A Timeless Place

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Cypress squeals “just my size” and sits happily on this shady bench being overtaken by mosses.

 While we were in South Africa, one of the oldest and biodiverse ecosystems on earth locked my interest most.  A timeless place that is home to many plants and animals that have remained  unchanged for millions of years.
It was fascinating to see Afro-montane forests with giant Podocarpus trees! Podocarps, an ancient conifer with foliage like a yew, are a relic from Gondwanaland – when Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, Madagascar, New Zealand and India formed one mega land mass. Podocarpaceae, along with other plant families, evolved before Gondwanaland split apart. Now remnants of this lush rainforestd and ancient plants can be observed in isolated patches in humid temperate parts of the southern hemisphere. We also saw glimpses of this unique forest in South America, Australia and New Zealand, so seeing it here in Africa was very exciting! There is very little in Africa, but we saw it in the mountains at Mt. Sheba Lodge and along the coast of Southern Africa at Wilderness National Park.
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This huge Podocarp was at Wilderness National Park, South Africa
We brought an entire library of field guides to Africa, but only one “guide” book: Southern African Birdfinder by Callan Cohen. This guide book outlines excellent nature and birding hot spots, as well as lodges and campgrounds. We depended on this book for the best natural areas to stop at and explore. 100s of brilliant birding hot spots were outlined, each offering a peek into interesting natural communities as well as the fascinating bird denizens. Some spots were easy to access, but most were down untamed roads and quite an adventure to reach.
December 18, 2016. We were in the Drakensburg Mountain Range near a small town called Pilgrim’s Rest when we needed to find a place to camp for the night. Mount Sheba Nature Reserve Lodge was not too far away and sounded amazing. We were keen to check out the spectacular avifauna and rainforest. I called the lodge to see if they had any available campsites. Yes, they did. I asked if the road was good. She candidly said “No, but it’s getting better. The last 15km is on a gravel road.”
The road wasn’t that bad, just a few man hole size potholes in the beginning and a long bone-rattling ride the rest of the way. At least the final steep 3km into the lush valley was paved. There were enticing signs about 1km apart the entire way down the gravel stretch that distracted me from the painful jarring ride. One sign read ‘A relaxing retreat awaits you’ another said ‘Natures paradise up ahead’ or ‘Serenity not too far ahead.’ Good thing for these amusing alluring signs, which were truly necessary to keep guests pushing on the agonizing corrugated road, or I would have said “let’s turn around!” The effects felt from a bumpy road were magnified in our camper van. Not only were my bones rattled and brain turned into spaghetti, but dishes, cupboards and anything loose in the camper van jostled violently. (We soon learned that corrugated roads were common and one day after bumping up and down for 100s of km, our microwave came unscrewed and th back cabinets fell right down!) This rattling was so  intensely loud that I could not hear Cypress reading happily in the back seat.

We finally hit a wonderful smooth tarred road as we entered an open high veld zone with showy Proteas. On the upper reaches of the grassy slopes were rocky outcrops and pretty hot pink flowers.

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Our destination came into view as a tiny white spec amid a blanket of green in the steep valley below.

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Mount Sheba Lodge, nestled in the valley below, was surrounded by mountains of lushness.
We arrived at a posh British style lodge that had more class and elegance than we could ever muster up. With unkempt hair, filthy clothes and muddy boots, we all probably bore a resemblance to wild bush pigs and certainly smelled like them. Feeling a tad out of place and more and more like a bush pig, we strolled into a lavishly decorated reception. We were greeted by a cheerful young lady with an English accent and fire red hair. She handed us iced tea and shots of brandy (hmm…I could get use to this fanciful lifestyle). She handed Cypress a dart to pop a balloon and win a prize, since it was almost Christmas. He won sunglasses.
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 We were allocated a small patch of grass where we could camp for the night. It was a
stunning location. We hiked the extensive trails, through temperate afromontane forest leading to plummeting waterfalls. The forest was complex in every shade of green imaginable with giant figs, African cherry, podocarpus and heavenly-scented blooms of irises and lilies. The forest was alive with bird song and insects humming. An interesting critter or plant was discovered continuously as we hiked the rugged trail and Cypress proved to be a budding mountaineer. We glimpsed several birds, including a Norina Trogan, African emerald cuckoo and a Knysna Turaco. Soaking up the abundant life was mind-blowing and made me feel more alive and connected to nature than ever. Nature has a calming, tranquil, beneficial effect on me and most people (if not all humans?). The health benefits of simply stepping into a very old forest or any natural space is profound, peaceful and beautiful, so go outside and take a soothing nature bath!
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This beauty, Knysna Turaco, was a treat to see.
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 Ahhhh….Paradise
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 Not exactly sure what Cypress is doing here, but it looks like yoga.
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 We occasionally had a braai (Afrikaans word meaning to cook meat over a fire). Grill master, Ryne, cooked some tasty burgers! Beef was typically fresh, high quality and easy to come by, so we all kind of turned into carnivores on this trip. This was difficult for me considering I was a vegetarian for 17 years before this! Locals eat an insane amount of cow, sheep and pig, and are kings of the barbeque!

