Friday, June 15, 2018

Into South Africa (Part 2, Getting there)

There are all sorts of safari packages available in Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, South Africa and other countries. Ours was organized by the Rotary Club of Polokwane, a town on the northeastern corner of South Africa, as a fundraiser for a local school for blind children.

The link between the Polokwane Rotarians and San Miguel de Allende is one Natalie Hardy, a good friend from when we both worked at the Sociedad Protectora de Animales here in town. Natalie's brother-in-law, Charlie, is one of the organizers of the Rotarian safaris three or four times a year.

Got all that?

Our group was only eight, an ideal number between traveling solo and having to deal with a busload of people, some of whom invariably have to pee or complain about something every forty-five minutes.

Getting from San Miguel to the starting point of the safari in Johannesburg was a trek, coincidentally a word derived from the South African Dutch word trekken.

And a major trekken it is, Emirates Business Class notwithstanding: An hour from our house to Queretaro Airport, followed by a 90-minute layover before the two-hour flight to Houston. After a three-hour layover in Houston, came a 15-hour non-stop to Dubai, and another four-hour layover, before a 9-hour nonstop to Johannesburg, and from there and another layover, a two-hour flight to Cape Town, followed by a four-hour deep coma at a hotel downtown that could have been named The Not So Ritz.

It seems everyone on the trip had tried to conjure up a different itinerary—flying through London, New York, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome or Frankfurt—but with not much better results: San Miguel is just a hell of a long ways from South Africa, especially when you factor in the time waiting to make connections and the curvature of the earth.

The only way to soften the blow of such bone-crushing itinerary is to stop for a couple or three days somewhere in the middle. For us the ideal stopover would have been Dubai. Too late now.

After a few days in Cape Town, where there was said to be a water shortage, we moved on to Johannesburg to hook up with the other safari members. Cape Town reminded us of San Francisco. It's a gorgeous place with certainly enough sightseeing and dining venues to fill up a week, easily.

A word about the Siloe School for the Blind, the beneficiary of some of the money we paid for the safari.

An obligatory part of organized tours these days is a visit to some local arts and crafts center for some artisanal demonstration—get ready to buy something—or to some charitable organization that receives a bunch of addled tourists three times a week—and also expects you to buy something or otherwise make a donation. Or both.

Silo School for the Blind: The greatest show on earth.



The Siloe School was different, one of the most moving places Stew and I have ever visited in our travels. It houses and schools about 140 blind or nearly blind children right through high school. Some were born blind, others went blind as a result of some disease, others still were abandoned when their parents discovered their disability.

The kids put on song-and-dance show for us that was not that great. It was amazing. Their singing was more or less on cue, but their attempts at dancing and simple choreography were not, and you soon figure out why: The kids can't see each other and therefore quite coordinate their movements, despite the one teacher darting back and forth to point their arms or hands here or there.

The children receive an education and often go on to college. We were told two current high government functionaries are graduates of Siloe. Without the school and given the poverty in much of South Africa, God knows where these human beings would have ended up.

As the cliché goes, at the end of the show there wasn't a dry eye in the house, certainly not mine.

Hello wilderness: Kings Camp lobby. 
Back to the safari portion of our trip. We stayed at two lodges, one part of the Kruger National Park and the other Kings Camp, a privately owned resort at a large preserve contiguous to Kruger.

The first place, Letaba Camp, where we stayed for three nights was what you would expect in a American-style campground, with spaces for trailers and campers, plus the private lodge where we stayed and which had eight or ten bedrooms and a open-air dining room.

Despite the comparatively spartan accommodations the food at Letaba, prepared by the Rotarians and which included some local game dishes, was better than at Kings Camp, a crystal-chandelier, white-glove operation where we stayed for the following three nights.

Indeed, Kings Camp's poshness was totally unexpected, like a Ritz-Carlton in the middle of nowhere, with monkeys and impalas peeking in through your cabin's windows for added effect.

Talking about wildlife: Stew just found a rabbit on our living room floor, its head missing. 

Next Part 3 (Finally, the animals)
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