By Antoine Kinch
Two months ago we took a family trip to Capetown, South Africa. It was ambitious on our part as we were still recovering from our Honeymoon in Australia two months earlier. However, as the saying goes "Fortune Favors the Bold" and we felt like this was something that we could not miss. When we were planning the wedding my brother in law Greg said to me that he "didn't know when we would have this opportunity again". The concern was that our parents were getting older and this was the time to go. We agreed.
Along with my wife Shaunté and I flying out of Raleigh, accompanying us on the trip would be my parents (Roy & Joycelyne out of New York), my sister Michelle, her husband Greg, his parents (Bill & Alice Shell), and my nephew Elijah all flying out of Boston. Nine in total. The logistics were advantageous as we would have to meet in Capetown. Thank you to Valerie at Adventure Travel Desk for working with us for the months prior and helping us to plan the trip!
Saturday, (March 12th) we arrived in Capetown and were greeted by our driver who would take us to meet our family & then head to our apartments in the city. The combination of flights was 18 hours from Washington (Dulles) so we needed to relax a bit. It was still early (noon) so we wanted to grab a bite to eat and then head over to Robben Island. The boat for the tour left from a short walk on the wharf behind our apartment. At this time the US dollar was doing well (1:15 Rand) so everything seemed to be reasonable! Even a burger at 80 Rand was only $5 dollars.
Robben Island is something that collectively we had always wanted to see. Years prior my sister and brother in law had been but for the rest of us the significance of Nelson Mandela's journey and struggle would only be complete by witnessing the place where it took place.
The boat ride over to the island took about 30 minutes. Once we disembarked we were greeted by a man with dreads (who happened to be friends with the hip-hop artist Mos Def) that was from Soweto but lived on the island and commuted to and from the Capetown daily. He gave us a bus tour of the whole island, (including the Lime Quarry where the prisoners worked) and educated us on the history of the island, the former inmates who stayed on the island and how the former prison was being used today. I found it particularly funny that he was unapologetic about the conditions in South Africa and made it a point to point out how it used to be illegal for the white patrons on the tour and black people to fraternize in public in pre-1994 apartheid South Africa. It made them a bit uncomfortable and he explained that this was a part of the tour! Once you feel discomfort you can get a better idea of what it was like to be a prisoner on Robben Island.
We were then handed off to a actual former political prisoner of the island who would complete our tour. He was jailed in 1976 when he was a student in Soweto for protesting the conditions during apartheid. How ironic that 40 years later he would be working as a tour guide of his former prison. We walked around the prison as he explained what the conditions were like. It was very interesting to learn that East Indian & Indonesian political prisoners were also held on the island, there was a Muslim shrine. The way that the prisoners were treated was also based on their ethnicity. Different types of food were served with different portion sizes and different quality clothing and bed material. It really makes you think about how calculating humans can be with the unethical treatment of other humans. At sundown we returned to Victoria & Alfred Waterfront and prepared for the the next adventure.
In the morning we would venture out to Duiker Island better known as "Seal Island", Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, the southern most tip of the continent. When we arrived at the Hout Bay for the boat tour leaving to Seal island we saw a group of men singing and dancing with instruments and painted faces. We all wondered who they were and why they were there. One of the men on the port even trained some of the seals to jump out of the water and take fish out of his mouth! Later, we would find out that they were members of "Die Kaapse Klopse" a decades old minstrel troop that performs for visitors. There is also a minstrel festival every January. In the Unites States we would be horrified at the display of public minstrels as it is reminiscent of a time in history when "blackface" and "coons" were used to oppress black people. Here, tradition prevailed but the whispers of apartheid could still be heard faintly.
Seal Island was very cool to see. On a choppy boat ride for 15 minutes through a couple of twists and turns we arrived at this inlet where the bay met the ocean. We were told that although it is hard for Great White Sharks to get into the bay if the seals venture too far out the sharks will come up to get them. Here, hundreds of Seals rested. Some coming down to take a swim or eat fish but then return. It definitely was an overwhelming amount of seals of all shapes and sizes and colors.
Our tour continued along the southern coast out to the peninsula where Cape Point is located. The van that we had was comfortable given the terrain. The signs along the highway all gave caution to look out for baboons. We asked the driver why and he explained that some of the neighborhoods on the south coast were built on their native habitat and that they go through garbage, break into houses searching for food and can be violent if provoked! Needless to say, we were not eager to see baboons on this portion of the trip. We arrived at Cape Point and drove further into the park to have lunch at Two Oceans, a restaurant just up from the lighthouse on the Cape of Good Hope.
Lots of pictures later our tour continued. Our next stop would be Boulders Beach on the other side of the Cape Peninsula, where all of the penguins hang out in their very own colony. Now, I knew that we were going to see penguins but I had no idea there were this many! We walked along the boardwalk and as soon as we turned the corner there was just a massive amount of penguins. And they were not shy! They did everything right out in the open from eating, swimming, nestling in their boroughs to breeding! The smell of fish was strong so you definitely wanted to be upwind of the breeze. I am not sure if it was the the fish or the fact that Shaunté yet again found a Dallas Cowboys fan of all places! (The same thing happened in Prague).