The Great Karoo

We are back, nestled up in our cozy UP home, where things look no different from when we left in December. It’s still damp, cold and cloudy. The deciduous trees stand bare-leaved and the forest seems devoid of life. We patiently wait for life to slowly wake up and  return to the north woods. I smile in anticipation of salamander dances, frogs croaking, birds rejoicing and  wildflowers quietly creeping into bloom. Spring is my most cherished time of year.
Africa seems like a dream. It came and went faster than I would have liked. Now, all I can do is relive it through pictures, videos and journal entries. There is so much I wanted to blog about when we were on our journey, but time was limited and wifi was lacking. We are gearing up for another busy field season, but so long as the crawling critters are in hibernation, I have time to write and post pictures from our marvelous adventure.
We loved the the National Parks (NPs) in South Africa, a stretch of the trip in mid-January offered some of the finest.
I want to share our fast-paced journey through several memorable national parks in the heart of South Africa, including Addo Elephant NP, Mountain Zebra NP, The Karoo NP, Camdeboo NP, Wilderness NP and Bontebok NP. That’s 6 parks (plus 2 small reserves) in a week! Talk about an intense national park visit marathon! Time was always maximized and never wasted!
Addo Elephant National Park 
Addo Elephant NP is a favorite among locals and if your into seeing massive pachyderms right outside your car window, then this park is for you! It is the 3rd largest park in South Africa and encompasses 5 distinct ecosystems, including a narrow band extending south into coastal dunes. It was established in 1931 to protect a small elephant herd that was close to extinction. Now there are more than 300 elephants in the park, along with Black Rhino, Cape Buffalo, Black Wildebeest and Lions. Animal spotting was ridiculously easy. We saw Meerkats, Yellow Mongoose, Warthogs, and Red Hartebeest straight away. We also had terrific encounters with elephants, including 2 youngsters playing and charging each other with sticks. Luckily, we didn’t run into any cantankerous bulls, which have been known to crush and upturn small cars if their space is not respected.


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Mountain Zebra National Park 
We crossed a small mountain range to the north and the land was transformed. It was gently rolling hills clad in prominent brown earth scattered with small sage green shrubs – our first introduction to the great Karoo! The Karoo is semi-desert and renown for its high diversity of neat succulent plants. It’s the only desert on earth that is designated as a global biodiversity hot spot. Karoo is the largest ecosystem in South Africa and is a transition between the lush coastal ecosystems comprising forest and fynbos and the dry Kalahari desert to the north. It superficially resembles dry areas in the USA and Australia; the only large structures rising off the plains are windmills bringing up life-saving water for livestock and people.
An iconic symbol of the Karoo – a windmill.
Mountain Zebra NP was lovely mountain scenery with rooiplaats (red plateaus) peppered in grazing mammals. We saw our first Black Wildebeest, Mountain Zebras (there are actually 3 species of Zebra in Southern Africa), Gemsbok, Grey Rhebok, Eland, Springbok and Bat-eared fox! And that’s not all! We were extremely fortunate to spot the very endangered and hard to find Black Rhino! Ryne’s number one animal he wanted to see! They feed high in shrubs/trees, opposed to the white rhino, who feeds, with his head hanging low, on ground vegetation. Sadly, rhinos are still being poached in national parks. Several hundred per year are being killed for their horns, in PROTECTED parks!!
The Black Wildebeest with its gorgeous blonde tail on the rooiplaats.
The ornate Mountain Zebra at Mountain Zebra National Park. Those mesmerizing stripes are simply beautiful!
Common Ostrich
Eastern Clapper Lark. Larks are particularly diverse in Karoo, desert and grassland in South Africa.
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Had to get out to soak up the beauty of this stream and waterfall.
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Ryne only has to be in the bush for a second before he comes back with the neatest critters, these are Giant Milkweed Grasshoppers (mating).

