Friday, June 14, 2013

South Africa 7: CapeTown: Table Mountain, Clifton Beach and the New Year Eve

The Mightly Table Mountain among the clouds
We woke up to the morning of 31st December pretty excited as we were to visit the famed Table Mountain today. We had booked the cable car to the top of the mountain online so we simply went to the ticket counter to collect our tickets. The ride to the parking lot was in itself a great experience with panoramic views of the city and V&A waterfront in particular from here. At the ticket counter, we were to be disappointed again as the cable car was not running because of strong winds. So this was the 3rd event after Sky diving and shark-cage diving to be cancelled due to weather. With no other option available as this was to be our last day in CT, we simply took refund of the tickets and went to enjoy Clifton Beach.

White Sands of Clifton Beach
Clifton beach is anyways one of the best beaches of South Africa but it has become even more of a must visit for us Indians after the Tumhi ho Bandhu song from bollywood movie, Cocktail. It was only a short drive from where we were and we reached there soon after a nice breakfast at a restaurant close to the beach. Clifton beach is basically four beaches that are separated by natural blockades and are numbered from 1 to 4. Generally each number beach is suited for a particular kind of visitors but for today, it was only Beach 1 & 2 that had any crowd. As it was very windy and the water was freezing, nobody was really going into the water and everyone seemed to be enjoying the sun that was still trying find its way from behind the clouds. Even we didn't go into the water and just settled on a boulder close to it where we could feel the occasional splash of water from the waves rushing onto these boulders.

This is what we scaled, Lion's Head
While lying on this boulder, I noticed the dominating hill right behind us. Upon asking a local, I found out that this was Lion's Head and we can even hike to its top if we wish. As we were unable to go to the top of Table Mountain, I immediately wanted to hike to the top of Lion's Head. Thankfully, my friends agreed to play along and we drove to the base of Lion's Head. Once there, we realized that all of us were in slippers/flip-flops as we had prepared only for the beach and it wouldn't be easy doing this 3.5 km hike in those. We contemplated a bit on whether to go back to the apartments to get shoes but then decided to just start hiking right now. With the sun out shining over our unfit bodies, we were soon sweating like pigs and were tired in just about 1 km of hiking. A short break and we continued to hike as long as the route didn't look tough but for a gradual ascent.

View of Signal 
After some more time, and then the trek narrowed a bit. Further ahead, and then one needed to climb small rocks with the help of chains. These chains have been put up to assist the hikers scramble over the steep rocky faces. This might sound tough but is actually very easy to do if you do it slowly. After almost 2 hours of hiking, we reached the summit of this interestingly shaped mountain. Once there, we were immediately mesmerized by the view with the city and Table Bay on one side and the scenic Atlantic Ocean coastline on the other. We had most of this view at various points while we wound our way around the head but the complete view from the top was a different story altogether. 
Climbing along these Chains
And then it went vertical

While I was taking pictures from here, a red colored Rescue Chopper came towards Lion's Head and continued hovering in the air towards a side. I climbed down a bit to find the rescuers climbing down the rope to a point on the hill. At the point where they landed, I could see a guy injured lying on the rocks. They immediately put him on the stretcher, sealed him in the bag sort of thing and he was airlifted back to the chopper. The chopper moved to the nearby hospital for emergency care to the injured person. I was again pleasantly surprised with the immediate rescue action available in this country compared to my own country. After this, we climbed down the hill and I found one of the rescuer also hiking down. I saluted his effort and moved down the path.

The final climb over the rocky face
After this, we rushed to a Hyperstore to pick our tickets for the New Year concert that we had booked online for the night. Once there, we were surprised to see a long queue. However, this queue was not for the concert but for some money withdrawal. We were in a hurry as we needed to reach V&A waterfront to catch the ferry to Robben Island. However, we needed to wait for our turn as the queue culture is very strong here. Once our turn came, they refused us the tickets as I had failed to carry the credit card from which the tickets were booked. Realising soon that convincing them wasn't working, we rushed to V&A waterfront hoping for the ferry to be delayed today as we were already late. However, we soon found out that even this ferry was cancelled due to strong winds. As usual, we applied for a refund and decided to go back to the hotel.

