Beach Bums

A big draw of South Africa is its long coastlines. The Indian Ocean waters are warm, the sea life plentiful, the sun hot and the beaches beautiful and sandy. With well marketed names like the Wild Coast, the Elephant Coast, the Garden Coast and the Shipwreck Coast all willing to accomodate you quite comfortably, South Africa wants you to go spend some time at the beach.

So we tried. We tried hard. Multiple places. We headed to Sodwano Bay and Cape Vidal in St. Lucia Wetland Park (along the Elephant Coast). We stopped at Buccaneer’s Backpackers, widely regarded as one of the best backpackers in the country (along the Wild Coast). And we lasted all of two nights (and three half days) in total at all of them.

It’s not that they weren’t lovely beaches. Both cape Vidal and Sodwano Bay had great snorkeling and beautiful tide pools to go along with warm, lazy water in protected “coves.” It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful beach than Cintsa (where Buccaneer’s is), where the backpackers overlooks an estuary separated from the ocean by an island of sand an green hills on either side. These are all lovely places to lose yourself and do nothing for a day or ten. As many a traveler we met has commented, “we spent five days at (insert beach town here), but I can’t think of anything we actually did.”

But for some reason, we have the hardest time losing ourselves in doing nothing. I am perfectly content to spend half an hour on the beach laying in the sun. But then I am looking for something to do. I try snorkeling, I don’t see much. The walk around the tide pools can captivate me for an hour or so. But then, I’m done. I made it almost three hours. And I am much more patient than Theresa. Usually by this time she’s halfway to the car ready to go.

We lasted all of an hour of daylight at Buccaneer’s. We arrived an hour before sunset, walked down to the beach, enjoyed the sunset, dipped our feet in the water and realized it was not nearly as warm as the St. Lucia area. The next morning we woke up to grey skies, decided it was pointless to stay at a cool water beach on a grey day, and hightailed it.

It’s not really that we can’t spend time at the beach, its just that we need things to do at the beach, we need to be able to be active. There needs to be a good surf for body boarding. There needs to some toys to play with, be they footballs or frisbees or what have you. Stuff to build sand castles with. Great snorkeling. A book to read, but that only goes so far. We just can’t be passive beach goers and sit and soak up sun all day.

I know, it’s a great shame and we should start a fund to help rid ourselves of this disorder. We’re just gonna have to try again in Mozambique. And Tanzania. And Thailand. Hopefully, with enough practice, we’ll be able to break our habits and enjoy a completely lazy day at the beach.

Seven Things I Learned While Visiting a Traditional Swazi Village

1. Dowries are still a part of Swazi marriages, but the dowry goes from the man to the father of the bride. A virgin costs 17 cows. As cows are expensive, it can take a while for men to be able to afford so many, so while women usually marry around age 18, men are closer to 30. A man is free to take as many wives as he can afford.

2. Women are not allowed to eat the brain of a cow, because the men believe that this will make the women smarter than them. They also can’t eat the tongue of the cow because the men believe this will make them talk too much.

3. One village is one family. The family keeps the oldest son and the youngest son, building them homes within the village for when they marry. The sons in the middle go out and start their own villages.

4. It takes six weeks to build one of the traditional huts in which they leave. Eight men spend three weeks framing the house from sticks; then eight women spend an additional three weeks thatching it. The huts must be replaced every three years.

5. When a man dies, his younger brother inherits the man’s wives, but only if the younger brother is already married.

6. If there is a dispute, grandma gets to settle it, and her word is final.

7. Swazi people have rhythm, can sing, and are insanely flexible. I, on the other hand, have none of those traits.

What We Saw in Kruger

(Editor’s Note: The “invisible hand” is back with the first of four posts. There will be one new post a day for the next four days, including today.  So please to check back and leave your comments. The “invisible hand” was able to chat with Theresa for a few minutes and she said things are good as they move their way through Africa.)

For those of you who like pictures:

4 Lions (3 trying to hunt us while we ate at an open picnic area!)

6 Rhinos

1 Black Mamba (sorry, it was too fast for a picture … but its leap into the air next to our car still haunts our nightmares)

A Family of Hyenas

1 Tortoise


Water Buffalo











Lots of Birds

In our four days of driving around, the only big mammals we missed (that we cared to see …): Leopards and Cheetahs. It’s ok though, I get the feeling we may have a chance or two more before we leave to take care of this.

One Day in Paris

(Editor’s Note: This is a post from Theresa and Jeff’s one day in Paris.  Their flight from Santiago, Chile to Johannesburg, South Africa had a stop in Paris.  The “invisible hand” has not received anymore stories for posting but will post them as soon as they do arrive.)

11:00 AM: Arrive at Charles de Gaulle, ride a bus from the airplane to the gate and then walk endlessly through immigration and customs. This requires an hour.

12:00 PM: Head into town on the RER, reaching Gard de Nord. Find a luggage locker. It sure wouldn’t be fun to have to haul that everywhere.

1:00 PM: From Gare du Nord, hike up the hill to Sacre-Coeur for a beautiful view of the city … a nice overview to get your bearings. Enjoy the beautiful church.

2:00 PM: Walk back to the Metro through the artsy neighborhood of Montmartre, full of cafes and galleries and numerous street vendors and artists. Grab a crepe and keep walking.

2:30 PM: Hop the metro to the Pere-Lachaise cemetary and pay your respects to Jim Morrison. And I’m sure lots of important French people too.