This park had an added bonus of long hiking trails around the rest camp, fenced off for our safety, allowing us to use our atrophied game-drive legs for a change. One trail went straight up a mountain and I was amazed at how easily Cypress stomped his way up the rocky slope.

My little mountaineer waiting for Mommy.
Taking a much needed break from driving to go on a refreshing hike at Mt. Zebra Park
The Karoo National Park 
The Karoo NP encompassed a dry, bone dry mountain range with deep shaded canyons. The hot, still air felt like we were stepping into an oven. The parched burnt-orange earth cracked and crumbled beneath my shoes. The air was so arid that my hair literally dried in 30 seconds. Ryne, who had a very minor cold, had a runny nose that instantly dried up! Temperatures reached between 36-38 degrees Celsius (close to 100 degrees F). Wildlife was not as conspicuous here as it was at other parks. Perhaps because of the heat. Waterholes were usually good for kudu, birds and tortoises. However, we did have unbeatable looks at Klipspringers, an antelope superbly adapted to life on granite rocks.
The handsome Klipspringer with tiny delicate hooves, perfect for springing from one rock to another, is a denizen of granite slopes.
The campground had nicely watered grassy sights, an oasis in the desert, which made it fantastic for tortoise and bird watching. Leopard Tortoises were plentiful and easily observed munching in their cloudland of fresh greens.
Leopard Tortoises reach an impressive size.
Camdeboo National Park
Camdeboo was fascinating geologically speaking and interesting with a diversity of aloe plants and shrubs covering the mountain sides. The valley of Desolation was very scenic with dolerite columns rising up from a precipitous canyon. The lookout over the steep crevice had no guard rails so I was a nervous wreck with Cypress being the clambering fool that he is.
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Neat succulent plant on top of the ridge
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The volcanic dolerite columns rising up from the Valley of Desolation.
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Admiring the flora and the plains over the Great Karoo.
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The Cypress Bridge
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The scenic landscape of the Great Karoo

I will share some highlights from Wilderness NP, part of the greater Garden Route NP in my next blog post. The Garden Route was one of my favorite places we explored because its hard to beat beaches, lakes, streams, wetlands and ancient forest rich in biodiversity.

The Sunset of our African Journey

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An approaching storm glows purple in the fading sun in the Erongo Mountains (northern Namibia)
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Cypress had a field day playing with some local children
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A campground/resort swimming pool. There are hippos in the Kwando River behind.
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The biggest tree in Africa. Perhaps the largest Baobob in the world.
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The perfect jungle gym for Cy!
Ryne loved it for the nesting Mottled spinetails in the tree hollow which was more like a legitimate cave!
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My happy boy 🙂
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Great looks at munching hippos, swimming crocs and buffalo on our Chobe River cruise.
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Victoria Falls
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Perpetual mist at Danger Point. Imagine buckets of water being poured on your head. Little one is hiding under his hood.

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A pod of noisy hippos. What a rush when the male charged our boat with his monster mouth agape.
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Is this boy spoiled or what? Just watching an elephant swim past on our lovely float above the falls.