View of Atlantic Coastline from the summit

Romancing over the cliff. Anyone?
Back at the hotel, I picked up my credit card and went to the Hyperstore again to pick our tickets. This time we managed to get the tickets without any hassle. Forgetting the two experiences that were already cancelled due to weather, we readied ourselves hoping for an exciting New Year party. All dressed up, we went to V&A again only to find all the roads blocked due to heavy traffic moving into this area. In some time, we finally managed to find a parking spot. Once out, it seemed like being in the car was better as there was a huge crowd all over the area. As we had no idea where exactly the concert was to take place, we moved in the direction in which everyone else was moving. After some time, we reached the location of the concert where a few more people were standing looking shell-shocked. We asked the guy standing next to a counter on where do we get the entry from. To that he replied, "The concert has been cancelled because of weather. Strong winds". Hearing this, I also joined the others standing there looking as baffled as them. Realizing that this is over and I should move on, we immediately went to the waterfront where a music concert was going on. Unlike the one I had booked for, this one was free and was as crowded  as it could be. Anyways, the music was good and we jostled with the crowds to move a bit ahead to be able to see it and enjoyed it after that until the clock struck 12 and everyone wished everyone a Happy New Year.

The Rescue Chopper hovers as the injured guy is pulled up
After this, we went back to our apartments and packed our bags as we were to fly out from CT at 6 in the morning. From there, we would be taking 3 flights to reach back home. Considering how many drinks three of us had, we were lucky that the fourth one was a teetotaler. But it was really fun boarding the flight in such state. We slept off as soon as we boarded all three flights only to wake up at our intermediate stops at Jo'burg and Addis Ababa. Thanks to this, we didn't feel the pains of the long flight back and landed in Delhi all fresh from our long nap.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

South Africa 6: CapeTown: Of Scuba, Sharks and Penguins

In continuation from South Africa 5: Garden Route: Of Knysna, Paragliding and the Horror

When the car arrived, I believed that they would inquire me regarding the accident but I was pleasantly surprised when they just gave me the papers for the new car and asked me to just simply sign on a paper as an acceptance of this car. Interestingly, this was a new car with only a temporary number as of yet. Pleased with the new car, all of us jumped into it with me on the driving seat again. Considering the intensity of the accident, I was a bit conscious driving again. To add to that, even my fellow passengers were throwing words of caution at me at the slightest opportunity. After driving for sometime, I finally decided to give up the steering to someone else to drive. On our way, we also stopped at the point where we met with that accident and took some photographs of the site while also looking for any of our stuff still strewn around from last night.

Our karaoke room at Daddy Long Legs
The shortest route to Cape Town from Gaansbaai passes Hermanus. However, as there was a huge fire in Hemanus, we took a longer route but we could still see the huge plumes of smoke as the road crisscrossed the yellow fields to finally merge with N2 at Caledon. It was only a short ride from Caledon and soon we could see the well known Table Mountain with its top covered by clouds. While looking at the intimidating Table Mountain and taking its pictures, we didn't even realize when we entered the city and were hovering in the City Bowl section of Cape Town. We were to stay at Daddy Long Legs hotel on Long Street which is a boutique backpacker hotel where each room is tastefully designed by an artist/musician etc. We stayed in the room titled 'Do Not Disturb', pretty ironic considering two guys would share the bed. However, it is named so as this is a Karaoke Room fitted with 5 microphones across the room. Once we checked in, the first thing we did was sing songs at the top of our voice until the hotel staff told us to calm down. Another session followed at a lower volume and then we slept off for a while.

Long Street is one of those streets of CT with lots of nightclubs and bars all around. Considering that we had been a bit out of the party circle for last few days, we decided to pay a visit to some of these clubs in the area. About 3-4 hours were spent club-hopping by us and then we came back to the hotel, sung a few more songs and slept to rest our tired bodies.

Seven-Gill Cowshark (Photo from
Next morning, we woke up early as we planned to go scuba-diving. For diving, we had to go to Pisces Divers in Simonstown. The early morning sea-side drive to Simon's Town was pleasant with least traffic and a cool breeze blowing in our face. Once at the dive centre, the guys who were to do the Discover Scuba Diving Course were given a short training session and then all of us picked our diving gear. From our past diving experience, we picked the basic gear needed to dive in tropical waters (where I had dived before this). However, when it came to picking and trying the gear needed to dive in the chilly waters of CT, we got a bit perplexed. Diving with a jacket, gloves and hood on seemed too restrictive and made all of us a bit uncomfortable. Finally, we reached the beach from where I would be picked for my dive at Photographer's reef. Photographer's reef is an inshore reef on the False Bay side and as the name suggests was supposed to be a paradise for under water photographers. As I was the only certified diver of us all, I was stranger to all other divers on board but was provided a buddy nonetheless. I was still not confident considering this was to be my first dive after the certification where I won't be with a instructor. Also, all the jackets and gloves to protect myself from the chilly waters restricted my movement and made me even more nervous.

