Sunday, May 11, 2014

Watching a Rhino Poop & Other Tales at Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park reminds me of Jurassic Park. Not because we were staring at T-Rexes or because the dude sitting next to me kept saying "hold on to your butts" - no, the reason for the comparison is actually the process. That sounds like Nick Saban talking.

South Africa's most famous national park, Kruger is home to 336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds, and 147 mammals, according to its website. It's about 3 hours northeast of Johannesburg in the province of Mpumalanga. The drive over includes a scenic trek through mountains, cornfields, and a disproportionate amount of poor conditioned '80s and '90s BMWs, easily the most common car I saw being driven out there. The countryside features some third world aspects one might expect: people hitchhiking, fruits stands, lots of Coca Cola signs. I did see a fitness gym in a room half the size of a Jamba Juice. I stole a quick glance inside and saw a single bench press and squat cage.

I forget the name of that mountain, but I know Simba was held by a baboon up there.

So back to Jurassic Park. We entered the Numbi entrance of Kruger in a large jeep that could seat 9 or 10 if you include sitting shotgun. The jeep is reminiscent of the Jurassic park SUVs and if you recall during the early part of the tour, Jeff Goldblum, in full snark mode, asked if they were ever going to see dinosaurs on the dinosaur tour. On these safari tours, you'll go through extremely long stretches, hours, without seeing any animals. You will see plenty of the trees that Kruger's website advertises, but this ain't Ferngully - nobody cares about trees when you're looking for lions. This is a carnivore tour, herbivores need not apply. Our guide started pointing out birds at one point, and the only bird I'd find fascinating then would be Toucan Sam. It wasn't him.

Not Toucan Sam

Also not Toucan Sam

Toucan Sam in the turtle form.
Also in Jurassic Park, the jeeps follow a designated path, that's the same here. There are hundreds (thousands?) of dirt roads where the jeeps can roam, but I imagined going off-road to race cheetahs and intrude on private elephant pow-wows. Instead, you stay on the marked paths and stare into the wild hoping to spot something. It's very much like the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which I thought was the Wild Animal Park until googling it. Disclaimer: I haven't been to that park in around 25 years, but if my memory serves me correctly (which is rare) they are alike, but you end up seeing a whole lot more animals in San Diego! I'm not looking forward to any "Blackfish"-style documentaries about the SD Zoo, that would be depressing.
The road. Not by Cormac McCarthy

Mom's eager to see some shit!

Considering the nature of the safari spotting, you need a tour guide who can spot something mischievous from 500 yards away, like an Asian mother. The safaris are only as good as your guides. The first night, I went on a sunset tour with an amazing female guide. I forgot her name but it started with an "A." So ask for her when you go. She was able to spot a rhino that looked the size of a bobblehead in the distance; then had the rhino whispering wherewithal to realize it would walk toward us. When it was a good 100 yards away still, she started backing up the jeep and sure enough, the rhino crossed the road about 15 feet in front of us... and took a gigantic shit! Clutch. And on video. She said she noticed the rhino had been in that area before using it as a toilet. After marking his territory, the rhino stepped in it, and walked around to show all others he was boss. If another rhino wanted to challenge his authority, he'd take a dump on top of the dump, and rhino face off would presumably go down. Our super guide also spotted an owl, and some water buffalo eyes in the night. At least she said there were eyes. I couldn't see a damn thing. Anyway, she was rad.

The best shot I could get of hippos. #NotGoodShots

Rhino walking #duh

Rhino is actually shitting. My mom wins!

Now rhino is stomping around in his shit. His feet now smell. Stupid rhino.

Notice tiny birds on top of him. They love this shit!
Hey! Look at me, jerk!

Thanks, bruh.

Unlike our other guide, Chris. This dude was super nice, so I feel somewhat bad that I'm going to totally bash him now. In fact, he was too nice, as he would stop on the roads and ask others how they were doing, what they saw, and where they saw it. I understand asking other guides, but asking Randy Random Dude where the wild things are? If I'm driving thru this park on my own and a guide asks if I've seen things over yonder - I'd look at the tourists in his jeep and laugh. 

They're sleeping.

Oh snap! He's awake. #FooledYou

They call these the Chevy Impala, minus the Chevy.

This antelope is known as Kudu, not to be confused with Kudos, the candy bar. #EasyMistake
Not to be racist, these dudes are definitely white with black stripes.