The final stop of the day was the Botanical Gardens at KirstenBosch. Shaunté, my sister and my mother all love gardening so it was really nice to see them wonder at the many different types of plants, flowers, trees, and shrubs that were native to Africa. Located just in the shadows south of Table Mountain, a stroll in the gardens was a really nice way to end the day. There was a music festival taking place at the amphitheater in the park so to beat the traffic we headed back to the waterfront where we were staying so we could shop, have dinner and then prepare for the following morning when Greg, Shaunté & I would wake up at the crack of dawn (4am) to ride out to Shark Alley to do a cage dive with the Great White Sharks.
Imagine being ripped out of your sleep, thrown into the back of a van, driven for 2 hours and then dropped into freezing cold water with sharks swimming around with chum (bait) and fishheads in the water. I know it sounds like the plot of the next "Taken" movie. But that is exactly what happened! It was still dark when we started the drive to Gansbaai. I made sure the camera's, phones and Go Pro were all charged the night before. All that was on my mind was making it home in one piece. Like many other people the idea of "Swimming" with sharks is just an idea. People don't actually do this for a thrill do they? Apparently they do, and we are 3 of them. When I ran with the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain in 2012, I imagined all the gory things that could go wrong. Same with this. But honestly, I would do it again! It was fun.
At sunrise, we headed out to the boat and rode out to where they would drop the cage in the water. The visibility underwater wasn't great but the weather was really clear. The sharks were VERY active on this day. One even jumped out of the water (breech) which was very rare. When I was in the cage and under the water a 16ft long shark passed by. The biologist that was on board said that it was the biggest Great White that they had seen this season! We came back in, looked at all of our footage, ate lunch and relaxed before taking the ride back home. Mission Accomplished!
Now if you ever go to South Africa, you HAVE to go to Table Mountain. If you don't it's like going to New York and not going to Times Square. From the time you get off of the plane it is the first thing you see when you look out from the airport. It stares at you and says "come up here". There are two ways to get there. You can drive to the base and take the cable car up to the top or you can hike. With the number of bad knees in our group we decided to take the cable car!
The top of table mountain gives you awesome views of all of the surrounding bays of Cape Peninsula. If there isn't much fog you can see clear across to Robben Island, down to the Cape of Good Hope, all of Capetown and beyond. We were lucky enough to catch a clear day at the top and one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever seen. You can do a great deal of walking up there and go out pretty far so make sure to listen for the horns at sunset which signal the final cable car runs down to the base. There have been reports of tourists getting injured, robbed, or attacked by animals when trying to get off the mountain after dark. Remember, it is still Africa and wild animals (Baboons) are around. Once we came down off of the mountain we headed back to the apartments to have dinner, pack and get ready for our flights to go on Safari. More adventure awaited!
The morning flight to Skakuza airport on the border of Sabi Sands and Kruger National park was smooth. A 2 hour flight within South Africa, it felt as if we were in a whole other country. The terrain was way different. No Wifi, the temperature was a lot higher and the real sights and sounds of the continent were there to greet us. THIS was the experience that we had been waiting for.
Out of all of the safari's offered in Africa, apparently Sabi Sands and in particular Kirkman's Kamp is known to be the best for Leopard sightings. (They sure did not disappoint). As soon as we arrived and were greeted with cold towels and cold drinks we left the airport and headed over to the camp. I was particularly impressed with the luxury accommodations. I did not expect to have a butler, and everything so meticulously covered in such a relaxing fashion. We entered our room and found a beautiful decoration that displayed "Just Married" across the bed with flower petals. I guess my family wanted to do something special for us as we are still in the "honeymoon" phase of our marriage. It was a very classy touch.
Once everyone was ready we were set to head out on our first game drive to see what wildlife we could spot. The rangers sat down with us as we drank our beverages (tea time) and explained what we were to expect and what the rules were before we went on the drive. Of course, we wanted to make sure that rifles were on board just in case the animals were not in a good mood. And with that, we mounted up, split into two teams and headed out. The mission of the next 5 days would be to see the Big 5. Buffalo, Elephant, Leopard, Lion and Rhino. The first thing that we saw when we turned the corner and went out a bit were some warthogs. I immediately started singing "Hakuna Matata" as we had just saw the "Lion King" in Durham and the character Pumba came to mind. We drove a little bit further and then we saw some Giraffe in the distance. My father laughed as he watched the dung beetles pushing giraffe pelets. The ranger called them nature's farmers. It is through them that the soil gets fertilized and the plants that the herbivores eat, grow so although very small they are important. We continued on our drive stopping for drinks and Biltong (South African beef jerky) while we continued the search. We saw Baboon's climbing a HUGE tree to settle for the night, Hippo walking around and found Buffalo by the river. 1 out of 5. Each night when we got back to the camp we ate dinner and were escorted by a guide back to our rooms. Animals were all around in the trees, in the shrubs and they had once found a hippo in the pool when the river dried up so you could never be too careful!
