Rhinos in South Africa

Our first guided game drive in the Timbavati Game Reserve in South Africa was one of the most exciting, heart-pounding, white-knuckle adventures I’ve been on. More exhilarating than a roller coaster ride, our ranger took us off road and into the bush. We drove over and through thorn covered acacia trees, ducking our heads or leaning to one side to avoid being scratched. We held on to the bar in front of us as we were bumped and jostled. We were hunting rhinos, one of the “big five,” the most sought after animals of Africa.

When the ranger asked us if we wanted to track the rhinos on foot, I said, “Yes!”  We walked then drove again, spotting the rhinos and driving crazily to catch them from the front instead of from behind. Then back in the land rover, driving quickly, turning sharply, ducking and searching, the adults skittish with one of their babies nearby.

The ranger stopped the truck, and we watched; no talking, just listening and taking photos of their broad dark grey backsides with an occasional profile, amazed by the proximity of these prehistoric animals.

“Did you kill any rhinos?” My friend back in the U.S. asked me, a twinkle in his eye. “No,” I replied. “But we shot a lot, and we have the photos to prove it.”

To learn about the current status of rhinos in South Africa, read the article “Rhino Wars” in the March 2012 issue of “National Geographic” or listen to an interview with the author, Peter Gwin here.  To read about or listen to Namibia’s approach to saving wildlife and communal conservancies, click here.

Trip taken in August 2011.


Elephants! Big and grey with small eyes and long eyelashes, wrinkled skin and large ears, trunks swaying, they drank the water and ate the bushes, the young ones playing with each other, the even younger ones nursing or following their moms.

We were on a game drive, searching for the Big Five. We’d found one.

I sat still, my eyes big, watching these powerful animals lumber toward us, grazing the side of our game vehicle, unthreatened, unthreatening, except for the mock charge by one of the young elephants who seemed to scare only himself.

Gluten Free on Safari

When I made reservations to stay at Umlani Bush Camp in South Africa, I told them my daughter had celiac disease and was on a gluten-free diet. “Not a problem,” I was told. “We’ve had several guests who eat gluten free.” So I relaxed a bit, knowing that Umlani was one of our last stops at the end of a 4-week trip.

Arriving at Umlani just in time for lunch, I was apprehensive, wondering what she would eat for the next 3 days. The light lunch was anything but: butternut squash and sweet potato soup with fresh bread, salad, pasta with sundried tomatoes, chicken and artichoke hearts in a creamy sauce, and cheese and chutney for dessert. The soup was gluten free but not the bread and not the pasta. Then the owner appeared with a small dish of gluten-free pasta made just for her.

Before the animal game drives, while everyone congregated in the boma for wheat rusks and coffee, my daughter drank the hot chocolate (after verifying that it was gluten free) and skipped the rusks or brought her own, bought in a supermarket near Kruger National Park.

At breakfast, she ate eggs, tomato, bacon, and fresh fruit and gluten-free muffins baked especially for her. When lunch included spring rolls for the rest of us, the chef cooked the spring roll ingredients in eggs and served it without the skin. When lunch included lasagna, a gluten-free potato version was offered instead. Sundowners (a stop for a cocktail in the bush as the sun was setting) included potato chips and biltong (which she avoided, just in case) and Appletisers or Grapetisers for the kids.

Dinners included pork on skewers with pineapple and apricots, vegetables and potatoes and salad; impala stew with veggies, polenta and salad, strawberries and cream for dessert; and chicken (made without bread crumbs for the gluten-free eaters), risotto, veggies and salad.

Eating gluten free was easy and delicious at Umlani. At no time did my daughter feel deprived. At no time did she feel nauseous or sick. Instead, she ate well like the rest of us, and maybe even gained a little weight.

Trip taken 2011.

Where Is the Man on the Moon?

At the end of a quiet road in Hobart, Tazmania, I waited outside the phone booth while my friend called home thousands of miles away. The night was dark except for the moon and as I gazed up, I wondered what was missing. The moon was full and round and bright, but it looked different. There was no face. The man on the moon was gone.

