Kranking in Kruger (25-Aug 2013)

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Our morning drive into Orpen Gate was blessed with the shade of these clouds.

Upon entering the Orpen gate into Kruger, it was immediately apparent at how “Disney” Kruger could be at times:  the curio shops boast mugs, t-shirts, magnets and pins – all graffiti-ed with “Kruger National Park” or the well known faces of the big five.  This feeling of prescribed experience quickly faded, however, as soon as we stepped out (err, drove out) into the wilds of Kruger.

Strangely cute. Acutely strange.

Strangely cute. Acutely strange.

Much of the morning drive to our research camp in Skukuza revealed small groups of warthogs, massive herds of impala (until this point, we’d only seen small groups), and the occasional steenbok.  The wildlife viewing began to pick up (much like an exponential curve) when we rounded a bend to find a momma chacma baboon caring for her tiny little one.  The baby baboon played and tumbled around in his mother’s lap as she debugged him

Splish, splash - two tuskers in a bath.

Splish, splash – two tuskers in a bath.

As you might imagine, it was hard to pull away, but thankfully we did because we soon hit the peak of that exponential curve.  Our little Hilux came to a large watering hole that looked suspiciously like an estuary (though it turned out to be a large pan).  On the opposite bank a group of four large female elephants had just taken a dust bath and were busy drinking and spraying water backward, displaying an arc of water droplets that glittered in the bright sunlight.  Soon, two of the elephants submerged themselves in the water and appeared to find relief from the increasing temperature.  Several meters away two hippos surfaced, walking along the bottom of the shallow pan and occasionally jumping up to breath a relief of air.  In the backdrop among the trees emerged a group of 5 giraffes.  A variety of heights, they browsed the leafy foliage as they lazily made their way to the watering hole.  And just behind the lengthy leaders came a herd of wildebeest.  Their lighter brown skin contrasted with the sharp orange giraffes and it was easy to see their intent – filling up on water to prepare for a long hot day of grazing.  A crocodile on the closer bank appeared uninterested in the busy procession and continued to bathe in the sun without a single movement to ensure he wasn’t a fake.  A herd of impala covered the remaining open waterbank as they nipped at the short green grass, a welcome respite to the brown duff covering the rest of the land.

Happy hour.

Happy hour.

And just as we thought to ourselves that we were seeing African wildlife in all its glory (there were several bird species present as well, but we’re focusing on the less funded research subjects at the moment), a large herd of about 14 elephants with three little ones about twice the size of a full grown impala crossed the road behind us.  They left behind the arid savanna for a cool drink at the water’s edge.  Katie watched in amazement as the clustered group broke apart, the protected little ones being allowed to break ranks of the nucleus and drink their share.  They copied the mature drinking behavior of their mothers and didn’t seem to play much.

Spiritcritter.

Spiritcritter.

"I reject your interpretation of chapter three's ending in Ulysses!"

“I reject your interpretation of chapter three’s ending in Ulysses!”

As the day stretched into early afternoon, our truck raced towards Skukuza passing small groups of 4-7 zebra and several more groups of elephants.  One pair of adult males grabbed our attention when they began to spar down by a dried up creek bed.  We stopped to watch the two face off, coming together to knock heads and then wrap their trunks around one another’s heads.  The larger male finally seemed to drive the other off (we had determined at this point that it was a territory dispute, as the inferior male seemed intent on exploring this new piece of land) and we continued down the road about 50 meters.  In the same river bed, three adult females walked down the river bed, accompanied by the smallest baby elephant we had yet to see.  We looked on in amusement as the little one tried to follow his mom up the steep far slope.  We thought it almost had it when it suddenly tumbled backwards, sliding down the slope back to the river bottom.  The adult females patiently helped it up with their strong trunks and guided it diagonally up the slope, using a familiar hiking technique: switchbacks.  The approach worked and the little group soon disappeared into the trees.

We were romanced by the wild in the six hours we had roamed the park and were beyond excited to spend over a week driving and hiking through this rich land.  We were assigned a little rondavel down by a river’s edge in the Skukuza Research Camp.  Katie quickly dubbed it the snail shell, as the rooms inside wrapped around each other, coming closer and closer to the middle of the shell’s swirl.  We feel asleep to sounds of hippos, bushbabies, and frogs, echoing much like the sound of the ocean you might hear when putting a sea shell to your ear.