The rarest of the rare: the mythological two-headed whatever-this-is... born with only one head!
Chris also helped push another jeep that stalled, while no other guides bothered to stop. So Chris is going to heaven and all, but since I'm a selfish American tourist, I wouldn't have minded if he let another guide helped out that person. We lost 30-minutes or so, when Chris tried pushing the other jeep with our jeep, then getting out to physically push the other vehicle. Turns out, I'm a jerk. Whatever. I wished he was more aggressive on the base paths. 

So precious. 5 minutes later he was hit by a car. #JustKidding! #IGotProbs

This was almost framed really cool. But the jerk walked too far.

This was almost framed really cool, too, but the focus was a jerk #OperatorError

Other people in our tour on a separate jeep talked about seeing far more animals than we did, including giraffes, which I would imagine would be among the easier animals to spot because - you know - they're tall as shit. Chris is what I would call a casino lurker. You know the people who watch other spend hundreds of dollars at a slot machine, and as soon as they leave, that lurker jumps in. That was our spotting style. Rarely were we the first to spot an animal. Instead, we'd see a bunch of other cars stopped in the road with people taking pics, then we'd join the fray, but he wasn't good at positioning us to get the optimal photo.  

Those trees are soooo Africa.


How come no elephants played key roles in "Lion King"???

However, the safari was also like Jurassic Park in that the moments we did see animals, like when Sam Neill first saw the wounded triceratops, it was majestic. After a day-and-a-half of searching, we saw three of what's known as the Big FIve - elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, and buffalo (the last two which we missed). In addition to those animals, we saw zebras, impala (antelope), hyenas, a warthog. In my Lion King tour, I missed Timon the meekrat, zen baboon guy, and Simba. Would've been good to see that guy, instead we spotted his girlfriend, who's name I don't even remember.

Pumbaa. Such a pig.

This hyena had the voice of Whoopi Goldberg.

Simba's no-named girlfriend.

Got you! Remember when she gave Simba "sex eyes"? Don't look at me weird, y'all know what I'm talking about!

So lazy.

You win.

The entire experience is cool, but not transforming. There was no life lesson I took away from the safari and the search to be closer to nature. If you go, prepare for patience. It's a virtue I've tried to incorporate in all facets of my life, albeit without as much success as I'd like. It's a trait I noticed my mom has developed over the years that helps put her at peace with her surroundings. It's incredibly zen and just another thing I admire about my mom. But it's not 24/7, she was annoyed by Chris, too. Maybe that's hereditary. 

Out of Africa selfie.


Hansa - light pilsner, Dos Equis-esque. They get better the more you drink. Motto is "Dream Big, Hustle Hard." Down with that.
#DreamBig #HustleHard #DontHustle&Flow #ThatDidntWorkOutWell
Anvil - blonde ale brewed locally. Bought it at quaint restaurant named Pickles and Things in a touristy strip town called Dullstroom. It's basically the Solvang of South Africa.
Looks like the BumbleBee Transformer is eyeing this beer.

Castle - lager, heard somewhere that this is one of South Africa's oldest beers. Ho hum.
Castle? More like... I got nothing.
Amarula - a local cream liqueur. Very sweet, uses some marula fruit from an African tree. 

Bain's - single grain South African whiskey. Tastes like whiskey.

This is some kind of weird meat. But I forgot what it is 'cuz my memory doesn't go past a few weeks.

Simba selling out and earning that paper. I thought Disney's 401K's were pretty good, so don't know what happened.

When in doubt, it's best to just zappit in the ziblbin. My motto in life. #wtf?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Great White Shark Cage Diving vs Sandboarding vs Surfing

Above and below.
Cape Town is an amazing city to visit. Straight up. But it's hard not to think about apartheid and the racial oppression that mired this country until just 20 years ago. 20 years ago! 1994! That's when "Dumb and Dumber" came out! That's ludicrous. The stigma of apartheid still lingers on residents - white, black, and colored (as other ethnicities like Asians, Latinos, etc. are referred) - and there's plenty of tension and unrest boiling below the surface. Most of the locals I talked to, black and white, are frustrated with government, politics, and corruption; and race remains at the heart of the issue. I don't know nearly the amount of history I should about this country or apartheid, but I can recognize as much as this country has progressed, there's still plenty of fixing left. When enjoying all the glorious natural gifts of the city, you almost have to take it with a grain of salt and pepper.