“You don’t have a man on the moon!” my friend and I exclaimed, breathless and incredulous. “Oh yes, we do!” the hostel’s caretaker replied, laughing. Though we tried to describe the different moon we see in the Northern Hemisphere, his tone was placating, like those of the other Aussie guests in the hostel.

Since that trip to Australia, I’ve wondered if my friend and I imagined the different moon we described. Now many years later in South Africa, the moon was full, and it was time to find out.

My family and I scanned the sky, straining our eyes while searching for constellations and shooting stars. While others oohed and awed at meteors moving across the Milky Way, I focused on the moon.

From the deck of the lodge, I watched as the moon rose above the savannah, a yellow orange orb twinkling in the dark sky. Just as I remembered, there was no face; no eyes, no nose and no open mouth. I pointed to the moon. “There is no man on the moon,” I said to the Australians and South Africans around me. They laughed, but I knew what they didn’t. Just south of the equator, where Orion and the Southern Cross punctuate the sky, but the Big Dipper and the Northern Star are nowhere to be found, the moon looks different. In South Africa, the moon has no face. There is no man on the moon.

Unfortunately, none of us took any photos of the full moon. The photo below was taken by Tommy Taft 2 weeks before on the Wild Coast of South Africa.

Monkeys vs. Squirrels

Brown and gray and furry, they grasp small things with their human-like hands, stopping on their haunches to chew. They’re cute and resourceful, nimble and mischievous and in almost everyone’s backyards. In the U.S. we have squirrels and raccoons, but in South Africa they have monkeys and baboons.

When we visited Cape Point and Cape Vidal, we saw evidence of the nuisances they have become: signs posted, “Beware of baboons” and “Don’t feed the monkeys.” We watched a woman feeding the monkeys in St. Lucia and took photographs of their innocent looking faces in the trees.

In Durban, we discovered how much more trouble these animals can be. As our friend and host drove home one afternoon, she noticed several monkeys carrying food as they loped along her driveway. Inside, the kitchen was a mess. A bowl of fruit was eaten, bread and cookies left on the counter nibbled, stolen, or devoured. Her son was home sick, a window was left open, the house was too quiet and the monkeys, ever the opportunists, jumped in. When was the last time you had a squirrel in your house?

In Kruger National Park, we were warned. Garbage can lids were held together with rubber bands and signs were posted, but scattered garbage was everywhere, indicating the park rangers’ ploys were not working. Yet we were still surprised at the aggressive behavior of these “cute” animals. While enjoying breakfast on the deck of our tent cabin one morning, a monkey appeared on the railing ready to pounce on our food. We yelled, and he hissed with bold animosity. We scurried inside the tent and heard his feet running along the canvas roof.

We met Australians a few days later who reminisced about the cute squirrels they’d seen while visiting the States. The cuteness level seems to increase with the unknown, the unusual versus the usual, the uniqueness versus the common.

Though fighting with squirrels can become quite a sport, as bird lovers try to outsmart the squirrels from stealing food from their bird feeders, and raccoons may raid a garbage can, visiting the monkeys helped me appreciate my neighbors back home.

Soweto Gospel Choir in Boston

Six months ago we were in South Africa, and two weeks ago we were there again, as we watched and listened to the Soweto Gospel Choir in Boston’s Symphony Hall on February 12.

The New England audience was staid at first, barely swaying or tapping to the beat as the choir sang and moved in brightly colored costumes to the syncopation of two djembe drums at stage left. Their voices blended and melded as the 15 or so men and women sang traditional African songs as well as more contemporary American spirituals including, “Shosholoza,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” and “Swing Low.”

By the middle of the second act, the almost full house was rid of any inhibitions and the audience was standing, clapping and waving their arms as the dancers jumped, flipped and kicked, the drummers beated, the singers crooned and trilled, the choir harmonized.  As the music slowed, the audience swayed to the sensual sounds and lyrics of “Arms of an Angel,” a performance which inspired its own standing ovation.

With a tribute to Miriam Makeba, the choir ended the second act with “Pata Pata” bringing the audience to their feet, its clapping ceasing only when the drums and the melodies began again for two encores.