Wits to do (20-23-Aug 2013)

Our humble abode and our "trusty" steed (foreshadowing!)

Our humble abode and our “trusty” steed (foreshadowing!)

Two red duiker, a herd of impala, a tiny teal and burnt brown little bird, and a fiercely foraging giraffe greeted Katie as she watched in awe out the little bungalow’s windows while the kettle heated water for coffee.

Possibly civet tracks, or spoor as they're known here.

Possibly serval tracks, or spoor as they’re known here.

Katie and her spiritspoor - giraffe.

Katie and her spiritspoor – giraffe.

We quickly transitioned into field work mode and set to collecting, organizing and labeling gear.  A local hardware store (containing the same staff and the same customers as you would see if you spend time in any Ace stateside) kindly cut 37 steel pipes for Daniel’s experiments after we explained our intent to a puzzled but supportive employee.

Driving lessons.

Driving lessons.

The next day, Katie received another manual driving lesson.  Driving the behemoth on the dirt tracks while looking for wildlife was so much fun!  Daniel took over for a night drive as the sun set – producing the stunning views that come to mind with backlit African trees and a night sky full of foreign stars.

On our third day in Wits, we decided to take a short break from field work preparation to do some hiking in Blydes Canyon (flickr photos), the second deepest in South Africa, comparable to the Grand Canyon in the USA.  Katie took the Landi to the edge of the property where Daniel switched over to carefully drive the much bigger roads past town and into the plateaus.  Our engine was running hot – and here we’ll pause to tell you a bit more about our valiant steed-

She’s an old beast, but well loved. Daniel’s adviser bought her while he worked in Zim on his dissertation, and has poured money lovingly into it. It had problems – more than a few – for Daniel’s other lab mate who had her in the field earlier this Austral winter. As a lover of slightly broken field vehicles, Daniel was smitten.

– We had already dumped a good liter or two into the radiator, so we knew the leak could only be getting worse.  We were determined to explore this special park, however, so we pressed on.

About 20 minutes into the drive, we heard a very loud CLUNK and then our Landi did some rattling.  We pulled to the side of the road and a passing gentleman from a nearby conservancy stopped just in front of us.  He got out and immediately started assessing the car problem with Daniel, as Katie ran back 40 meters to get the giant steel part that had fallen out from under our beloved ride.

Sure enough, the driveshaft that articulates with the front differential had wiggled loose and dropped out of the car.  Fortunately, our car was still drivable in 2WD (the amazing thing about old Landis – large portions of working parts can FALL OUT FROM UNDER IT and it will STILL DRIVE).  Our Good Samaritan (as we later called him, you’ll later understand why) told us of a mechanic just 1km up the road from our current location and insisted that he follow us there.  Upon the turn into the shop, our friend once more pulled alongside to ensure we were clear on who to talk to and how to seek repairs.  We thanked him profusely and he drove off into the distance.

Werkswinkel means "Workshop" in Afrikaans.

Werkswinkel means “Workshop” in Afrikaans.

Instead of the usual dollar signs that you can see in the eyes of US mechanics as you limp your car into their lot, the proprietor of Marieps Motors bounded out of the shop and dove under the car to discuss car things with Daniel.  Katie handed him the part from the road and within minutes he had a diagnosis and was explaining how the repair would work (there would be welding involved, another cool thing about Landis, at least during repairs here in Southern Africa, they WELD stuff back together and then the Landi will drive once more).  We also asked that he look at the radiator too, and after a quick run back into his shop to grab his Toyota manual that consisted of well drawn diagrams taped together between two strips of cardboard with duct tape, he had another solution.  He politely explained all the mechanics and then inquired as to how we were going to get back to our temporary home.  He offered to string together a ride for us. Daniel contacted WRF and they had a van on the way.

On the ride back to Wits, our driver pointed out two men that he called “tootsies” (tsotsis).  Daniel translated and later told me that the driver called this pair criminals/thugs, the kind that wait by the side of the road for a mugging or car jacking opportunity.  Our good Samaritan saw to it that we were safe and cared for along our journey.  Once again, we were humbled by the kindness shown on our adventure through this distant land.