Underwater kelp Forest that we have to negotiate to see Cowsharks
Finally at the dive point, I back-flipped off the boat and was immediately shaken by the icy cold waters. Once inside the water, I realized that the visibility was hardly 2-3 metres and I could hardly see my buddy. As expected, soon I was without the buddy and struggling to control buoyancy in the completely different diving environment. It was clear that diving in temperate waters is a completely different ball game. However, soon I was taken control off by another diver who ensured that I don't get lost and move the right way as the group. For most part, he was also controlling my buoyancy. Thanks to my haphazard diving, I was breathing rather quickly and was out of air in just about 20 minutes. Out of air, I also came out of water. It was only when I spoke to some other divers, I realized that this dive site has depth varying from 3 metres to 17 metres  and it wasn't me struggling with buoyancy as the lack of visibility ensured that I don't see the gradient.

A thoughtful Penguin
When I came back to the beach, I was told that my friends couldn't dive as they were least comfortable with the conditions. I could understand their condition and told them to dive only if they feel confident enough as it was surely not easy. They decided not to dive and went for lunch while I prepared myself for another dive. This time I was to dive with Seven Gill Cowsharks who are known to move in up and down in a channel. These sharks are prehistoric apex predators and grow about 3 metres in length. Considering the visibility condition in my last dive, I was really worried of becoming a meal even though I had heard that they haven't been known to attack any divers. This time, I told the dive instructor beforehand that I was struggling with the conditions and he decided to be my buddy himself. Once down at the sandy bottom, I realized that I was feeling more comfortable in this dive though the conditions were quite similar. Soon I was enjoying swimming through the underwater kelp forests while observing the sharks passing by us. Maybe because of the cold conditions, my air ended earlier compared to other divers even in this dive and I was out on the boat feeling much better after this dive having seen these predators from up close.

Curious Penguins
Post scuba-diving, we went to the Boulders Beach considering we were already close to it in Simon's Town. This is a sheltered beach with huge granite boulders along it. Boulders beach has become a popular tourist spot in CT for a colony of African Penguins that can be observed from close distance here. Here, there was also an option to go on a board walk where one gets to get pretty close to the penguins. However, as we could see a group of 10-15 penguins on a boulder right next to the beach, we decided to hop onto it and were almost at a touching distance to the penguins. These penguins are relatively very small compared to the size of penguins we see on wildlife channels mostly but they are equally cute and seem to express a variety of emotions.

Lazy Penguin
After this, we went to check-in at our Service Apartments at Green Point. This was a 2 bedroom apartment located on the main road bang in front of Cape Town Stadium. There were a number of bars, cafes located within walking distance to the apartment and even Victoria & Alfred Waterfront was a 10 minutes walk away only. In short, I loved the location and would recommend it highly to anyone looking for a mid-budget accommodation in CT.

Soaring into the Sky
In the evening, we visited a club for drinks and decided to dine at Bukhara, an Indian restaurant, as we wanted to have a filling Indian meal to soothe our appetite. No matter where we Indians go, we feel satisfied only after eating a proper desi meal. Considering that we hadn't had chapatis for quite some time, we ordered more than our appetite and still finished all of it. With tired bodies from the long day and a full belly, we went back to the apartments and dozed off soon after.

The Two "Sachins" in our Service Apartment at Green Point
Continue to the next part: CapeTown: Table Mountain, Clifton Beach an NY Bash

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Ranthambore Tiger Census 2013

I visited Ranthambore Tiger Reserve on May 11th and that was when I first found out of the waterhole census that was to be carried out on 25th & 26th May 2013. Later, I found a post on Facebook providing details on how to apply to volunteer for this census. As I have always wanted to experience being in the jungle at night, I immediately sent a mail to the email address provided expressing my willingness to volunteer for this. A couple of days later, I got a response wherein I had to send an application form and updated resume to apply for this. After two days of e-mailing the required documents, I called up the Deputy Conservator of Forests office to find out the status of my application. I was told that my name was put in 2nd list as I didn't have any relevant experience. Upon hearing this, I told them of the number of safaris that I have done in Indian National Parks and also South African ones. On hearing that, I was soon sent a mail confirming my acceptance to volunteer for this.

A huge chameleon in our hotel lawn
I reached Ranthambore on Friday, 24th May for an orientation/training session for the waterhole census wherein we were informed slightly about all the ranges for this census and the differences between some animals with similar physical appearance. This waterhole census was basically over 330 waterholes in Ranthambore National Park and Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary. As the census form was in Hindi, so we were also told names of some animals in Hindi/local language. After this, we were told a few Do's and Dont's in during the census and were told to collect at the division office by 0630 hours next morning. During this session, I was pleased to see the number of naturalists/enthusiasts who had travelled from all over the country to be part of this.

