09 June 2009

The Great White Hope

The great white shark diving adventure is no longer a hope, it is an amazing reality! This by far was my favorite part of the trip. The day was ideal at 63 degrees, minimal wind, and zero clouds. The perfect conditions for going out on the sea. I was concerned when we were told that sometimes groups wait a few hours, sometimes only seeing one or two sharks make a few passes. Well, it was our lucky day! The coordinator told us that she hasn't had a day this busy with shark activity in five months!!! I was never nervous, but it took me a few minutes to acclimate to the ill-fitting wet suit (I think it was designed for someone 6' tall) and mask while trying to feel comfortable inside the cage. Grab the wrong bar and you could pull back a nub for a hand. The sights were absolutely incredible. It only took about 5 minutes before the chum attracted the first shark. Soon another joined, and others kept coming. Our crew told us that within two hours we saw 12+ sharks; no more than three around at a time. While we were in the cage, the crew would attract the shark with a large tuna bait thrown in front of the cage. The sharks would swim by, sometimes 3' away, sometimes inches. We would surface to catch our breath and rest, and when a shark was coming in, they would tell us to dive and look in a certain direction. The crew was able to bring the sharks to the surface at the side of the boat and pet their noses; yes, a real Jaws moment! We were told that the sharks we were seeing were juvenile and small (at about 3-4' wide and 10-13' long). The great white shark is being threatened. The large sharks are being killed for their jaws (to be displayed as trophies) and also for their fins. These large sharks are mating size and being killed off, creating the concern. The Great White Project, our tour company, was created to preserve and protect these sharks (logging each and every shark sighting).
I have no pictures to post because I was using a waterproof 35mm camera. I only hope the pictures and quality compare to what I experienced. Just ask Ricky Martin or Nicholas Cage, they've also been diving with The Great White Project.

HIGHLIGHT: Knowing that this adventure is unique. There is no greater population of great white sharks than off the coast of Dyer's Island, South Africa--where Shark Alley is located.

JAWS is totally real!

We are finally back to Cape Town from the shark dive. A two and a half hour car ride with some not very nice Russian tourists got us to the Great White Project on the southern end of South Africa (so a little bit further west). The long car ride and like I said rude tourists didn't matter at all the shark adventure was so cool! I think we saw 12 different Great Whites but they all kept making passes by the boat and the cage. They were about 3 meters long with teeth that seemed to never end. The water was ice cold and the wet suits were way to big for either one of us so the icy water kept getting in, but it didn't matter I didn't feel it until I got out and back on the boat. At one point there were three huge sharks circling the boat totally a "Jaws"moment. Anyway, we are both fine and here with all of our hands, arms, legs, feet, etc. so Mom rest easy.

See you guys very soon!

08 June 2009

Catching up on blogs

So I realized I have not been blogging a lot and when I do blog it is pretty short. The truth is I'm exhausted when we get to the hotel from all the adventures during the day. It is so interesting, and my mind is going 90 to nothin when we get to the hotel I have a very hard time putting it into words. However, with only one day left I'm going to vow to do better.

I need to add something about the wine tour, Dad, you would have loved it. The scenery looked just like the mountains of East TN. I also hope you made it back to move Meredith, because I'm not when I get to TN.

Dinner with Stephen was interesting! For those of you that don't know I am very adventurous about some things but not food. However, I did eat crocodile, I tried the ostrich, and the Kudu. They were all VERY gamey, but I stepped outside the box on that one for sure. We had a great time hanging out with Stephen and his girlfriend Sara. They were super nice to take us out and fill us in on what is ok and what is not.

The Safari! Lalibela is amazing! So far it has been my favorite part of the trip. The Tree Tops lodge put our hotel in Cape Town to shame big time. I can't say enough about the food....AMAZING! It was all pretty westernized so I ate up. The rides were chilly but fun and we spotted several different animals. We met some interesting people to say the least. More stories to come on them at home. We also figured out that even if you are allowed to board the plane that does not mean you will report directly to the run way. We sat for over an hour in park after we boarded for Port Elizabeth on Sunday. We all know my patience is so wonderful so it did not bother me in the least little bit...yeah right! But I did get a really good and much needed nap in during that time.