Falling back to South Africa (19-Aug 2013)

Katie rose at dawn (now, for those of you aware of Katie’s sleep patterns, this is VERY strange and abnormal behavior for her, being anything but an early bird – but her internal clock seems to be set to Africa sun time for this trip, for which she has been blessed with many animal sightings and stunning sunrises) to watch the sunrise over the tree covered hill.  The sun’s rays eventually hit the water as the sky turned from a rosy pink to a light violet, eventually filling with fluffy clouds and returning to the brightest of blue.  Daniel eventually joined her with coffee in hand.

Before our morning meal, we took a short walk to another overlook of the falls, this one ever so damp from the splash of the falling water.  The rush of noise woke us fully and we headed back to a full British breakfast, complete with roasted tomatoes.  We splurged and ordered one French press of coffee and let us tell you, IT WAS WELL WORTH EVERY SINGLE RAND.

Our delicious spread.

Our delicious spread.

As we munched on toast after devouring the eggs and potatoes, we spoke with the proprietor of the reserve about his travels, his conservation initiatives, and his take on South African politics.  He actually used to work with a former professor of Daniel’s, with whom Daniel first went to Namibia and Botswana. The proprietor is also working with UF students and faculty on research in the region. Small world and/or the Gator Nation is everywhere.

On our hike to the falls, we passed a river-fed swimming hole after descending the “Big Steps” trail – it boasted 40 enormous box steps, an enormous trail building feat, as well.  The view of the complete falls was amazing and well worth the all-up hill hike we would have to climb at record speed in order to get back on the road so we could return our rental car, meet up with our friend Peter, and get inside Wits Rural before they locked the gate.  We only scraped the surface of the entire network of trails inside the Phophonanye Falls Nature Reserve.  Guess we’ll have to come back.

Phophonyane Falls.

Phophonyane Falls.

Close-up view of lower falls.

Close-up view of lower falls.

The road to the SZ-ZA border post was short and lined with pine and eucalyptus plantations that eventually gave way to sugar cane, citrus, and banana groves. We eventually made it to the lone SZ border post, and after a quick check of our passports, we were shuttled down the counter towards a young African man, about college-aged.  He explained through slightly broken English that he was studying how tourists used and later felt about Swaziland.  We happily answered his questions about how much we enjoyed our stay and how much beauty we were lucky to happen-upon (I mean, we’re researchers ourselves so of course we were excited to take part in a study). In hindsight, it was interesting that we didn’t have to sign an informed consent release. Maybe IRB rules aren’t as big in SZ.

We drove our car about 50 meters to the three large shiny ZA border buildings and got stamped back into South Africa without any additional questioning or car searches.  The population quickly ramped back up upon reentry, the sides of the highway swelling to burst with groups of women and men, cows, goats, kamikaze taxis, students, and tons of cute kids.

The major highway that took us most of the way towards Kruger National Park was littered with road workers, huge trucks, and mile after mile of rebuilding projects.  It sure made the going slow, but the highway was one of the smoothest we’ve ever driven over.  However, our next turn lead us away from this glorious work of intensive man and women-power to a track (it doesn’t even deserve the title of “road”) that seemed to be an experimental mix of sand dunes and deep rutted blacktop.  If we thought our going before was slow, we quickly counted our blessings as we bumped and dodged and swerved and skittered our way behind a full coach bus, hoping against hope that Daniel’s phone would lead us out of this road-tripping madness.  Thankfully, finally, hope prevailed and the bus turned left to stay on the beach encroaching trail while we turned right, heading North towards our destination for the evening: Wits Rural Facility Campus.

Several game reserves lined our final stretch and we were delighted to spot several animals as we rushed by:

Group of baboons

One juvenile giraffe

Six kudu

Three warthogs

And one lone hornbill.

We returned the car to the teeny tiny little airstrip outside Hoedspruit just as the clock struck four, and as it turned out, long after the entire airport staff’s end of shift.  They all waited in the parking lot as we quickly unloaded our little home on wheels and threw our gear into the back of our field vehicle for the next two weeks: a beat-up old Landi (Land Cruiser being the proper name).

Peter and his girlfriend Rejoice were kind enough to pick us up, drive us away from the relieved airport staff, and drop us at a little bungalow on ~3000 acres preserve / research campus.  We ate our supper on our front porch as the sun set and called it a day.

Sunset over Blydes Canyon mesas.