Each morning we went out on early game drives (5am) to try to catch the big game wildlife hunting before the sun and the heat drained their energy. Breakfast would be served when we got back and we would rest for a few hours during the day when it was hot, have lunch and then go out again after tea until sunset. This was the routine. Over the next few days we would take shot of everything we could find. we spent most of the second day trying to find Lions as two different prides were moving down the river. As we turned a corner, all of a sudden a female Leopard crouched down and paused about to pray on an unsuspecting Duiker. We followed her into the bushes and snapped lots of photos of her as she stalked her prey. The rangers radioed the location in and then after a while we left and let others continue to follow her to get a good look. At the end of the day, we found lions perched on a massive rock bed by the river. The term "lazy lions" is very accurate as most of the day they spend their time sleeping. The sun started to set and the lions started to get more active. It became too dark to take any more pictures so we started to head back to the camp. As we drove along the road, the ranger pointed the spotlight at some Hyena in the road! You could hear them "laughing" as they sniffed about for food to scavenge. So only a couple days in and we had already gotten to see 3 of the 5. Now we had to find Elephants and Rhino!
Kirkman's Kamp gave me one of the best experiences that I have ever had at a resort. On the third day we stopped at a point out by the river not too far from the lodge and had an outdoor breakfast. It was amazing. The cooks and chef brought the ingredients out and the rangers cooked for us. We kept looking around to see if animals would be lurking but they let us have our meal in peace. The drives continued and just as we came out for the evening drive we saw a herd of Elephants grazing by the lodge. The ranger explained to us that a lot of tourists get injured by elephants because they have a notion that they are friendly. NOT SO MUCH. He said that if you listen to their queues they will tell you when to move away. First they might flap their ears, then raise their feet and the last thing you will hear is a triumph from their trunks before they start charging. One of the calves thought he wasn't a baby anymore so he came toward us to motion us to move. Realizing that we were not moving/listening, he went back to the mother as if to say "they aren't listening to me, can you make them go away"? The mother then motioned toward us & started to flap her ears. We knew it was time to go!
When we returned to the camp that night. The staff at the lodge coordinated a special dinner for the guests. It was the South African equivalent of a BBQ. We got to sample a lot of the different kinds of meats. The Kudu, & the Waterbok were really good. The staff came out and performed traditional tribal songs and dances while we ate and it was a really refreshing experience. Many of the staff lived 4-6 hours away and came to work for six weeks at a time before going back home so we were really grateful that they would share their culture with us.
I would be remiss in telling this story if I did not talk about the BUGS. During our time on safari we saw all kinds of animals, birds, turtles & reptiles but when the BUGS started flying around and landing on us it was different. I had never seen bugs like this before. I didn't know if they were poisonous or what but all I knew is that I did not want them around me. So everyday before we left the camp I would make sure to be covered in Repel aka 100% DEET because I was not playing any games. Mosquitos love me enough so I did not want to take any chances. Malaria is real, and I made sure that I took my doxycycline pills DAILY.
So on the last day, we still had one animal left to track that we could not find. The Rhino. We got up early and set out to find them. We even drove out of our camp area and into Kruger National park a ways just to see if we could spot them. As we were driving, a female leopard came out and the rangers explained that based on how tired she was they could tell she just killed something. Sure enough, later on when we returned we found her up in a tree with a freshly killed antelope! On this drive we saw Zebra and Wildebeest, more Lions and Hippo but still no Rhino. Then the rangers got a call on the radio and Rhino had been spotted so we skipped bathroom breaks and stopping for drinks to drive to where they were. We ducked back into the brush and just over the horizon in the bushes you could see the horns peaking through. They were not standing still though. They were moving swiftly. So we had to drive ahead of their path to try to get a better look. We then stopped and waited for them to pass by. And there they were RHINO! A male and female white Rhino with Zebra and Giraffe all moving in the same direction. We did it! We saw all of the Big 5 on one safari which as we were told is not that easy to do. (Go to the Photo Gallery to see all of the pictures)
This family trip to Africa will always have a special place in our hearts. What we were able to accomplish in just 10 days was amazing. We laughed, we sang, we danced, and more than anything we learned about Africa and about ourselves. Shortly after, we all returned home tragedy struck and we lost a member of our family. Mrs Alice Shell, who was on the trip, my brother in law's mom passed away. She will be forever missed. This was a painful reminder that "tomorrow is not promised" and that you should live in the moment, one of the main reasons why we explore. I find comfort in the fact that the last time I saw her was at the airport in Johannesburg. I hugged her, and told her "I love you" and that I will "see you soon." This page is dedicated to her loving memory.