Tomorrow is the day I've been waiting for...the SHARK DIVE! Somebody needs to get up early and start the margarita machine for Mom, so she won't worry too much. We get to sleep in until about 9:15 so by our calculations we should be in the water at about lunch time here. We will blog as soon as we get back so you know we are not fish food.

Love you all and miss you tons!

Two outta five ain't bad.

Saturday night was a great time out on the town. Stephen took us to a great restaurant, Mama Africa, for a traditional dinner. I ordered the ostrich filet (flavorful, but tough) and tasted Annie's crocodile kabobs and Stephen's kudu steak (both delicious). Because it's traditional, I ate the pap with my fingers (not my fork). Pap is like bland mashed potatoes, just clumpier, with sauce on top for flavor--very good. We were out much, much, much, much, much later than we intended because we had to fly out early Sunday morning for the game drive. Sunday was rough...
Our stay at Lalibela Game Reserve was incredible. The amenities were beautiful. We stayed in one of three lodges, Tree Tops nestled into the hillside. The camp is built on stilts; all walkways and rooms are built up with thatched roofs, canvas walls, and netted windows. I like to describe the setting and decor as rugged chic. I think my favorite meals were enjoyed here (I'm still thinking about last night's dinner and this morning's breakfast...mmm mmm).
During our short stay, we were taken on two game drives. It is winter here and very cold. We were bundled up with hats, gloves, and blankets, and armed with...our cameras. We set out and soon encountered two baboons (yes, blue-testicled baboons!) and lots of impalas. We were on a lion hunt, search the elusive pride. A lot of time passed, and I was beginning to think my biggest fear would come true...what if we don't see any animals?!? We rounded a curve on the trail, and right in front of us, blocking the road, an elephant (this same elephant crashed through our camp the night before we arrived snapping some of the railings--he even visited the room we stayed in). It was amazing! Although the evening drive didn't produce the big game I was hoping for, I did get to watch the sun set behind the hills of the South African bush only to then watch the brightest moon rise in its place. Our wake up call was early, starting another drive at 6:30am. Still searching for that pride of lions, we saw hippos, giraffe, lots and lots of impala, warthogs, ostrich, monkeys, and my favorite sighting, rhinos. We were about 12' away from one of the big five. "The Big Five"are lion, leopard, water buffalo, elephant, and rhino which are given this name because they are the most dangerous and hardest animals in Africa to hunt. Soon our drive was over. And, I'm still searching for those lions...

HIGHLIGHT: Sitting on the deck at our camp on a cool, crisp autumn night with a wool blanket across my lap being warmed by the pit fire looking into a clear sky sprinkled full of stars in the southern hemisphere learning about the Southern Cross star formation. And thinking, I'm on safari in South Africa!"

LOWLIGHT: A printed welcome card greeted us in the room..."The Lalibela Game Reserve would like to welcome Mr. and Mrs. Coutras." Annie made it clear that she was the Mrs. Later that night they were kind enough to split the king size bed into two twins. I have confused many South Africans because of my male name, Robin.

06 June 2009

My new hero

Well, the locals were right, the sun does shine on Saturday. It was a perfect autumn day, crisp weather and lots of sunshine. We did have to shuffle our day. Our morning began with a tour of Robben Island. Annie and I weren't sure we were going to survive the 30min. ferry ride to the island. The swells were very big. No ride at Six Flags can make your stomach flip like this ferry ride...I think I may have turned a little green.
The island's existence has been around for hundreds of years. First as a place for the mentally ill and lepers. During the beginning of apartheid, it became a political prison from blacks and colored whose influence threatened the government. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned here for the first 18 years (he spent the remaining 11 at two other prisons). Despite the cruelty and inhumanities he suffered, he continued to fight for the human rights of his fellow South Africans. He adopted his methods from great man that influenced him...Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His ideas of peace, equality, and forgiveness helped create the resilient South African spirit. My new hero...
Our hike up Table Mountain was cancelled. Although the day was perfect, clouds have a tendency to hover at the top of the mountain creating dangerous conditions for hikers. We settled for the cable car instead. As we ascended to the top we were literally lost in the clouds. The view of the city and the bay, though, are spectacular. Though we were disappointed, time was freed to visit the Waterfront. We took advantage of the day and had lunch outside while listening to live, traditional African music played by street performers.
We are resting a bit before we meet Stephen for dinner...traditional South African food. It will be an early evening because we head out for our safari bright and early.