Sunset over Blydes Canyon mesas.

Hi high hyrax!

Having woken up Katie as she wondered how structurally sound our cabin was, the wind finally died down sometime during the night. We knew that the park turned off the generators at night, and so we waited patiently for the power to come back on…and waited…and waited. Cold breakfast and cold instant coffee for us that day, it turns out. A group of hikers leaving on a guided day hike told us that the power was out, likely from the windstorm. We packed up and headed out, guiding our little car along the windswept grasslands.

As a former Honda Fit owner, Daniel had to at least take a few Honda Fit/Jazz-being-BA photos.

As a former Honda Fit owner, Daniel had to at least take a few Honda Fit/Jazz-being-BA photos.

Shadows of the Katie.

Shadows of the Katie.

Not far from the cabin, we saw a backlit hyrax – a first for both of us – which quickly scrambled away to do fat small mammal things like sleep and eat. We moved on, watching for more but seeing none. The road became a dirt track after a bit, and we continued pushing on, passing more blesbuck and warthogs and guiding ourselves using the surprisingly intuitive pictogram road markers. We had laughed a bit earlier at the map’s poor symbology, but now saw the beautiful, language-less communication behind it.

This is a good sign.

This is a good sign.

I thought you didn't believe in signs!?

I thought you didn’t believe in signs!?

We parked at an overlook and readied a backpack for our hike. The Molalotja Falls, our destination, are the tallest in Swaziland. We were excited to stretch our legs after too much sitting in cars lately. We came to a trail intersection and saw that our path was blocked by a sign informing us that our trail was closed due to nesting bald ibises. Birds 1, Katie 0. We took the right fork instead, heading down to a smaller falls on the same river, but further away.

Birds. Frowny face.

Birds. Frowny face.

The hike continued steeply downhill, the sun beating down on us in the exposed grassy and rocky landscape. A small stream bubbled up from a spring next to us, and a young Australian man came barreling up the trail at us, asking if we had seen a multiool he had lost. We had not, and he turned around and ran back to his group.

A man and fire or: I swear I talk about other things sometimes maybe.

A man and fire or: I swear I talk about other things sometimes maybe.

Firebreaks.

The long stretch of dark ground (looks like a darker yellow brick road) is a firebreak.  Firebreaks burnt earlier in the season help prevent the spread of wildfires later in the season.

A little while later, having climbed into a much more rugged section of the trail, we heard an enormous KER-CRASH of a rockfall. We looked at each other and started double-timing it, hoping that the Aussie friend was not smooshed by his own reckless running. We eventually caught sight of him and his group again as they took a break by the waterfall we were aiming at. We too took a quick break in the square foot of shade of a lone tree on the trail, scarfing cheese, crackers, chocolate and gummy bears (Thanks, Mrs. Godwin’s class!).

The falls were beautiful, a lush green oasis surrounded by high, dry grass. Leaves floated and swirled in pools, and Katie searched in vain for invertebrates. Daniel just tried to keep her from sliding off.  We turned around and began the long, hot walk back to the car, taking a moment to refill from the earlier stream and purifying it with leftover micropur from Philmont.

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Knowing that we’d want to spend more time at our next location, we quickly drove out of the park.

Fire intensifies as we leave.

Fire intensifies as we leave.

A blesbok stoically wishing us farwell from the rocky slopes.

A blesbok stoically wishing us farwell from the rocky slopes.

The fire we had seen the night before was now making sustained runs, and the column was changing from clearly burning grass to getting into brush and timber. By the time we had wound our way through the plantations and small towns to Pigg’s Peak, where our next lodge was, the fire was clearly in the timber plantations and the column looked like anything you would see from the Western US. It was walking the dog.

This is the most well-developed column I've seen in Southern Africa.

This is the most well-developed column I’ve seen in Southern Africa.

Swaziland (16-AUG 2013)

We were more than ready for something more than a cup of instant coffee this morning, not to knock Nescafe, but we are unapologetic appreciators of good coffee. While waiting for the whale watch the day before (the one we had rushed to in order to wait), we spotted a little coffee shop, Vida e Caffe, (somewhat rare in these parts) hidden beside a curio shop and an electronics store.

Breakfast of champions.

Breakfast of champions.

Our orders were sung by the entire staff, making our lattes even sweeter.