Since my last blog post (sorry for the halt – wifi has been slow with a weak connection) we’ve covered a lot of ground. We drove across the striking red Kalahari Desert, where we landed ourselves in the middle of a National Geographic special on cheetahs right outside our car window. We drove north through the Namib Desert where we soaked up the unique beauty of a shifting sea of red sand dunes, sought the marvelous ancient welwitschia and marveled at the vast and eerily quiet moonscapes until we reached wet tropical northern Namibia. We floated the Okavango/Zambezi River region hoping to spot some rare birds in these magnificent riverine wetlands.
After 6 days in Botswana and 3 meager days in Zimbabwe, we made haste to our beloved South Africa – my favorite country to travel in! We didn’t anticipate spending more time in South Africa, but Botswana was wet and expensive and Zimbabwe was corrupt and very expensive.
Botswana was wild wild wild! Raw nature. I mean expansive wild land with no fences and low human density. Small villages with modest huts erected out of local vegetation were sparse along the main road. When we crossed the border into Bot. there were 2 wild elephants munching without a care in the world along the road to welcome us! We were also hit with a $100 fine at a random police checkpoint. Ryne, who usually drives, didn’t have his driver’s license. We pleaded that it was stolen (because it was) and that I (Jen) will drive (eek…I was forced to really learn how to drive a manual and I must boast that I am really good now!). We presented a copy of Ryne’s license (we always make copies of credit cards, passports and licenses before we travel, just in case they are lost or stolen). The policewoman stated that a copy was unacceptable and wanted cash. I begged her to give us a break. She sat there straight faced and willing to barter “how much can you pay?” She said. We offered $20, but this was no good. We insisted that we didn’t have much cash, only credit cards. We weren’t budging either. She finally let us go after Ryne said “well I guess we are spending the rest of our holiday here with you.” We were about to find out that police checkpoints were commonplace and worse in Zimbabwe.
Most places in Botswana were water logged and required a 4WD (our camper is 2WD) to explore so we were limited to the main tarred road. However, it was necessary to travel off the main road to find a campsite. This was usually only 4-6 km of bouncing and swaying (and nail biting) down a wet-sandy narrow track. Surprisingly, we never got stuck because the roads had a hard packed bottom. However, we did break the front plastic underbody from scooping up copious amounts of water. Ryne fixed it easily by tying it back on with rope. Flooded roads, inflated prices and a malaria risk made Botswana less than ideal. That said, the positive out-weighed the negative. We had an amazing time at the very popular Chobe National Park in northern Botswana. A boat cruise is a great way to see the abundant wildlife. Hippos, buffalo and crocs along with many birds, including the gorgeous Schalow’s Turaco were spotted.

Crossing into Zimbabwe proved to be slap in your face expensive. $30 visas for each of us plus insurance and car rental fees. After paying $90 for visas, they wanted $135 more! And we were only staying for 3 days! This was absurd! It was free to get into South Africa (no visa required) and pennies for Namibia and Botswana. We insisted on seeing a document that stated the fees, but only got a crumpled piece of paper stapled on the bulletin. After seeing our dismay, an employee knocked off $30. What? How can a standard border crossing fee be negotiated? And get this, the workers were wearing shirts that said “we are not corrupt.” Ha!
So after getting through that hassle we were feeling pretty frisky and relieved to be in wild Zimbabwe. We cheered and hooted. The celebration only lasted 4 minutes, when we came to one of those obnoxious police checkpoints. They asked for my license (good thing I was driving) and then checked to ensure the break lights work. Yup, everything was working, but I didn’t have any front white reflector stickers!? $20 ticket, which we had to pay. I swear this traffic regulation (not even legit according to one Zimbabwe man) was made up to steal tourists money because the government is broke.
These checkpoints were bloody everywhere when we got into Victoria Falls! The locals are waved through and we always get stopped! Another $20 fine for pulling over in a no stopping zone. Maybe we just had bad luck? Some of the policemen had mercy as we managed to talk our way out of two $20 tickets.
Was all this stress worth our 3 days in Zimbabwe to see one of the worlds largest waterfalls? A big yes! The waterfall was truly a wonder and absolutely breathtaking! It was worth the hassle, the fines and debacles that ensued. We also enjoyed a boat cruise on the Zambezi River above the roaring falls. We were lucky enough to see elephants swimming across the river, a disgruntled hippo pod and the very elusive African Finfoot!! We were very excited to see this shy bird after searching several other places with no luck. African skimmer was also an unexpected treat!

