Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nina Griscom's African Adventure - Part I

A majestic sleeping giant from 10 feet away in Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Thursday, September 23, 2010

My flight to Johannesburg, on South African Airways was perfection! Left on time, arrived on time.

Frankly I don't ask much more these days. Aside from a brief glitch in the sleeper bed mechanism, I had a seamless 15-hour flight, and didn't even dip into my copious supply of sleeping aids.

My seat mate had obviously spent a festive night in New York, as he lumbered into the adjacent seat, slapped a bottle of Aspirin on his part of the divided table space, and proceeded to snore his way through the entire flight. I was delighted not to make small talk!

Upon arrival, I was processed through immigration as fast as a hot potato and was met by a very efficient and friendly ambassador of the Saxon Hotel, who escorted me to a waiting car (fully a/c'd).
The Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The spacious guest living room.
30 minutes later I arrived at the grounds of the Saxon;located in the most elegant  suburb, outside of the main artery of town.

As you can imagine, I have seen a few grand hotels in my day. The Saxon is now on my top 5 in the world!! Oh my!!

I am in Villa number 3 (out of 3 villas in addition to the main building, constructed in 1999).

Within two seconds of stepping into the spacious guest living room space, where my room was located down an adjacent hallway, I had already determined to re-decorate my entire New York apartment!
My bedroom at the Saxon Hotel.
The adjacent seating area.
Think of a  modern, clean, monochromatic scheme of blonde wood,  informed by layers of tribal artifacts placed  on pedestals and hung on walls, and accents of mahogany furniture, covered by elegant African textiles, and you have the picture. More Nina than Nina.

Then add acres of attractive, helpful, professional attendees who are here to accommodate every whim (within reason).

Having the perfect excuse of herniated discs, I padded off to the spa for an hour of Swedish massage.

The spa was another decorating epiphany!! Again, more blonde wood and tribal artifacts. The lovely ladies who ministered to me had names such as Princess and Precious. They were so kind and welcoming, and I had one of the best massages ever!
My roomy bathroom.
Once my discs were re-aligned ... I set out on a shopping expedition (somewhat akin to the safari to come, but after different prey).

One is well advised to go with a car and driver, as Jo'burg is a sprawling city of 11 million inhabitants and shopping requires a strategy, not to mention the knowledge of a local pro to avoid the copious traffic.

I hit the top 6 on my list, and called it a day at 5pm when most of the stores close.

American Express must have really done a tap dance on the heads of local merchants, because not ONE of the stores I visited took that card.

Bring MasterCard or Visa, and in a pinch, the US dollar will do, though there are many cash machines that will dispense Rands.

I am now back in my beautiful room, taking pictures and measurements to re-do my place in NYC. Please don't tell my husband!!

Up early tomorrow to visit Soweto, and head off to our Safari!

Friday, September 24, 2010
Jo'burg
 
The other 9 ladies arrived today from New York, and as such, the safari has truly begun. What they do not know is that I have already pillaged all the best stores in Jo'burg; not a great way to make new friends!
 
Nina in one of the 4x4 uncovered jeeps led by the extraordinary Krista Krieger (below).
We are all still jet lagged and most of us were happy to enjoy the extraordinary spa and facilities of the Saxon Hotel, which I am considering moving into as a third home.
 
After everyone had settled in, we had cocktails and proceeded to the dining room. Once again, I was bowled over by the dramatic and beautiful decor which was created by a South African design team, using local woods, tribal artifacts and contemporary designs that would make Ralph Lauren salivate! Absolutely exquisite in every detail.
 
As we were getting up early the next day to leave for our safari, I took a powder on the early side. But from my room, I heard the tinkle of crystal glasses and raucous laughter coming from the nearby bar in our villa. I imagined that it was the bridal party I had heard about who were rumored to be doing lewd things. Popped in my ear plugs, took a sleeping pill, and kissed the world good night.

Saturday, September 25, 2010
 
Well the tinkle of glasses and the raucous laughter were soon identified by the hungover ladies who showed up at breakfast. And no, they were NOT in the wedding party! Little did I know that this was a harbinger of things to come. I am no virgin when it comes to festivities, but a safari is not for the faint of heart when it comes to imbibing all of nature and then some ...
 
In the name of practicality, our group, led by the extraordinary Krista Krieger, had chartered a King Air plane to transport us to all the stops along our way during our two and a half weeks safari, covering 4 countries.
 
Try getting 11 ladies (and 3 very hungover ones) to board a plane on time. It became clear very early on, who were the chiefs and who were the Indians! Somehow, we managed to board the King Air and take off for our first destination: Ngala Camp in Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Two Range Rovers waiting to transport us to the Ngala Camp.
Krista Krieger has organized several fabulous safaris to Africa during the past three years, in the name of introducing her friends to the beauty of Africa as well as illuminating the work she is doing on behalf of the Africa Foundation (www.africafoundation.org). Specifically this translates into an incredible success rate of building creche's, primary schools, kitchens, health clinics, and infrastructure in communities.
 