HIGHLIGHT: Our tour was conducted by former prisoners of Robben Island. I admire their ability to return in order to share their experiences to open minds and prevent such things from happening again.

05 June 2009

Wine drinkers make grape lovers!

Goats, one prison, and an international soccer player...
We certainly picked the rainy season when we planned our trip. We haven't seen the sun in three days. I have now been assured by three locals that it's always sunny on Saturday...we'll see. But despite the rain we had a beautiful drive through the Winelands (I can only imagine what it's like when the weather's warm). Lots of mountains with row and rows of grape vines. We stopped in three towns: Sellenbosch, Franschhoek, and Paarl. I ate my way through Zurich, and I drank my way through the SA Winelands. This region contrasts with the crowded streets of Cape Town. Each town has a city center with lots of quaint stores and coffee shops.

HIGHLIGHT: eating a homemade lap picnic inside a van parked beside a statue of Mandela at the entrance of Drakenstein Prison (where Mandela was released to become President of South Africa) in the middle of vineyards.

Today was lots of fun, but forgive me, it's 4:30pm and I have a hangover to nurse...

Pass the Wine

So we just got back from our wine tour. It was breath taking scenery, delicious wine, and a wonderful car picnic. It was raining...of course! And cold but that didn't stop us. We went to three different areas and had three different tastings. We knew we were in trouble when at the first stop the lady told us we each get to select five to try and then when she started pouring...they were FULL glasses. After the first place we were already giggling and goofy then on to the second where we decided we must eat lunch before the third. We did sit in the car (again because it was raining) and ate a picnic lunch in front of a Nelson Mandela statue in front of the prison he was released from. So yes, we ate lunch in front of a still active prision. Who else can say that?!!

That's it for me I'm off to drink some water, take some tylenol, and rest up for tomorrow's hike up the mountain (everyone pray for sunshine)

As always love you tons and miss you bunches!


04 June 2009

Cheesecake for everyone!

Well, I figure Robin gave you most of the low down on the township tour, so I'm just going to tell you what I thought. It was amazing! I have never seen poverty like that before. The people are so friendly and want to share their experiences, but it is so hard not notice what they are living in all around them. The medicine man was my favorite part of the day too. You read about this stuff in stories and see it on movies but until you actually walk into one of these places you have no idea! At first you think this can't be real, but then he starts talking and answering questions...Wow is all I can say!

We just got back from dinner at a local health food market, we wanted something a little lighter for dinner. Racheal...I just had the best cheese cake ever! I thought about you while I was enjoying the double slice that only cost like 2 dollars. (how crazy is that!!) Now on to the wine tour tomorrow. Mom...don't freak out we had to switch the shark dive to next Tuesday due to weather so tomorrow is just the wine tour.

Love you guys!

Township tour

Beds are underrated. Even hard, twin beds.

Dinner and drinks were great last night with Stephen. He took us to a bar for drinks where we sampled a few local beers, then he took us a few doors down to the Royale to fill our stomachs with the best burgers in town. The conversations was insightful, we learned a lot about the culture and politics. He helped us arrange a private tour of the townships for Thursday morning. It was an early night because we are still jet lagged, plus it is not very safe for us to be out after dark.

Thembile (Tim-be-lay) was our tour guide, Uncle Clive was our driver. We first visited an apartheid museum in CT before heading out to visit three townships. I am baffled by the ideas behind apartheid. Apartheid was instituted in 1948 when there were no racial concerns or divides. The government took it upon itself to uproot and resettle all of the citizens that were not white in order to establish a class system based on race. Coloreds (any person not fully white or black) were considered second-class citizens and were settled just outside the cities. Blacks were considered third-class citizens and received little to no consideration by the government. They were settled even further outside of the cities in townships (a very un-PC way to describe this would be shanty towns). Some of these homes are nice cinder-block houses that are about 500 sq. ft. while others are pieced together with corrugated aluminum, signs, and tarps. This remained until 1990 when apartheid was abolished with the election of Nelson Mandela, but the culture and ideas have been slow to change. The government is now building homes in the townships for people who make less than R3500 a month (that's 433 UDS). These are proud people who continue to live in these areas by choice. I've read about them in Kaffir Boy and saw them in Tsotsi, but it wasn't real until I saw it with my own eyes. It's poverty that doesn't exist in America.
The first township we visited is called Langa and is considered small at 250,000 residents. We drove through the streets before stopping at the community center. Here residents are taught arts that continue their traditions and skills that support them financially. He next took us to a ndaba, medicine man. It is the most fascinating thing I think I have ever seen. His shop was a dark shed (no electricity) with animal hooves and skins and strung from the ceiling with low tables full of plants and herbs. This ability was passed down to him from his grandfather ('s spirit after he died, because it skips a generation, you know...that's how it works). He received his gift when he started getting his visions/dreams at 14. I'm not sure my pictures will do justice to what I saw. Fascinating...