After breakfast, we scooted out to the Indian Ocean to say goodbye one last time. Katie walked backwards the whole way to the car, trying to memorize the unique blue and green colors of this bit of sea. Then, we made our way north to Swaziland. Along the same route we had driven at night to St. Lucia, we were struck by the volume and variety of items for sale along the side of the N2 (the highway that would spit us out just before the South Africa-Swaziland border).

We passed through a few unfenced game reserves, also part of the KZN network, a few miles before the border. Though we were trying to make good time, we HAD to stop in order to observe a group of 5 giraffes, this time sitting in the hot mid-morning sun.

The ZA border post: well organized, multi-lingual signs to prevent agricultural biocontamination, speedy service, new buildings containing RFID locks on all doors.

The SZ border post: one small decrepit building, long line thanks to a bus packed with tourists from Hong Kong (we gazed longingly at their open passports, dreaming to visit even a fraction of the countries stamped on their pages), posters against human trafficking and the spread of HIV littered the walls, three portraits adorned the back wall: one of the king, another of the queen, and another of the prime minister.

(We opted not to take any pictures during this time, as it is usually poor form / discouraged, sometimes actively…)

After paying $5 US road tax for our rental (50 ZAR), the single bar gate was lifted and we rolled across Swazi red sand. Immediately the population density dropped (less than one million people call SZ home) and we were transported once more into fields of sugar cane. The miles of green leafy crops stretched to the horizon and covered the more mountainous terrain ahead of us.

We had driven for about an hour through the rolling SZ countryside and we started to round a bend toward a small bridge. A man on a dirtbike zipped towards us heading south and quickly pulled off to the side, frantically gesturing for us to slow down. Around the blind corner we rapidly sighted the reason for his frantic motions: a old woman drove a herd of donkeys that filled most of the road. We puttered half off to the side until her and her wards were safely across. She gave us a warm smile and we waved back.

The first of the two big cities we would pass today was Manzini. Unlike previous locales, the signage left something to be desired. We quickly found ourselves not lost, but… turned around. Passing a hospital and a large football stadium, we realized we needed navigational help and pulled off into the first gas station we saw. A MASSIVE body builder, his arms clad with tattoos, got out of a shiny Jeep to pay inside as we looked in vain for a map. By far, he was (and still is) the largest man we’ve seen in ZA or SZ and the only one that clearly had the disposable income and time to lift cars into the air. The shop owner struck us as Egyptian and his English was much worse than his young African attendant. Through sign language and much back-and-forth, we learned that there were not maps but they were able to tell us which turn we had missed and were on our way once again.

Typical urban Swaziland highway scene.

Typical urban Swaziland highway scene.

Thankfully, the signage around the country capital, Mbabane (a really fun word to say, go on, try it) was much improved and we skirted the city center. Our little Honda Jazz found the steep hills difficult to traverse. The traffic thickened, reminding us of the drive out of JNB. We passed few walkers at this point; we guessed they were just as scared of the giant empty cane trucks plowing in and out of lanes as we were, as well as the coils of razor wire separating the two sides of the highway. We passed the turnoff for the royal residence. Signs demanding men be “good men” and get tested for HIV were on every billboard now. After a long slog uphill, we passed Mbabane and were spit out onto a high, windy mountain road. We passed few cars and were greeted only by the occasional weathered stonecarver.

These tracks are side by side.

These tracks are side by side.

We finally rounded a bend (as Daniel says “there are a lot of bends!”) and saw the turn off to Malolotja (pronounced Molo-lo-cha). This windswept, short-grass plateau, called “highveld,” sprouted several cabins, one our home for the night. The place seemed somewhat abandoned. We were about to pull through the empty guard shack and into the park when out of nowhere appeared a uniform-clad guard. Daniel signed the entrance register and we entered the park. The dirt road ruts were lined with a concrete grid mold. We followed the path to a large yurt, where we guessed we would get the keys to our cabin. Once again, the place was deserted, save for a single receptionist watching a local football game (ZA vs. Burkina Faso, with vuvuzelas blaring). She greeted us warmly and supplied us with our keys. We stepped out onto the eerie landscape and found our cabin. The last in the row with a sweeping view of the highveld. A green strip of grass stood out from the landscape, having flushed up after the fire break had been burned earlier in the season.