See those parallel logs of wood? Thats Jamoda II machan
I reached the division office on time and tried to find the machan that was allotted to me. After jumping over a few shoulders trying to peek onto the list that was pasted on a board, I finally found my name written next to Kushalipura waterhole. Upon speaking to a few locals there, I found that this waterhole is right on a road  meaning that there would be almost no movement of animals during day-time but leopard and bear come there after dark. However, as my personal motive was to experience being inside the jungle, I asked the Range Officer to change my waterhole to one that is inside the jungle at least. He then changed me to Jamoda II waterhole and told me the vehicle that was to drop me to the waterhole. This vehicle stopped on a Dhaba on the route to pick up food packets for us. A 5-7 kilometer drive and four of us, two volunteers for Jamoda I waterhole and two volunteers for Jamoda II waterhole were dropped at Kushalipura check-post from where a smaller vehicle was to take us to our individual machans over the waterhole. Everything seemed perfect till now. 

Even though I was hanging onto a branch for dear life, but a Paradise Flycatcher is not to be missed
Having waited for almost 2 hours for the smaller vehicle at the check post, it was already 1200 hours when the forest guard offered to walk us to our machan. Considering it was almost noon and the temperature was almost close 45 degrees, I didn't wish to walk. But, my colleagues were very enthusiastic to reach their machans early and I had to oblige. Walking under the sun for just under an hour was enough to make them understand that their decision had backfired and we called up the Range Officer to tell him about the situation. After about 30 more minutes, a vehicle came to us and dropped us to our waterhole where I was to sit with Bhushan from Gujarat. Upon asking for drinking water, the forest guard took our water bottles and filled them with greenish water from the waterhole where we expected all the animals to come for a drink. As if this and the scorching sun wasn't enough to frighten us, the machan looked unstable with the branch vibrating as we climbed on it. However, trusting the forest department, we climbed and seated ourselves on it. The vehicle had hardly left us and we heard a cracking sound. Next thing we understood was that we were on the ground and all our bones seemed mobile without any clear pain. Thanking God for keeping us safe, we immediately ran to the Jamoda I waterhole where we hoped to find the vehicle still dropping the other two volunteers. However, upon reaching there we found those volunteers sitting on their machan and no sign of the vehicle around. 

A highly active bird. Never sat on one branch for more than a few seconds
Realising that the way back was very long tough under the scorching sun, we decided to climb the tree on which these people were seated and sit on some its branches. We did this trusting the forest department vehicle to come to us on regular intervals as was promised to us. So here I was seated on a branch deep into the forest under scorching sun waiting to hear the humming of the vehicle engine. In the meantime, I was still hoping to see some animals no matter what my situation was. However, except for a few Paradise Flycatchers, Kingfisher, Great Tit and some other birds, their came neither any animal nor the forest vehicle. Finally around 1800 hours, a few Sambar deers came near the waterhole but they were too nervous seeing us and only a few drank water and the rest ran to the other waterhole nearby. It had started getting a bit dark by now and I had started to fret a little thinking of how to spend the whole night hanging onto a branch like monkeys. However, I had started to prepare myself to being a primate for the night.

One of those nervous Sambar Deer that came to the waterhole
Finally, around 2030 hours, I saw a car's headlights in the woods and trust me I have never been more pleased to see headlights ever in my life. When it finally reached us, I told them that our machan came down as soon as they left. To this, the forester, Omprakash Sharma retorted that "If you didn't have the guts to sit, then you shouldn't have volunteered". I was taken aback by his response but decided that arguing with him was not going to help. I simply told him that I am neither afraid nor do I wish to back out and he should provide me another machan and I am willing to spend the night on it. Even then he continued to talk crap for a while before telling me to join the forest guard who was seated at Aam Chowki waterhole. I agreed and I was dropped on this machan now. However, this wasn't exactly a machan but the top of one of those old ruins in Ranthambore. Hence, I was seated on it with the forest guard by 2100 hours.

Full Moon
Sitting there, I started a conversation with the forest guard, Shiv Singh with the usual sounds of Nightjar keeping us company. While waiting for any wildlife to show up, we continued to chat for some time when around 2300 hours, we heard the dry leaves behind us cracking. Upon looking around, we saw a Sloth Bear appear out of the bushes. The bear walked close to where we sat without noticing us and went to the waterhole where he had a fill. After that, he moved further ahead without even giving us a look. For all the trouble that I had went through during last 10 hours, I was mightily pleased now for this was my first sloth bear sighting in the wild. Half an hour after this, Shiv Singh dozed off and was snoring heavily in another 15-20 minutes. Looking at that, I also decided to sleep around 0000 hours.