Next, we visited the largest township, Khayeltcha, with 2 million residents. We dined at Mzoli's, a hot spot known all over CT, in the township of Gugulethu. It is a butchery that braais (barbecues) its fresh meat. The four of us ate with our hands from one tray piled with grilled chicken, beef, and sausage while we sat outside on the patio. Delicious...

This is great...we've all heard and laughed about the clicking tribal languages we've seen on National Geographic. Well, Thembile taught us a few words of the Xhosa language on our drive back. It was hysterical. Too bad we don't have audio of it.

SA is days away from winter, also known as the rainy season. We've had rain and a fog that continues to hang over the mountain. We have been told by two different people that the sun always shines on Saturday...let's hope so!

HIGHLIGHT: Visiting the medicine man. I've never seen anything like it.

03 June 2009

Half the fun is gettin there, right?

After three very long days of travel, we have finally made it to our final destination, Cape Town, South Africa. We have been fortunate that everything has been effortless (except trying to find our way out of the Zurich airport). It is rainy and overcast today, so Table Mountain didn't greet us on our drive in from the airport. I can already tell that this city is full of a mixture of very interesting people and cultures. Our hotel is quaint, very much like an old guest house, but it's right off a trendy, bustling street. Annie's high school friend Stephen will be meeting us in about 3 hours for dinner. I think that will make for a nice introduction into the city.
Our taxi driver told us that Parliment started today (although CT is not the capital of SA, it is where Parliment is located) and the new president, Jacob Zuma, is in town. Let's hope there is no unrest!
We also saw a few of the townships. A township tour is on the itenerary for tomorrow.

HIGHLIGHT: I quietly watched the sun rise over Africa (Angola, I think) from my plane window this morning. Beautiful...

02 June 2009

And we`re off!

We made it to Chicago, to New York, and finally to Zurich... now on to Johannesburg and then Cape Town! This travelling for three days straight is really tough! But it proved to be worth it today. Zurich is beautiful! It is such an old city with so much culture and excitement. There were hundreds of people walking around today on the streets shopping and hanging out at cafe´s. It was my first time being in a city that I did not speak the language so that proved to be tough (Clint I thought about you), but everyone was really nice. I hope it goes equally as well or better on the forgotten continent. I have to run but I love you guys and miss you bunches already!!



We have spent the day in Zurich and are pooped! Last night's flight was long and cramped. I sat next to a woman whose hip spilled under the armrest and her arm spilled over the armrest and snored! I got no sleep and am exhausted. I spent hours researching public showers in Zurich, and it payed off. I bet that shower will be the best 10 francs I spend on this trip. It was quite nice. We felt ready to take on the town, it just took us 20 minutes to figure out how to exit the airport (poor signage). That feeling lasted for about 45 minutes when jet lag hit us and hit us hard.
We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day here, sunny and 70. We hit the streets, and by streets I mean chocolate shops. I did like Jen said and ate my way through Zurich. After I rid my mind of sour, curdled milk, I tasted a Rivella, and must say it was quite tasty. I am running out of time...will post again soon. We walked down the very expensive Bahnhofstrasse to find our way to the Fraumunster church. What was so spectacular about this old church was that Chagall created the stained-glass windows. We were able to eaves drop on a tour and really learned a lot about the design. We then went to Grossmunster church. It was the first church in Zurich completed in the year 1200. The real treat was the view from atop its dome. It was such a quaint city with the Swiss, old-world architecture.
Cape Town here we come...

HIGHLIGHT: Walking up the few hundred rickety wooden stairs to the top of the dome/bell tower that provided a beautiful view of Zurich.