We are currently in Kruger National Park, right back where we started our journey 3.5 months ago. Its poignant being at our starting place, ending where it all began with a whole new perspective. I knew so little about Africa before coming here. I perceived it to be quite different (A little more wild with tribal villages and a lot less whites). I now have a greater understanding of Africa (at least the southern part) and the world as a whole. We all have a deeper understanding. At 3 years of age, Cypress is no doubt the finest South African naturalist the world has ever seen! He knows the birds, bird calls and mammals better than 95% of the locals.
South Africa has made a permanent stamp in my heart. It saddens me to say goodbye. It saddens all of us. I asked Cypress yesterday if he wanted to go home and he said “no, I want to stay in Africa.”
Admittedly, it’s been nice to be away from social media, the news and America with its corporate-dominated mega monoculture. It feels great to be in a place that has a sense of itself. A place that in many ways hasn’t changed for millennia. The sheer timelessness of this place has made its impression.

Cape of Good Hope

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According to my “smart phone” I have pictures from more than 500 locations. That’s a lot of places in 2 months! We have traversed most of South Africa, starting in the north, then going south- southwest. (See photo above – I drew our route in red). We travel from one wanderlust place to another with little time to rest, reflect and digest what we experience. Travel time is precious and unfortunately, it passes too quickly. One whimsical day melts into another leaving me dazed and delighted. We stay active, physically and mentally, soaking up one natural history, cultural or life lesson after another.
The journey from one destination to another is always an adventure in itself. We’ve had two flat tires and managed to get our camper stuck twice. In one instance, it was 4 hours of building a cobblestone path to get our buried front wheels out of the sand. Silver lining was that we were on a beach and spotted humpback whales and dusky sided dolphins just off shore! In the end, it was a gracious seaside resident (and wildlife photographer) who pulled us out with a heavy duty rope. We also pick up an occasional hitchhiker. Seems risky, but in rural areas it’s fine. We have hitched a ride so much in the past that we feel inclined to “pay it forward” and how can you pass by women and children walking in the rain? We pass through small quiet towns and large bustling cities. We try to limit our time in cities ( it’s safer and stress free in the wilds), but our need for nourishment forces us to do some grocery shopping which can be fun, but stressful at times. Trying to park a big camper van on a busy street or in a small parking lot is far from easy and In most cities, we have to make necessary precautions to prevent being a target for thieves. We may as well have “we are tourists and have cash and valuables inside” printed on the van. We stick out like a sore thumb! Usually, Ryne stays with the vehicle while Cy and I shop. If we feel it’s safe, then we all go in. I prefer to cook so we don’t go out to eat often. Although, maybe we should more because it’s cheap! Meals, such as Fish and chips or a hamburger, are $3-5. Groceries are cheap too. Bread is $1.50 a loaf and that’s fresh whole wheat bread from a bakery! A dozen of brown eggs is less than a dollar. Produce is a steal as well!
Speaking of stealing, we have just been a victim of pickpocketing. We arrived back in Cape Town yesterday afternoon, after exploring west coast national park and the very wild karoo for 3 days, and Ryne got his wallet stolen!
We stopped at a beach/playground so Cy could play. Cy and I went to the playground while Ryne stayed with the camper because there were shady characters loitering in the parking lot. When I returned to the camper, there was a white car boxing us in and a women and child inside our camper. Ryne was scrunched in between the vehicles with a man very close to his back right side. The toothless grinning man seemed friendly and just curious about the camper. I was not too alarmed because this was not the first time someone brazenly gave themselves a tour of our camper. They asked, “are you from around here?” I said, “no, USA” They said “great to finally meet someone from USA. Woot! Chris Brown!” We were in a hurry so quickly parted ways.
It wasn’t until a half hour later that we realized the wallet was gone. We were lucky that they didn’t take anything else and there was only about $10 inside the wallet. Bad news is it held 4 credit cards, which we are trying to cancel.
It wasn’t ideal to back track, especially to a high crime city, but Ryne was determined to go on a pelagic and they only leave out of Cape Town 1-2 times a month. The week we stayed in Cape Town, the pelagic he booked was cancelled due to bad weather. The pelagic goes 45km out to sea!
During our first stay in Cape Town we went to Cape Point National Park and the coast was too beautiful not to share some pics!