One of the Jackals that came early in the morning
I didn't find it easy to sleep as every sound would wake me up in the hope of a leopard/tiger coming around. Just when I was finally sleeping, I felt a tug on my shorts. I woke up immediately to find Shiv Singh pointing towards the waterhole. He told me that he could hear the sound of some animal drinking there though we could hardly see anything even after the full moon lighting all over us as the waterhole was under the shade of a tree. I tried looking for a few minutes but my head was feeling just too heavy so I lay down again while he continued to look. A few minutes later, he again woke me up telling that their is something at the waterhole for sure. This time even I could hear the sound of a tongue licking near the waterhole. Soon, we could also hear the deep sound typical of big cats like lions, tigers and leopards. Still, we couldn't see anything as the animal was under the shade. A few minutes later, we saw the silhouette of the animal move quickly which is typical of a leopard. As soon as it moved towards our right, the sharp sound of Sambar deer warning call came from that direction as well. So, we were now sure that this was a leopard at the waterhole. After this, I slept again fully satisfied having seen a sloth bear and a leopard during night.

Jungle Mouse?
I woke up at 0515 hours when the dawn was just coming up. I immediately sat up to look at the waterhole hoping to see some animal there for his early morning drink. But, there were only a few birds there. A little while later, 3 jackals came to the waterhole. They played around for sometime before moving further ahead towards our left. Soon, Shiv Singh also woke up and his mobile phone rang too. It was the forester, Omprakash Sharma who ordered him to walk to the Jamoda I waterhole and bring the two volunteers sitting there to our waterhole. I was seriously disappointed to see that these people don't plan to provide us a vehicle again even after all that happened with us yesterday. Shiv Singh asked me to come with him to fetch these other volunteers as he felt that I can talk them into walking again. I decided to cooperate with him and walked 3 kilometers in the jungle looking for pugmarks. When we reached them, they told us that they saw a tiger move below their machan during the night. I then assisted Shiv Singh in taking off the machan and throwing the sticks in different directions while taking the rope with us. This was done to ensure that we don't end up providing readymade equipment for any hunters that might plan to sit in the forest. Then, all four of us walked back to Aam Chowki.

Aam Chowki. This is where I sat all night
Looking for animals to come at this artificial waterhole
Though, it was just 8 in the morning, but the sun was already really harsh and it wasn't easy walking back. When we reached Aam Chowki, we found out that now we were to walk our way back to Kushalipura check-post from where vehicle would pick us to take us back to the division office. Now that was the maximum patience I could keep with the operations of Forest Department and I called up the control room to provide us a vehicle. The person there told us that it was only a few kilometers further away and that we have walked so much, why not a little more. At that point, we decided to end cooperating with the forest department and walked to the road where we hopped onto a local bus that drove us to Sawai Madhopur City.

Walking to Jamoda I waterhole to fetch the two volunteers there
The experience of sitting inside the jungle overnight is frightening but equally fun. However, the arrangements provided by forest department were really disappointing. I will put those in points here:
1.Nobody came to check on us after putting us on machans for 7.5 hours. If we might have hurt our head or any such part when our machan came down, we could easily have died due to loss of blood in that much time. Ideally, they should check on all machans in 2-3 hours for such emergency situation. Other than machan coming down, snake bites or animal attacks could also need such patrols.
2. It was their duty to take us to our machans in vehicles, but they simply refused to provide that and told us to walk when temperature was soaring at 45 degrees.
3. We were also told that we would be provided with drinking water while we were told to drink the greenish standing water of the waterholes where all the animals bath and drink as well. We can easily fall sick drinking it.
4. Even when we are telling them that our machan came down, instead of accepting that and being a little apologetic, the forester, Omprakash Sharma is shouting back at us telling us that we are trying to fool him.
Thats the Machan I was supposed to sit at and the one that crashed onto the rocks
And its branches had these fresh claw marks of a Leopard
Overall, the forest department didn't seem to care at all for the volunteers and anyone wanting to do this in coming years should be prepared to do this at their own risk and responsibility.

While I was hanging on the tree, these primates are seated on the ground

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

South Africa 5: Garden Route: Of Knysna, Paragliding and the Horror

Our stay at Knysna. Argentinian team stayed here during World Cup
The place we stayed at Knysna was a former Manor house and we truly loved the wooden floors and the wooden architecture. After having a filling breakfast at the Manor house, we left for a boat ride to Knysna Heads. We had booked ourselves on Threelegs Rivercat boat of The Featherbed Company as this was the only boat departing at the time suitable to us. This ferry took us on a 75 minute cruise to the heads and back. Also, there was a guide on board who was continuously announcing interesting info over the microphone. Even though we had to take Threelegs Rivercat, I would recommend people to make it more fun by taking either the Heads Explorer or Princess Lee. The Knysna Heads is a must visit place in Knysna considering their interesting history and their significance in bringing down many ships coming in to Knysna from the Indian Ocean in the past. If you have time, a visit to Featherbed Nature Reserve is also highly recommended. 