We were introduced to our two pilots: David and Darryl (a man) and buckled up. For me, this was my first trip to Africa and my first safari of this kind. I have been on a safari in Australia, but with one man, NOT 11 ladies, so I had NO idea what to expect.
Staff greeters at Ngala Camp in Kruger National Park, South Africa.
We landed on a rough bush strip, and immediately upon leaving the cabin, I knew I was in the bush! The first hint was 2 Range Rovers (4X4s) that were parked by the strip, waiting to transport us to the camp.
 
Every girl dreams about a sexy male hunter, but I was quite pleased to get into the jeep which was commanded by a lovely young South African guide named Meghan. She was one of the first female guides in a traditionally male domain. And I came to see that Meghan could kick any of the male asses in any department!
 
We loaded into two jeeps and were driven through the bush for 45 minutes to Ngala Camp, where Krista was already a loved and familiar friend. I was SO happy that I was not hung over.
Tea set up at Ngala Camp.
We arrived to a beautiful African greeting which was replicated throughout our journey; the members of the camp staff were there to say hello and to offer us all a cool wash cloth and a lovely cold drink.
 
In a shake of a Vervet Monkey's tail, we were led to our tents (most of us were sharing quarters, which is a whole nother story), and asked to reconvene in the main living area to learn the RULES.
 
The rules in all camps are very simple: The MINUTE you arrive you are presented with a document which indemnifies the camp from all responsibilities ... AND you are informed that after dark, you are NEVER to walk around without a guide. VERY simple and very clear! At night, all manner of creatures hunt — lions, hyenas, hippos, etc. Good enough for me.
My tent at Ngala Camp.
The lush accommodations inside the tent.
So once I had signed away my life, we were loaded into two 4x4 jeeps (uncovered) for a two-hour game drive.
 
This involves driving along arid, bumpy tracks in search of beautiful, deadly animals. And despite the high $$$ freight of such a trip, there are no guarantees of seeing the BIG FIVE (Lion, Water Buffalo, Leopard, Elephant, and Rhinoceros). But Bingo! On our first drive, we saw all of the above. And yes it was incredible and transforming to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.
 
Driving around in a jeep looking at wild animals is a thrill, but the real deal is TRACKING a given prey. That is where the love of nature and expertise comes into play. At the end of the day, in the bush, everything is about being able to interpret animal's actions and reactions. Learning to know the difference between a danger cry from a bird, versus a mating call can make the difference between life and death. Everything is subject to interpretation.
A lioness in repose was one of our first sights.
Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ngala Camp, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Wake up call at 5:30 am. Not happy, but so what!! A quick cup of coffee, and off to another game drive. Animals are best seen early in the morning, or in the late afternoon. The rest of the day they are hunting and as such, dangerous ... GRRRRRR.
 
Meghan was a fabulous guide. Not only can she negotiate the 4x4 through all manner of terrain, she is also incredibly well schooled in natural habitat. As we drove along, she gave us a talk about tracking, spoor, animal behavior, and the odd story about drama in the bush!
 
Guides have a great communication system by virtue of radios in the jeeps. So when one guide sees a pride of Lion, he or she will alert their buddy in another jeep, and as such, everyone gets to see the same animals ...
We drove to a water hole and were lucky to see a herd of elephant. We spent at least 40 minutes sitting in silence watching them . Their habits are fascinating; and their sense of community is something to learn from.
An adolescent elephant. Looking up 15 feet at a giraffe.
A rhino.
A leopard perched atop a tree.
A male lion from 10 feet away.
A stealth hippo.
A herd of impala.
A duo of zebras.
A Lilac-breasted Roller. A nest.
Water buffalo.
I have been bitten by the cynical snake, and have also read a great deal about safaris before going on this trip. I am inclined to think that guides like to space out the viewing of animals. If a group sees the big 5 in the first drive, it's a bit like having amazing sex on the first date.
 
A young student with an agenda!
Back to camp for a lovely lunch of salads and beautifully prepared cuisine, A BRIEF rest, and then back out into the bush for another two-hour game drive, where we saw so many incredible things.
 
On the drive back to camp we had cocktails in the bush at sunset under the emerging stars. A full bar was set up, and we all marveled at how lucky we all were to be in this extraordinary place!

Krista arranged for us to visit the nearby community where the Africa Foundation has built a school kitchen, brought in water, and constructed classrooms. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday, so the kids were not in class, however a group of the young male students regaled us with a song and dance routine, which was wonderful to behold.

As we were leaving, the lead boy came up to me to shake hands (the handshake is BIG in Africa and involves a series of moves). As I turned to go, he reached out and gave me a pat on the butt! What a little rogue!
Mtembeni Primary School, one of many schools that the Africa Foundation has helped to build.
Young students regaling us with song and dance.
Dinner at camp was set up in the adjacent dry (duh) river bed. A long table was beautifully set with candlelight, not far from the ubiquitous bar. Bet you'll be surprised to hear we had a long cocktail hour while the chef grilled skewers of Kudu (tastes a bit like lamb/goat) and roasted chicken on a barbecue.