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Tide pooling was so much fun!
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Colorful sea urchins were abundant in the pools.
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Cy loves sea creatures! He enthusiastically held this urchin, but was scared to to hold the starfish.

Our sea safari was enjoyable! Cypress fell asleep and missed the dolphins, but got to see thousands of cape fur seals!

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This is where we saw a great white shark swim into a cage full of adventurous snorkelers who signed up for “cage diving with sharks” they definitely got their money’s worth!

img_6047Angulate Tortoises were fairly common in the park!

The Cape Region and Table Mountain National Park

We are currently basking in the glorious Cape Region! There are only a few places I have visited (such as New Zealand, south Australia and Thailand) that compare to the dramatic beauty of the coastline here!

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The picturesque Hout Bay.

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The bountiful beaches are stunning with dreamy turquoise water hugging the white-est sand I’ve ever seen.

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Last Monday, we said a bitter sweet adios to our much loved and very lived in camper van. We are now renting an eco-house, dubbed “the magic house” in Hout Bay. I found this place on airbnb.com. This website has rentals listed from all over the world. Our hosts, who live in the adjoining “magic house” are very friendly and try to promote simple, green living. The guy, Mikey, makes furniture out of scrap wood and Danielle advocates eco-living. They have two children (8 and 12) and have saved many of their old books and puzzles, so Cypress is in heaven, being the bookworm that he is! Our hosts are so kind (they are letting us stay an extra night for free!) and easy going. Their door is alway open so Cypress can go to their “library ” anytime to “check out” new reading materials or puzzles. It’s a lot of fun staying here and after seeing many of the surrounding scenic sights, I think I could live here! I’m definitely not ready to go home yet! However, I am excited to experience wild Namibia and Botswana in the coming months!

Our week has been jammed with exploring the amazing botanical garden, hiking, beach strolling, tide pooling, bird watching and even a sea safari (we saw a Great White Shark!).

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We had an unforgettable experience with African Penguins! They nest on the shore, under rocks or bushes, here at Boulder Beach, Simon Town (Cape Town). This one came over to say ‘hi’ to Cypress! Cy squealed with joy “he likes me!”
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A mountaineer in training! My proud boy, contemplating the breathtaking view, on top of the summit he conquered at Cape of Good Hope. It was quite a climb for me and he made it the whole way on his own!
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Found a Black Girdled Lizard!

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Table Mountain National Park! Completely wowed us! Proclaimed the 7th wonder of the natural world! The plant diversity is astounding! 2,285 species occur on the mountain! That’s more than the entire state of Michigan!

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Asters are well represented with hundreds of species.

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On top of table mountain. We cheated and took the cable car to the top, but came prepared to hike down. We had no idea what we were in for!

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It’s a 1 minute ride up in a cable car or a grueling 3-4 hour hike up and your pretty much rock climbing for the last half of the trek.
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Looking down on Cape Town from the top of the table from within the cable car.
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Loving the diverse flora and endless breathtaking views!

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Steep steep steep exhausting hike down!! The trail went down this narrow ravine. I think it took us about 3.5 hours to return to our car. Three days later it is still painful to walk! It was a terrific quad workout!

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Lovely Protea in bloom.

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Cypress the dassie (rock hyrax) whisperer.

 

Almost in Africa!

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Excitement is mounting! We will be landing in Johannesburg, South Africa in one week.

It has been close to two years since we left the country on a grand adventure. With work behind us and no ties here for the winter months, our hearts are beckoning to explore a different part of the natural world. Travel is the best medicine for us to rejuvenate a tired mind and body. Experiencing a new environment, landscape and culture in real life is profound, uplifting, educational and mind-opening (the list could go on and on).

I encourage everyone to get up and go somewhere novel. Step out of your comfort zone and experience life from a different perspective. The experience of travel is truly life changing and the memories are priceless.

“Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer.” – Unknown

Please follow us on our journey around South Africa, Namibia and Botswana – 100 days on the open road from December 4, 2016 – March 21, 2017!

We will be blogging and attempting vlogging. Our YouTube channel is ‘Adventures with the Rutherford Family’