View from the Malolotja cabin ridge.

View from the Malolotja cabin ridge.

When Katie woke up from her much needed and crazily refreshing nap, the wind was scouring our little concrete cabin. We made grilled cheese as we watched the sun slowly dip below the horizon. We were warm and safe in our little abode, watching the distant fires, driven by the high winds, blaze to life.

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Cruisin’ for Crocs and Hippos (16-AUG 2013)

We decided that we could pack even more into the day so we cruised down to the dock on the bank of Lake St. Lucia.  Formerly part of the estuary, a period of intense drought closed this section of water off from the ocean.  Interestingly enough (and at this point, our science brains were working like crazy to dream up all the amazing studies that could be done, with phylogeography alone (a shout out to my lab members stateside)), this body of water has slowly but surely become less and less salty.  The hippos and crocodiles that call it home, in addition to the many bird species (our friend Frank, an avid birder, would be in heaven) and the over 427 species of trees on the banks don’t seem to mind.

Our first look at St. Lucia Lake.

Our first look at St. Lucia Lake.

As we walked towards the dock, we narrowly dodged a bucket hat-clad, very European tourist backing into us at full speed, affirming that the most dangerous thing in Africa is not a hippo or crocodile, but a European.

We boarded a big flat bottomed boat (they make the rockin’ cruise go round) along with 40 other estuary enthusiasts and grabbed two seats in the sunshine.  After being soaked thoroughly by the Indian Ocean, we were hungry for the warm glow of the sun on our skin.

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A flat bottomed boat similar to ours searches the shoreline for hippos. As you can see, they clearly overshot it.

We saw:

3 harems of hippos.  Each harem is comprised of one dominant male and a dozen or more females and their female young.  If a female has a male baby, she and the baby stay about 30 meters or so away from the group, so the dominant male doesn’t feel threatened and try to kill it.

2 crocodiles.  We’re pretty sure they were fake.

2 species of kingfisher: giant and pied.

1 fish eagle.

1 yellow weaver.

And many mangroves.

A bull hippo and his harem.

A bull hippo and his harem.

Hippo harem around a lone tree.

Hippo harem around a lone tree.

A baby hippo tries to nurse as his momma sleeps by leaning on another with her nose.  She must be tired.

A baby hippo tries to nurse as his momma sleeps by leaning on another with her nose. She must be tired.

Hippo butts.  This, this is for our friend Annie.  Katie wishes she could turn this into a postcard and send to her.

Hippo butts. This, this is for our friend Annie. Katie wishes she could turn this into a postcard and send to her.

The sun began to set over the estuary as we puttered back to the dock.  Our arrival was greeted by three young African dancers, looking for tips.  As we had planned for an early morning the following day (because we felt we just weren’t packing enough in to each day, so we’d drive most of the way through yet another country: Swaziland), we stopped by the Spar grocery on the way home.  We looked high and low in the two story building for a set of sheets (see earlier comment), and though we found just about every possible household building item (including tile cement), marine sport equipment (fishing poles galore), and clothing essentials, the store held not a single sheet or sheet-like item.  We bought ice cream instead and decided to call it a day.

Sunset on the estuary. Not so bad.

Sunset on the estuary. Not so bad.

Katie’s Spirit Animals 16-AUG 2013

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Smokey sunrise from our deck.

We woke up in our tent amazingly refreshed: it was the first night we slept all the way through. Our breakfast of instant coffee and leftover curry, and the outdoor shower (with views of the recent fires and valley), hit the spot. We quickly packed up and hurried out in order to make time for a mini-game drive before heading back to St. Lucia.

The recent burn seemed to have scared much of the game away. While heading up a hill, Daniel stuttered out, “GIRAFFE!” and hit the brakes. Katie gasped: her spirit animal chomped on tree-tops a few short meters from the road. Katie’s mind went blank as she stared in wonder at the mystical beast. A bit up the road another crossed and silhouetted itself across the ruddy sunrise. Our little rental car was silent save for the putter of its underpowered engine. No words were spoken until both had sauntered off into the bush. We pushed on.

Note the tail. Katie took at least fifty pictures.

Note the tail. Katie took at least fifty pictures.

Note the crinkly, star-shaped spots. These contrast with the ones we've seen in Kruger, which are much more square and less crinkly.