That all being said...

When it comes to action/adventure travel, Cape Town's geography is virtually unrivaled, at least amongst places I've traveled. Not only can you choose your own adventure, but you have more options than a Cheesecake Factory menu; and I tried to do as much of it as I possibly could in three days. That meant surfing Monday, cage diving with great white sharks Tuesday, and sandboarding Wednesday. Oddly, my 70-year-old mom had no interest in joining me for any of these activities. 


No Lori Petty to save me here. #ReferencesWillOnlyGetWorse
A friend of a friend of a friend hooked me up with a local resident to go surfing with me and show me some sweet Cape spots. The FOAFOAF, Leith, kinda looks like a grizzled David Beckham. Sorry ladies, happily married with kids. He was beyond nice and gave my mom and I a quick driving tour along the western part of Cape Town down to the southern tip of the peninsula. The day started with rain and was mostly overcast; Leith was concerned the wind would be blowing in the wrong direction which would make for poor surf. I told him I didn't care, just being out there would be enough, especially considering the miserably long and cold winter we've had in the northeast. 

Hout Bay Harbor view off the scenic Chapmans Peak Drive. Leith has legit claim to title "nicest guy ever."

We surfed at Long Beach in an area called Kommetjie, but the locals didn't get my LBC references. By the way, you'll notice many parking lots have security guards or attendants. Leith says often these guys are self-appointed. They buy neon traffic vest on their own and patrol lots hoping for tips in exchange for watching over your car. Apparently a common problem is when you constantly see the same guys if you frequent the area (like for work), and if you don't tip, your car might be the first to get ransacked.

Guess who that isn't? Keanu! Gerard Butler! Me! #FunGame
So Leith is a badass athlete, surfed for a long time, even has a daughter who was a sponsored Billabong surfer for awhile. Unfortunately, he and seemingly everyone in the area are only fans of shortboards. I ride long [insert juvenile joke here]. Leith hooked me up with a 7-footer, the longest board he had. Not long enough for me, homies! The waves treated me like the Gimp did Ving Rhames in "Pulp Fiction." That is to say, quite impolitely. The waves maxed around 7-8 feet, which is literally above my skill level. I probably caught one wave in 2-plus hours, and I was battling to stand the entire time. I shot video with my GoPro hoping for some decent video that could make me long halfway cool, but that failed. I didn't even get a good wipeout on cam. After repetitive wipeouts, a woman told Leith she was impressed I kept paddling out... like a dumbass! If this were "Point Break" and I was Johnny Utah ruining other surfers' waves, the Red Hot Chili Peppers would most definitely jump me and Patrick Swayze wouldn't even come rescue me. Of course, I didn't care. I was back in the ocean on a board and that's all that really mattered.

7-feet has never felt shorter. 
After getting a bite to eat at some local joint, we drove down to the entrance of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point, the southernmost tip of Africa, and continued on to Simon's Town, where we saw jackass penguins at Boulders Beach. The penguins are so accustomed to tourists, they practically walk up and pose for the cameras like a Kardashian. I love penguins. I don't feel the same way about the Kardashians.

Penguin: "You know where I left my keys?"
They're wearing the same outfit. #Embarrassing
"Best bathroom ever."

"Enjoy the view, Shia."


"I was eaten by a shark!" I could really go for a Samuel Jackson beer about now.

I booked a great white shark cage diving tour through because they gave me a discount on the hotel pick-up shuttle. They didn't mention pick-up time was 4:40am!!! Well played, guys. After a 2.5-hour drive, we arrived in Gansbaai, then sailed out for another 30-minutes or so. The boat was a little rockier than I expected. Four people threw up by the time we reached our destination. I grabbed a lollipop (a manly one) which apparently takes your mind off the rockiness. All good, yo! There's a 5-person cage and you don't need scuba gear or oxygen, just a regular snorkel mask for viewing. You stand in the cage with you're head above water, and two spotters scream when it's time to dunk your head in the water. 

Sunrise at Gansbaai.
 I think that's the Otto from "Airplane."
From the boat.

It's cool to watch when the sharks swim by, and you're in there for around 10-minutes at a time, depending on how many sharks you end up seeing. Our guide said that you never see the dorsal fin approach, that's only in movies, but after covering numerous shark sightings in San Diego, I wanted to contradict, but I passed 'cuz I didn't want to be the douchey American who thinks he knows everything. When I saw my first great white, I was a little nervous thinking that the gaps between bars in the cage were a little too spacey, but you get comfortable relatively quick. 