Knysna Waterfront
After we came back from the boat ride, we spent some time hanging around at the waterfront and then left for Gaansbaai where we would stay for the night. While moving towards Gaansbaai, we planned to spend some time at the Gericke's Point. This is actually a beautiful beach with one of the highest fossil sand dunes along it. Its best to go here when the tide is going back as at that time, you can find lots of sea life like crabs, shells, anemone in the rock pools. We spent over an hour here and I would recommend anyone visiting this place to carry a camera along which I sadly didn't. 

The narrow entry into Knysna, Knysna Heads
Back from Gericke's Point, and seeing so many para-gliders in the sky, we also decided to do it. We called up some local shops whose contact numbers we found using Google on our phone. Thankfully, one paragliding shop agreed to host us and asked us to reach the take-off point which is on a hill right above the fields besides N2. The drive to this point was very good as its on a single lane gravel road with dense woods to either side. We were pretty happy for having decided to para-glide here when we reached the actual take-off point. From this point, we had a brilliant panoramic view of entire Sedgefield with Indian Ocean in the distance. 

Who wouldn't love to paraglide with such a view?
As none of us had done this before, we needed a pilot to fly us. We also hired wide angle cameras mounted on a rod to help us take pictures while flying. Considering that the pilot was to do all the hard work negotiating the winds, we actually had nothing to do there but sit and pose for the camera changing angles once a while. The flight here in Sedgefield was very beautiful and worth every penny we paid for it or so we thought till now.

Take-Off point
As two of us were probably too heavy or the winds didn't suit them, they landed on the fields below and not at the point from which we had taken off. So, we waited for them to come back up and then left for Gaansbaai. It was already 6 pm by the time we left Sedgefield. The drive further ahead was comfortable and beautiful with various Bays and beaches passing by on our left. The vast blue ocean keeping us company while we moved is surely a surreal feeling. However, once it got dark, I focused totally on the road as I wasn't really comfortable with the idea of driving in unknown areas when dark. We stopped by at a petrol pump somewhere to have coffee and some snacks to fill our famished stomach around 8. The drive further ahead from here was just around 2 more hours. 

Me in the air
We were moving comfortably when we reached an intersection on the road where I saw a car coming perpendicular to us. By the time I saw it, I was sure that I wouldn't be able to avoid it no matter how hard I brake. I guess the other driver thought the same as he didn't brake either. My attempt to speed past him was almost successful when his front hit the trunk of my car leaving the car rotating horizontally on the road while moving ahead. The car finally stopped after having completed 4 rotations probably and having moved 100 meters ahead from the point of impact. Our first reaction was calling each other's name to find out if everyone was okay. I thanked heavens for everyone was indeed okay with minor bruises. Then we got out of the car to check on the other car involved. Even though the people in the other car were more injured than us but even they didn't suffer any major injury. In the meantime, the guys in the car a little distance behind us had called the emergency number. I was really pleased with the prompt response of South African police after this. Within about 15-20 minutes, there were over 5 police vans, 2 ambulances and 1 fire-fighting vehicle present at the accident site. Comparing this to India, where even police doesn't arrive for hours, this was a pleasant surprise. Upon his arrival, the investigating officer took everyone's statement regarding the accident and then left after analyzing the situation. 

State of our car
In the meantime, we were looking for our stuff that was strewn all over the place as the trunk opened due to the impact throwing all our bags and loose items onto the road and even 50 meters into the fields besides it. Later, everyone left except for two police vans that were probably there to provide us security as South Africa is still pretty prone to thefts during the night. One of the police officer was kind enough to provide us a torch to look for our bags in the field. We couldn't leave for our hotel yet as we were waiting for the towing vehicle of the Car Rental company of our car to come and take the car with it. The same police officer helped us again by calling her husband to come over in his private car to drop us to our hotel at 2 in the night.  He did charge some money for that, but we would have willingly paid him that in any case. Our hotel in Gaansbaai, The Roundhouse Guesthouse wasn't a very big hotel and there was hardly anyone to be seen there when we reached. Thankfully, the owner lived next door only and we disturbed his sleep by calling him up. Once inside the comfort of our rooms, we analysed the damages to find that the biggest damage was that my Macbook Pro was broken into two pieces. But, we were lucky to be alive after what we had just experienced. 

Gaansbaai with its choppy waters
We slept around 3 am hoping to be able to go for Shark Cage Diving next morning. When we woke up next morning, we found out that the choppy seas and strong winds meant that their would be no Shark Cage Diving today. Disappointed, we just called our Car Rental company to provide us a new car. This car was to come from Cape Town but it took quite longer than expected. When we called up the company again, they told us that the car had left CT on time, but there was a big fire in the nearby town of Hermanus due to which the car had to go back and take a different route to come to us. At this point, we felt like anything that could go wrong was going wrong for us now. Finally, the car arrived around 2 pm and we immediately hopped onto it to drive to our final destination of the trip, Cape Town. 