Note the crinkly, star-shaped spots. These contrast with the ones we’ve seen in Kruger, which are much more square and less crinkly.

Giraffe in silhouette.

Giraffe in silhouette.

A bit later we came across a small herd of waterbuck, their white-circled butts contrasting against the charred ground. The post-fire green flush in the grass attracted a family of warthogs, happily and surprisingly daintily nibbling the fresh shoots.

One of the rivers winding through iMfolozi.

One of the rivers winding through iMfolozi.

Note the Beiber hair.

Note the Beiber hair.

Happily munching on post-burn grass.

Happily munching on post-burn grass.

Just after leaving the park we had reception enough to check-in with the whale watching team. They grumpily told us that the time had been moved up, and that we should have called in 24 hours before. Not willing to argue with, well, anyways, we just decided to double-time it to make sure we could be there to hurry-up-and-wait. After a somewhat harrowing drive (Daniel got bonus points for not hitting any pregnant cows, pedestrians, or minibuses), we made it in time to do just that.

For Nephew Ben: TRACTOR TRACTOR TRACTOR.

For Nephew Ben: TRACTOR TRACTOR TRACTOR.

Katie loved the cartoons on the side of the buggy.

Katie loved the cartoons on the side of the buggy.

A tractor pulled a trailer full of us through town and deposited us on the beach. Another tractor picked up the boat once it arrived, and used a solid pole to turn it around pointing back out to sea. It was quite an operation.

Pushing TRACTOR and rod.

Pushing TRACTOR and rod.

The whale watch itself, in hindsight, is a bit of blur: it was two solid hours of intense whale activity. We launched in a burst speed off the sandy beach, after having been turned around and launched by a tractor. To get past the breakers we seemed to hit every single wave, crashing back down and catching air each time. We had explicit instructions from the captain to hold on tight with both hands and pull yourself down into the seat, maintaining foot contact with the floor at all times.

Once past the turbulent near shore waves, we quickly spotted our first social group (they were not playing bridge.) At this point, with Katie’s enthusiasm for whales and the intensity of this experience, we could go on ad nauseum, but to spare both you, dear reader, and our own constitutions, we will provide a few highlights:

At the first moment, we clambered up the rapidly swaying ladder to the sailor’s roost on top the boat, where a few small benches and handrails provided the only means of not being flung from the end of the pendulum. (Later, Katie says, “Though I wouldn’t have minded that much…I’d get to be with whales!” Daniel’s mind wandered during the whale watch to half-remembered physics problems about forces at the end of a pendulum…)

The initial group was rolling, reverse spyhopping (sailing, according to the whale-themed wine bottle Daniel later found for Katie), tail slapping (exactly what it sounds like,) and fin slapping (a rude behavior against northern Europeans.)  It was quickly apparent, or at least easy to project, personalities on the different individual-level behavior of the humpbacks: the young juvenile that stuck its fluke in the air and slapping it, the larger male that would roll on its back and flip both flippers in the air. It was overwhelmingly endearing.

Flying fish are adorable and weird at the same time.

Halfway through the whale watch the humpbacks became more active, moving from partial to more complete breaches.

On this coastline, this behavior is thought to be related to skin aggravation due to parasites, whale lice, and settling invertebrates. (They’re trying to convince the inverts not to settle but to strive for their goals.)

Katie got to see her two spirit animals in one day: whales and giraffes. It’s hard to top that.

Seabirds follow these whales around to eat the flesh that flakes off after they breach. Kinda cool, kinda gross.

Lastly, Katie added a whale to her life list, seeing pygmy killer whales scooting around active breaching male humpbacks.

Katie would like to reiterate how magical it was.

We thought the ride out was the worst because we were facing the breakers head on, but little did we know that choosing the two last seats in the back was the wettest decision we could make. To be fair, we ended up with those seats because we stayed aloft for as long as we could: it was tough to pull Katie away from the whales. Each wave crashed over us for a twenty minutes as we drove headlong for shore. The strategy they had was to thoroughly beach the boat, far enough on shore that the tractor could easily pull it up onto the trailer. It was a sopping rush and we were soaked and happy. After disembarking and riding back into town, towed behind a tractor, we changed in a parking lot and found a delicious meal of calamari and kingklip, topped off with milkshakes.

Next stop…hippo/croc tour in the estuary.