No dorsal fin, my ass. What's this guide talking about?
The cage. 

Pardon the interruption: double rainbow!!!

The first go around, I tried taking my GoPro and iPhone, but I couldn't do a single thing with the iPhone. You need to hold onto an inner railing within the cage, otherwise you become far too buoyant. The water was colder than the land in "Frozen" (I saw that on the plane ride back). My butt was moving like Shakira on ZipFizz and I was shaking the entire cage. Fortunately that terrible visual didn't prevent sharks from rolling through. The largest shark the company said they ever saw was 6 meters, around 20-feet. We didn't see anything close to that, the largest I'd say around 10-feet? To be honest, I have no idea. You're underwater trying to catch photos of the magnificent species and usually they don't get close enough to the cage for you to bust out the measuring tape. Usually.

If you put on 3D glasses, this photo is really cool and in-focus. #NotTrue
After bracing the cold water for 7-minutes or so, a shark emerged from the murky nothingness of the sea and came barreling straight toward us. It actually rammed into the cage, inches away from me, and actually making contact with the woman to my right, who was hit by the shark's nose. This woman was completely petrified and tried to stand behind me. While stunned first, I got a little more ballsy and tried to stick my GoPro right up in the shark's face, without sticking it in his mouth, which was wide open and wrapped around the cage bar, but unfortunately the video was aimed too low and I missed out on what would've been the most badass shot of my life! Thought the fish-eye lens was going to bail me out, but alas, not the case.

Big tuna fish heads are doused in chum. That's what attracts these dudes.

Here's the deal, with the exception of this super brief encounter, captured on the video below (around the 1:06 mark), it's not scary at all, but you still get an adrenaline charge. It's a unique view of the sharks and the cage provides so much mental and physical safety, that you shouldn't have to worry about a major accident happening. So if you ever get the chance, go do it... and hope that a great white shark attacks your cage!

Dunes. Not to be confused with sequel to "Dune." #ToldYouReferencesWouldGetWorse

A new traveling habit I've started to pick-up is going for a run (or jog that gets slower if you want to get technical) near wherever I'm staying. It's a great way to get a closer inspection and better vibe of the area. I went for a morning job around Bantry Bay, then ended up being late for my pick-up to go sandboarding in Atlantis with Downhill Adventures. #CuzMyJogGotRealSlow

I'm plague-less!! #winning

I'm anti-looking-at-the-camera. That's Robben Island in the distance.

The dunes in Atlantis, about 45-minutes outside of Cape Town, are smooth sand hills that look like the deserts of Egypt, from what I gather from my 1988 World Book encyclopedias. You can actually see Robben Island in the distance. Sandboarding is exactly like snowboarding. Don't worry about falling, it won't happen; if you do, it certainly doesn't seem like it would hurt. You have to ride toeside the whole time and lean forward heavily for speed. If you carve, you lose too much speed. The rides only last 10-20 seconds, then it's climbing time, which is completely exhausting. Snowboarders, imagine riding for 20 seconds, then climbing a 60-degree incline to do the same thing over and over again.

If you don't lean crazy forward, the ride is significantly slower. And toe-side all day.

Our guide was over riding pretty quickly. He was more interested in taking pics.

You have to use furniture wax for the bottom of your board to prevent sticking to the sand. Our guide suggested rubbing in a tablespoon's worth of wax. After testing that out, I upped my dosage. I was using wax like a Madame Tussaud employee working on a statue of Eddie Murphy in "The Nutty Professor." It helped. I was flying... for 15 seconds. But you can imagine how amazing those 15 seconds were. Got it on, like Veronica Vaughn.

I love my hydration backpack. Outdoor Products. From Wal-mart!
I'm stoked that I got to experience sandboarding, but the dunes aren't steep or long enough to lead to mainstream popularity in South Africa. It's definitely more of a novelty. A solution might be if you had an ATV tow you wakeboarding-style, or at the very least, give you a lift back to the top of the dune. I'm too lazy to be hiking dunes all willy-nilly. Of course, that being said, all that really matters, is just being out there.

Next: Lions, elephants, rhinos pooping and a safari through Kruger National Park.