The fire rages on as we drive to CapeTown
Continue reading to next part: Of Scuba, Sharks and Penguins

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

South Africa 4: Garden Route: Of Bloukrans Bungy and Nature's Valley

In continuation from South Africa 3: South Africa 3: The beauty that is Panorama Route.

Shallow beautiful lagoon at Nature's Valley
Having enjoyed the beautiful Panorama Route, we reached back Johannesburg pretty late around midnight. But thanks to Google Navigation on my reliable iPhone, we were directed perfectly to our guesthouse for the night. This guesthouse was very close to the airport from where we were to fly to Port Elizabeth next morning. Checking in wasn't an issue at all but we found the owner of the place to be a bit spooky. While he seemed very friendly, but there was this slight awkwardness about it. This and the almost desolate feel to the surroundings thanks to it being midnight reminded us all of those horror films where people check into a motel and are soon followed by serious misfortune. Also, we paid just 500 ZAR for a night's stay for four adults and I thought that might probably have been a bait. Anyways, we locked ourselves into the dormitory provided to us only to open the door next morning when we were to leave for the airport. Thankfully, the night passed smoothly and our fears didn't turn into reality.

Sea was so violent and the water so cold that none really went into the sea 
However, it seemed like the adventurous part of the trip had just begun for us. When we reached airport and dropped off the car, we found that our flight wasn't scheduled for departure on the big screens all over the airport. We had booked our flight 3 months in advance with 1time airlines and that airline had gone bankrupt in the meantime. Forget refunding its customers money, they didn't even care to inform us about it. So we were at the airport at 6 in the morning with all our luggage but without a flight to take us to our destination. Thankfully, there was a South African Airways flight departing to Port Elizabeth in an hour and we were able to get tickets on it. Undoubtedly, these tickets were much costlier than what we initially planned to pay. 

Nature's Valley from up top
At PE, we picked our next car which was to remain with us for the next 5 days. So our Garden route started from Port Elizabeth itself. Panorama route is basically a coastal road that connects the Eastern Cape to Western Cape via bridges over really deep river gorges. Thanks to the geography and climate of this area, a Garden drive is also combined with visits to various wineries.

Bloukrans Bridge. See the Jumping Point?
As we wanted to skydive at Plettenberg Bay today itself, so we hurriedly took N2 to take us there. We had just crossed Stormsrivier when we thought of calling the dive school to confirm our dive. However, these people told us that due to bad weather (strong winds), we wouldn't be able to skydive today. We were massively disappointed and decided to visit Nature's Valley and then decide what to do next. While on our way to Nature's Valley, we saw the bridge from which the world famous Bloukrans Bungee operates. Just looking at it and knowing that this is the 4th highest bungee jump in the world, we soon consoled ourselves that it will now replace our cancelled skydive. We knew that this operates till 4 pm and it was just 12 yet, so we decided to head first to Nature's Valley. 

This is what you walk on to reach the point (Pic provided by FaceAdrenalin)
Nature's Valley is a small holiday village at the foot of Tsitsikamma Mountains tucked between Groot River Lagoon and Indian Ocean. A short dive and swim in the lagoon was enough to freshened us up and we called up Face Adrenalin to book our bungee jump. However, bad luck hadn't yet left us and the guy on the phone refused us a jump today as they were totally booked. We tried convincing him but he just wouldn't hear us. Finally we decided to just go to the bridge and request them in person. At the booking counter, only a slight persuasion was enough and the guy there gave us a slot.

Looking at the people jumping from the viewpoint behind booking counter scared the wits out of us but the adrenalin rush of jumping was enough to ensure that I wouldn't back out. We were harnessed here only and then we were taken to the jumping point located midway under the bridge. To reach the jumping point, one has to walk on a rope bridge under the concrete bridge. I guess its made like this intentionally so that any acrophobic person thinking of backing out would back out here only and not at the jumping point. The jump followed by the pulling back up to the bridge lasted just around 5 minutes and I am still unable to put the experience in words. To compensate for that, watch the video here. 

Being pulled back after the jump
After the jump, we purchased our jump video and pictures and a few souvenirs to keep of this memorable experience. After the jump, we drove to Knysna where we would stay overnight.

Drive towards Knysna

Thursday, May 09, 2013

South Africa 3: The beauty that is Panorama Route

In continuation from: The Wildings of Kruger

Brilliant South African Summer weather
We left Gomo Gomo game lodge as early as we could to be able to visit as many sites of Panoram route while driving back to Johannesburg. As it had been drizzling all morning, so the weather was still overcast with dark clouds all over us. All this made the already scenic drive even more beautiful almost coaxing us to stop and enjoy the weather.

