Tuesday, February 16, 2010

African Chronicles: St. Lucia Bound

Originally when we were planning this trip, and I use the term planning quite loosely, I had planned on flying to Zambia before coming down to South Africa. This was primarily because I hear Victoria Falls is awesome. But it was also because I wasn't really sure if South Africa had enough activities to keep us occupied for the whole trip. Turns out, it does. So much so that we had a bit of a hard time deciding what to do on our weekend. But we eventually decided that St. Lucia would be our first foray into a weekend excursion.

St. Lucia is known primarily for it's hippopotami, and since the hippo is in the Chris Five, I figured it was a good use of a weekend.

Sidenote: The Big Five. The Big Five are five animals found in Africa, that are big, and there are five of them. It seems like a very random grouping of animals, but evidently they're the biggest game animals, ie, people hunt them. But even that doesn't make a ton of sense to me. They are: lions, leopards, water buffalo, rhinos and elephants. Why not cheetahs? Why not hippos? Why not any number of other animals? There's an Ugly Five, which I don't have in front of me but I think it includes hyenas, hippos, crocodiles, warthogs and something else I presume. Unless it's a misnomer. ANYWAY, I like hippos. I'm pretty sure they're in my top five, which would likely be rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, giraffes and dassie.

We rented a car, which was much more cost efficient with 5 of us instead of just Bryce and me. The three hour trip passed quickly and we found ourselves on a boat in the St. Lucia estuary a few minutes after arriving in town. The tour was a lot of fun. There were quite a few exclamations of “I'm on a boat!” and references to the trip being a booze cruise, though I don't think anyone in our group took advantage of the bar on the ship. It was even hotter than Durban, if that's possible, but a pleasant breeze made the trip up and down the estuary quite palatable. We saw a boatload of hippos. Our previous exposure had been a hippo or two, hiding ponds. This river had dozens and dozens of them. Most didn't depart from their pretty dull hippo existence, which consists of bobbing in and out of the water. But we got some yawns, some frolicking, even a few acrobatics. It was a quality adventure. We only saw a couple crocs, but that's about all you can expect from them. They're not very social.

Afterwards we were quite hungry so, hit “the strip.” Our guide books had warned us that St. Lucia had a pretty horrible food scene. The place we picked evidently had some supply problems, since every other thing we ordered wasn't currently available. But my calamari steak was pretty adequate. Plus our restaurant had bats, which is always a plus, unless you're directly under them. The main problem with our service was very slow, meaning a lot of our afternoon was eaten up while we were eating. We filled out the day with some shopping, hanging out at the hostel, watching the rugby game and of course hippo hunting. We were told by many sources that hippos stroll through town at night. We suspected that we could be on a snipe hunt, but figured it would be worth it to see one marching down the street. Sadly, we weren't able to locate any. We did find some pretty nice beaches, but crabs and jellyfish were the closest we got to hippos. Which isn't very close.

We got up at 5 for a early safari the next day. This makes my thirdish safari, which is probably all I need. It just feels like that's what you do when you go to Africa. You safari. Plus I had a bunch of friends going which makes it more fun. This particular safari was Imfolozi/Hluhluwe and is known for its rhinos. In fact, they claim that all white rhinos in Africa originate from this park. The animal density of the park was pretty poor (ie we drove around looking for animals a lot of the time instead of actually seeing them) but we had some great animal contacts. We pissed off a big male elephant that chased us away, which was awesome. We caught our first glimpse of a hyena, water buffalo and chameleon. We caught another number of deer variations, some of which were relatively impressive, for deer. So I felt a little bad for the newbies who had this as their first and possibly only safari, but it was a good one for me.

I wasn't super excited about the safari, but was excited to go to the Crocodile Center. This little corner of St. Lucia is more zoo than safari, but it had hundreds of crocodiles so I didn't care. I was especially excited because our trip coincided with the weekly feeding. Watching a crocodile chow down on a dead chicken isn't as cool as seeing one attack an impala, but it was still sweet. Even better was watching the adolescent crocs go crazy over their weekly meat. Most any activity involving crocodilians is going to be a winner in my book, but this one was especially good.

We had some time to kill, so decided to go to Cape Vidal. Honestly, I know nothing about Cape Vidal other than it's considered some of the best snorkeling in the world. It's also inside a national park which covers five ecosystems (coastal forest, marshlands, dunes etc etc) so it seemed like a good place to explore for hippos and leopards. So we ventured on our first self safari.

Our self safari was a novel experience for a number of reasons. Driving up to wild animals in a giant safari truck is significantly different than doing so in a Mazda 6. Not having a guide obviously leaves you with minimal guidance. And perhaps the biggest factor in making this memorable was the time limit. We discovered that the park closed in two hours, and if we weren't out by 7 PM we'd owe the park 350 rand. So we started the countdown and headed into the park.

We never made it to Cape Vidal. Well, we did, but we had no time to get out and explore the cape. This was partially because we'd stopped at Lake St. Lucia and the beach at Mission Rocks. Both of these spots were awesome and would've warranted a trip on their own. But instead we hit the spots, declared five minute deadlines and did some double-time exploring. Maybe triple-time. But even more problematic than these detours (which were totally worth it) was the animals. We kept coming up on new animals. Pygmy deer and giant beetles and monkeys playing on the road. Herds of kudu (a particularly impressive variety of deer) feeding along the road. Water buffalo up close and personal on the road. We managed to get a yelp out of one of our safarians as a water buffalo (renowned for being aggressive) made some “Bring It!” sounds at us. Even better was when we came up on a rhino and got just a couple feet away. Another yelp from our backseat yelper.

With all of our awesome animal contacts we get way behind schedule and had to hurry back to the gate. With drum music pounding away on our radio, with the sun going down, hitting the speed limit and avoiding those pesky pygmy deer it was an intense trip. And although I had to adjust our car's clock so we made it back by 7, we “made it.” It wasn't jumping from the highest bungee jump in the world, but it was intense.

After some dinner (the highlight for me was when they told us after drinking a pitcher of their water that they really wouldn't recommend drinking their water as it was no longer potable) we hit the road back to Durban. This trip was notable for some giant lightening storms, a brief but entertaining game of Car Catchphrase (patent pending) and eventually becoming stranded at the airport. We returned our rental car only to find that there were no taxis at the airport. NO TAXIS AT AN AIRPORT. South Africa, you need to get on the ball here. We asked the airport security about this and one of the rent-a-cops offered to take half of us home in his car, “if you'd like to provide me with some money for my trouble.” It was amazingly creepy, and awesome. Awesome because we did have the numbers for a number of taxi companies and didn't need to rely on him possibly killing us, or at the very least ripping us off. A different set of airport security later come by to accuse us of loitering, but luckily our taxi arrived at the same time. So although it was late, we made it home from our first major Durban excursion safe and sound. Next week: Lesotho.


esodhiambo said...

I think the Big 5 is simply a tourist trap--you feel like you have to keep safariing until you have seen them all. But seriously, your Chris 5 needs elephants.

Personally, I would assume all water unportable unless I had boiled and filtered it myself. Avoid ice too.

Sounds like a great trip; can't wait for the Lesotho report.

Stephen said...

For me, the essential question is whether the word "Falls" (as in Victoria Falls) is singular or plural. Do you go to see a falls or the falls? Maybe it depends on whether the word is intended to express "more than one fall" or something that "does not remain on one level, but falls"