Since the Soweto Gospel Choir was formed in 2002 to celebrate inspirational African gospel music, the group has won three Grammy awards for their albums “Blessed” and “African Spirit” and for Best Movie Song “Down to Earth,” from the movie “Wall-E,” a collaboration with Peter Gabriel. The choir has performed all over the world for various dignitaries and with many leading performers.

Photo from artpropelled.blogspot.com.

Adventures in Lesotho

Do you know what country has the highest minimum elevation in the world? You’re thinking Nepal, right? Or China. Maybe Afghanistan, Argentina or Chile? But high in the mountains, surrounded and landlocked by the country of South Africa, is the answer. The small country of Lesotho (pronounced “Li-soo-too”) is the only country in the world with a minimum elevation above 1000 meters. With a low point of 4530 feet, most of Lesotho’s land is above 6000 feet.

We spent only 2 days in Lesotho, a country with just under 2 million people, about a quarter of whom have AIDS, and a land of 11,720 square miles, slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Maryland. Skiing, hiking, camping, dramatic views, harrowing car rides and pony treks, round huts, friendly and very poor people, donkeys and mountains: Lesotho offers a variety of excitement for the adventuresome traveler.

There is so much of the country we didn’t see, and there are so many places I wanted to go but didn’t. So for those of you who have more time and interest or whose travel plans allow a variation off the beaten track, here are the places we didn’t go. If you go, please let me know, so I can travel again to this beautiful country and live vicariously through your adventures.

  • Experience traditional Besotho life at Malelea Lodge and Pony Trekking Centre, a backpackers lodge in Western Lesotho.
  • Hike and bathe in river pools in Ts’ehlanyane National Park and stay at Maliba Mountain Lodge.
  • Visit Semonkong Lodge and you can hike to the mighty Maletsunyane Falls, where water plummets 186 meters in one of the highest single dropping waterfalls in Africa.
  • Drive the treacherous, dramatic and beautiful Sani Pass and visit the highest pub in Africa at the Sani Top Chalet.
  • Hike southern Africa’s highest peak, Thabana-Ntlenyana (3482m).
  • Go skiing in Lesotho at AfriSki Resort .
  • Experience a rural stay in the Northern mountains of Lesotho at Mamohase Rural Stay B&B.

Trip taken August 2011.

Sleeping in Lesotho

For convenience and simplicity, we spent our one night in Lesotho in a gated business hotel where we were able to leave our car for the day and sleep easily at night. With a motel-like setup, the Likileng Lodge located near the Caldenspoort border just outside of Butha Buthe, was a little worn but clean and perfect for our stay.

Because the rooms each contained only two double beds, our family was forced to split up, so in each room slept one adult and one child, one male and one female. As we registered, I stepped forward to sign the endless paperwork for the second room but was waved away. The man at the desk wanted the other man in our party besides my husband, our 15-year old son, to sign for the room. We realized later that our American nutrition caused him to look much older than the malnourished children of Lesotho.

I had to swallow my pride and my words, as this man at the front desk obviously didn’t think much of women or perhaps his culture didn’t allow him to be friendly to a married woman, in either case, I was quiet, not wanting to offend in a country where I did not speak their language.

Trip taken August 2011.

Eating in Lesotho

I was apprehensive about our trip to Lesotho, not knowing what the food would be like, not knowing how I would communicate the need to eat gluten free in a language I didn’t speak. Every time I spoke to someone at World Vision by phone or in emails, I emphasized the need for my daughter to eat gluten free. The last thing I wanted to do was offend the family of our sponsored child as they fed us a meal. On the other hand, I didn’t want my daughter to get sick!

Before we left, I researched the food of Lesotho and was relieved to learn that their diet consists mainly of corn, vegetables and meat. As we traveled to the World Vision offices, we reminded Julius, our translator, of my daughter’s dietary restrictions, and as we were served a feast, buffet style, we depended on another World Vision employee who was fluent in English and very articulate to ask the questions we would normally ask: “Does this dish contain any wheat or any flour or any bread crumbs?”