Kadishi Tufa Waterfall
It took us some time reaching the Control gate of out part of Kruger Nationak Park as we saw a couple of giraffes staring at us from over the bush. Once we crossed the gate, we reached Hoedspruit in a hurry from where we moved onto R36 towards Ohrigstad. Even though we hardly had much time, but we decided to take a short break near the J. G. Strijdom tunnel before Abel Erasmus Pass. Here we browsed the curios and local craft-works while enjoying the nature and the unusual Tufa waterfall. Tufa waterfalls are formed over millions of years as water running over dolomite rocks deposits calcium as layers of tufa on the surface of waterfall. I later found out that this waterfall known as Kadishi Tufa Waterfall is the highest tufa waterfall in Africa.

Magnificent Blyde River Canyon
Next, we crossed the Abel Erasmus Pass and then took a left onto R532 from where the actual Panorama route probably starts. There are a number of attractions on Panorama route, we simply decided to visit them in the order they fell while we move on R532. After we had moved quite some distance where our GPS device started to tell us that we are near 'Three Rondavels', I just rolled down my window glass and tried to ask a local for the exact location. And just as I feared, he either didn't understand what I was asking for or didn't know where it was. So we decided to move a bit further ahead and thankfully we saw a board with 'Three Rondavels' pointing towards the left. A barrier was crossed where we paid a 5 ZAR fee and drove to the point where we saw cars parked and many curios shops all around. A short walk over the stone path towards the end of the cliff where I saw one of the most majestic view I have ever seen. It was the Blyde River Canyon with the deep blue shades of river matching perfectly with the dense green foliage over red sandstone rocks. Also, the slightly overcast weather brought a surreal effect to the entire scene.
Rock Formations: Three Rondavels
On the right side of this is the 'Three Rondavels' which is a rock formation that looks like three huts of indigenous people called 'rondavels'. We gave ourselves sometime to absorb the view in from of us and then moved towards the next attraction.
Bridges taking you to the potholes
Now that we knew that there are sign boards put up for these attractions on Panorama route, we simply moved ahead with an approximate idea of the distance we needed to move and wait for the boards to appear. Next, we reached 'Bourke's Luck Potholes' which are potholes and rock formations formed due to waters from Blyde and Treue rivers cutting through them. These cylindrical rock structures formed over the decades are named after a gold miner named Tom Burke who found some gold here. These formations in itself are significant but when you have just seen Blyde river canyon, you might find them a little underwhelming.

The Potholes
Moving further on this route took us to Berlin Falls. Though, its just a 80 meter fall on the Sabine river, its quite beautiful as the water falls over red sandstone cliffs amidst lush green grass.

Berlin Falls
Next, we took a slight detour from R534 to go to God's Window. While I am talking about all these attractions, I should also mention that its the route that we were driving on was no less exciting than these places in itself. God's window is basically a viewpoint on a cliff around 900 meter high from where one can have a brilliant view of Kruger Lowveld (lowlands) region and even as far as Mozambique on a clear day. However, when we visited this place, gods took it a bit literally and descended their clouds low enough to give us a feeling of walking in the clouds. Also, one needs a climb around 500 steps to reach the view point. Though, we didn't go there but one can also visit 'Wonder View' which is the highest viewing point in this area at an altitude of 1730 meters just 2 kms north of God's Window.

A cloudy God's Window
A few kilometers away from God's Window is another natural marvel that's the Pinnacle rock. Its a freestanding quartzite rock towering almost 50 meters above indigenous forests. To the right of the Pinnacle is a small waterfall on the Ngwaritsane river. We spent about 20-25 minutes here and then rushed to Lisbon falls as it was getting dark already. For Lisbon falls, we had to go back about 5 kilometers towards Hoedspruit on R532 and then took a left turn to reach Lisbon Falls. At lisbon falls, the river snakes through vegetation before splitting into three streams to fall almost 95 meters. This is the highest and the most beautiful waterfall in this region which has a number of waterfalls.

The Pinnacle
Looking at all the natural marvels in the Mpumalanga region is an overwhelming experience where each attraction seems as breathtaking as the last one. Even though we visited all these attractions in a single day because of lack of time at hand, I would recommend visitors to stay one night at either Hazyview or Pilgrim's Rest and visit these sites over two days at least. The town of Pilgrim's rest in itself was declared a provincial heritage site with most of its original architecture largely unchanged.

Lisbon Falls
The best way to enjoy Panorama Route would be to visit it while on your way to/from Kruger National Park with a night's stay at any of the tourist friendly town here. Take your time here. In most cases, you will visit this area only once in your life.

Continue reading the next part: Garden Route: Of Bloukrans Bungy and Nature's Valley