Our pilots and guides joined us and regaled us with tales of the bush. Some of us stayed up late (11:30) and talked politics (South African), while the rest of the gang hit the sheets. 5:30 A.M. comes awfully fast!
A long table beautifully set with candlelight. Chefs grilling skewers of kudu and roasted chicken.
Nina and friends imbibe the beautiful scenery. Guides Meghan and Gaz.
Krista was my roommate on this leg of the trip, and I had given her ample warning of my ability to out-snore any Hippo. I was hoping she would be asleep when I returned to our tented room. She had arrived on the trip with silicone ear plugs, a white noise machine, and a some anti-snoring patch for me. None of them made a dent!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Today most of the group went on the 5:30 AM game drive and then returned to camp for a quick breakfast before heading off to the airstrip to continue on to our next destination: Soussuvlei, Namibia, set in the Namib Desert, which is the 2nd largest in the world after the Sahara.
Nina's pride on the 5:30 AM game drive.
Back to camp for a quick breakfast before continuing on to our next destination: Soussuvlei, Namibia.
Our fly boys (Iceman and Goose) had the props going as we approached the strip, and we boarded without too much drama. We cleared customs in Polokwane, South Africa, where I can assure you, you will not run into anyone you have ever met! A deserted spot if ever I saw one. Then another three-hour leg to Windhoek, Namibia, to clear MORE customs.

I had a big moment of hilarity when the customs agent queried me WHY on earth 11 ladies were traveling together. I was hard pressed to answer that one, and simply said the men were following by a zebra caravan. He was NOT amused ...
Little Kulala Camp. The camp is gorgeous and beautifully designed in an organic shape, befitting its surroundings.
Another 20-minute flight on the King Air brought us to a desolate landing strip of sand and gravel, roughly compacted by dragging tires on the strip. The pilots were a tad concerned about getting into this one. We unloaded and drove off in our two jeeps (covered this time) to the Little Kulala Camp, located 2 seriously bumpy hours away. This region is God's country! Nothing but sand and brush as far as the eye can see. Think a lunar landscape with sand.
 
Upon arrival, out came the cool towels, cold drinks, and rounds of handshakes. I was getting good at this shake by now, and adding a few moves of my own, which caused a few eyebrows to lift from the staff. Same signing away of lives process, with the warnings about walking around camp at night, and then off to our rooms.

Despite the desolate terrain, this was a very luxurious camp, with a full spa and beautifully decorated permanent (untented) suites located in intervals from the main structure.
 
An early and delicious dinner was followed by an equally early bedtime.
The Great Red Sand Dunes in Namibia.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wake up call at 5 AM. REALLY not funny! The night was passed by a fitful sleep and the sound of screeching animals. God knows who they were.
 
After a quick breakfast we set off for a view of the rising sun on the gorgeous red dunes which look like a Magritte painting. Some of the more fit among us elected to hike up the 5000 ft dune, named Big Daddy, while the fitness-challenged group (that would be ME) opted for the smaller one which was half the height. It was blowing a gale and let me tell you, hiking up any dune with soft sand and a huge wind is no easy feat!!!
 
Wild life in this region consists of ostrich, jackals, oryx, impala (lots of those) and bird life. And of course reptilian types.
I kept looking down at my feet and cursing like a sailor to myself. My acrophobia had kicked in and yet I was NOT going to be the only one who couldn't make the climb. It was well worth the effort as the view from the top is exquisite, and gives a panorama of endless desert and carved red dunes.
 
Back to camp for lunch, massages, swims by the pool, and the coveted NAP. I, of course, pillaged (once again) the gift shop. Got a great khaki satchel and some local body cream. This is a climate so dry that it literally sucks any remaining vestige of moisture a body might possess.
 
Everything in Africa is beautiful, but the sunsets are truly remarkable, and it was a great treat to watch the sun go down from our lovely deck. There was an option to sleep on a roof top deck of every villa. However, when a friend had seen a scorpion climbing down her bathrobe, I nixed that idea! Such a wuss.
 
The group was feeling frisky this evening, and the camp staff did not disappoint in the entertainment department. First was a wonderful wine tasting in the cave of the camp, where we sampled some delicious South African wines and ate cheese ... all by candlelight. Very dramatic and beautiful.
 
Dinner was set up outdoors at a long table, where we were joined once again by our intrepid pilots. The menu had an excellent butternut squash soup (the soups on our safari were uniformly superb), and ostrich, accompanied by more red wine.
After dinner the staff danced and sang for us, and then insisted that we join in, which led to all kinds of twisting and turning and tons of laughter!

Stay Tuned for Part II, coming tomorrow ...
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