With the help of our World Vision friends, we learned which dishes contained gluten and which dishes our daughter should avoid. We put our trust in their understanding and in the translation, and she never got sick. This is what we ate:

  • Roasted chicken wings, thighs and drumsticks
  • Nyekoe – sorghum, pumpkin and beans
  • Carrots with beans and curry spices
  • Beans with onion and carrots
  • Pumpkin (served like boiled squash)
  • Samp (aka pap) – finely ground maize boiled until stiff, similar to polenta
  • Lentils
  • Lipabi – ground roasted corn served for a snack
  • Motoho – a traditional porridge made from sorghum, similar to apple sauce in texture and in sweetness
  • Dried peaches
  • Bread (contained wheat)

Later that evening, we experienced our second Lesotho culinary experience while eating at our hotel’s restaurant in Butha Buthe. Accompanied by simple green salad and rice, we had a choice of chicken, T-bone steak, or rump roast. The meat was prepared simply, the chicken stir fried with peri peri spices and served with peach chutney. Delicious and gluten free. For breakfast at the hotel the next morning, we ate a traditional English style breakfast with cereal, yogurt, fruit and bread to start followed by eggs cooked to order, bacon and stewed tomatoes. Lunch the next day included chicken, beet salad, coleslaw, mashed potatoes and pineapple Fanta.

Avoiding gluten in Lesotho was easy, especially since wheat is not a traditional staple, but trusting in people and their understanding of our dietary restrictions was important for our peace of mind as well as the health and comfort of our daughter.

Trip taken August 2011.

Orphans in Lesotho

Orphans are common in Lesotho, largely due to the high incidence of AIDS. We volunteered to spend a day of service with World Vision, and our day was spent helping a family of orphans.

Living alone in a small village about a 10-minute drive from our sponsored child and not too far from Ts’ehlanyane National Park, were four children: a 15-year old girl, 12-year old twin boys, and an 8-year old girl. (Their brother, 18 years old, was off on an initiation program for 6 to 8 months.) According to Julius, our translator, there is much child abuse in Lesotho and advantages taken of children, even by family members. The neighbors watch out for these children but have little food themselves.

With World Vision employees and other community volunteers, we spent the day cleaning the children’s space, their hut, their clothes and the land around them. Because of the cold, we didn’t meet until 11 a.m. when the land was warmed by the sun. When we arrived, the hut the children share was surrounded by trash. Inside, the brick rondavel with straw roof and dung floor contained a shelf, a trunk for clothes and a twin bed with a rusty frame and broken springs.

My husband cut and gathered fire wood. My children and I picked up trash, my husband and son washed dishes and cleaned the hut’s soot-covered ceiling while my daughter and I washed the children’s clothes (see related post “Washing Clothes by the River in Lesotho“).

Just off the road, the hut is vulnerable to litter from cars driving by. We found bits of old shoes, wrappers, bottles, broken glass and plastic, a film canister, old workbooks, fabric, a metal spoon. I gave the plastic alphabet stencil to a grandmother who sang the ABCs to the child (in English) on her lap and pointed to the letters. The clothes, the ceiling, and the dishes were filthy and required much scrubbing. Between jobs, we played Frisbee and laughed with the three youngest orphans.

When our job was done, we gathered together inside the hut where World Vision supplied the children with new school uniforms, two new mattresses, four comforters, eggs, beans, sacks of maize and a lock for the door. As the 30 or so community workers gathered in the hut, they sang a song and although we didn’t know its meaning, it evoked powerful emotions in all of us. One of the World Vision workers wiped away a tear as she lectured to the group. She said that we (the Americans) were not just rich but that we love the children and are asking the community to watch them. She said that it is the responsibility of everyone in the community to look after and take care of the children and reminded them that they would want the community to take care of their children if they died.

After my husband said a few words and gave each of the children a small toy, lunch was served to all the workers. We ate before returning to our hotel, saying good-bye to Julius and Lesotho and crossing the border back into South Africa.

Photos on this post by Tommy Taft.

Trip taken August 2011.