blacks - were forbidden to meet in small groups. The youth of Soweto turned to the sanctuary of Regina Mundi Church. Danny, a local who lived through this turbulent time, points out bullet holes and broken down altars, where police had broken up meetings using mass force. Nathan and Seamus have lots of questions for Danny about what it was like to be in school back then and what happened when the police came to the church to break up the meetings, which he answers perfectly engaging them on their level.

Seamus watching a street performer
with new friends in Soweto
Nelson Mandela had already been in prison for over a decade when he heard the news of the Soweto Uprising. He weeped for the children, but understood their frustration. Upon release from prison in 1990, Mandela moved back to his house at 8115 Orlando West in Soweto.  Also on this street, just a few doors down, is the home of Desmond Tutu, the first black bishop of South Africa and a freedom fighter in his own right; two Nobel Peace Prize winners on one small street! Mandela House is now a museum on a wide street lined with outdoor cafes, shops, street performers and a fun, funky vibe. As we have lunch on a patio, Nathan and Seamus meet local kids and start up a game of tag.  Their laughter is heard through the streets - bouncing past the once tension-filled racial relations in this area.  With smiles and handshakes - they know nothing of the struggle that happened long before their birth, and it shows. 

Although it can be difficult for kids to experience the poverty and the violent struggle of students to obtain today's freedoms in South Africa, open lanes of communication can help. We constantly talked to them about what they were thinking and how it made them feel and ended up having some in-depth conversations that will remain in my memory forever and furthered our family bond. Meeting happy, new friends and interacting on a child-level - playing, laughing, etc - also helped them join in the hope that resonates in Soweto today.

"Let Africa come back!"…for a new generation filled with hope for a better life it has. Although there is some work to do - to assist the poorer areas, to equalize educational opportunities - progress is being made. And most of all, their exists hope for black, for white, for poor, for young - opportunity is knocking!

The "Un-Official Settlement" area. Nathan and local guide in the background.

Playing Tag with kids in Soweto Township in front of Nelson Mandela's home