3:15 PM: Back on the metro for more, around to the south to the Catacombs.

3:30 PM: Get lost looking for the Catacombs because the map placed them two metro stops away.

3:55 PM: Discover the Catacombs. Discover that last entry is at 4:00 PM. Hustle in! Walk in eerie amazement through what must be millions of bones.

4:45 PM: Emerge from the Catacombs and feel completely lost. Amble until a metro appears.

5:30 PM: Gawk at Notre Dame, the facade, the gargoyles, the stained glass, the history. Judging by the crowd, a few people have heard of this church.

6:00 PM: After a loop around Notre Dame, walk along (Whats the island called?) till the end and (what bridge?). Marvel at the opulent hotels, towers and monuments along the way.

6:30 PM: Arrive at the Louvre. It’s closed anyway, but enjoy the plaza, then head down the Champs-Elysees toward the distant Arc de Triomphe, watching the sun set behind the Eiffel Tower. Grab a French baguette at a deli along the Champs-Elysees. But don’t eat it yet!

7:45 PM: Metro to the Eiffel Tower, and be sure to look for it all lit up on your left from the train. Find a bench to sit on, avoid the plastic Eiffel Tower hawkers, and enjoy your dinner and the view. Snap the classic romantic picture!

8:30 PM: Hightail it back to the Gare du Nord, grab the bags and get to the airport to catch the next flight!

There you have it … all of Paris in a day! (ok, maybe not all, as I hear it has a few more things to offer, but a damn good amount for one day)

Think You Can’t Afford a Safari? Think Again!

So smack at the top of your dream trips list is an African safari, yet whenever you flip through whatever travel magazine it is you subscribe to and see the prices listed for safaris, you whistle through your teeth, take a deep breath, and then renew your membership to the local zoo. Sure, seeing lions, zebras, elephants, giraffes, rhinos, and other creatures roaming freely across the plains of Africa would be awesome, but you just can’t justify throwing a huge chunk of your retirement fund or a year of your child’s college tuition at one trip, whether or not it’s the trip of a lifetime.

Fortunately, you don’t have to bankrupt yourself to make your dream trip a reality. Despite the fact that no one ever says so, going on safari doesn’t have to cost your life’s savings. In fact, it can be downright affordable. At South Africa’s Kruger National Park, one of the best known wildlife parks in the world, you can live out your safari dreams on a backpacker’s budget.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Book a flight to Johannesburg, South Africa.
Sure this part won’t be cheap, but be on the lookout for good deals. Don’t worry about time of year and all that rainy season/dry season nonsense. For instance, March, which is in the South African autumn, is an excellent time to go. Technically it’s still the rainy season, but on our visit, we didn’t see a single drop of rain. We also didn’t see the hordes of people that the park welcomes come winter. Everything is green, which some say makes animals harder to spot, but we managed to see everything from lions to rhinos to hyenas to warthogs. So harder? Maybe. But hard? Not at all.

(Upgrade option: Go first class. It’s a long way to South Africa!)

2. Rent a car.
Though plenty of safari outfitters will gladly let you pay them scads of money for the pleasure of having them driving you through the park, the beauty of Kruger is that it’s a self-drive facility. You are free to act as your own guide using your own car. Even better is the fact that all the roads are accessible to even the wimpiest 2WD, so book the cheapest car on offer (you don’t need AC when your windows are down the whole time so you can snap photos!) and call it good. We found the best deal through Around About Cars (, with a daily rate of $25.

(Upgrade option: Go ahead and get the 4WD if riding in a VW or Kia doesn’t feel safari enough for you.)

3. Pack your bags.
You don’t need much–a couple of pairs of comfy clothes (there are laundry sites in Kruger, which cost about $1 for wash and $1 for dry, so no need to over pack), a good pair of shoes in case you plan to do any of the walks offered by park guides, a camera with lots of digital memory, and a good pair of binoculars. A field guide to animals of South Africa is a nice addition. Pick one up at home or upon arrival. You’ll also want to buy the park map, which shows not only the roads and camps but also depicts the varying habitats and what animals you’re likely to find in each area.

(Upgrade option: Splurge on a nice zoom for your camera. Though you’ll encounter many animals at distances so small that any point-and-shoot will be able to capture their images, you’ll need a quality zoom to photograph some of the more elusive animals.)

4. Land in Johannesburg, pick up your car, and head to the nearest Checkers Supermarket.
The basic Checkers Supermarket is where you’ll stock up for your self-catered safari. Camping is the way to go in Kruger. It’s the most economical option, and hey, this is a safari, after all. Being close to nature is part of the deal. If you didn’t bring your camping supplies from home, you’ll want to get what you need at Checkers: a tent, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, a pot and pan, and a dish soap and sponge. Don’t worry; it’s cheap. The tent, at about 300 rand, will be the big purchase. While you’re there, pick up a cooler and some groceries for picnic lunches and a dinner or two, should you wish to cook.

(Upgrade option: Splurge on the air mattress. Your back will thank you for spending the extra 200 rand.)

5. Hit the road, destination Kruger National Park.
At a distance of 480 kilometers from Johannesburg, Kruger National Park can be reached in a day’s drive. The trick is deciding which of the many gates to enter the park from. My suggestion: head north, entering at Phalabora, and work your way south. The north is home to large populations of elephants, giraffes, zebras, and other easy-to-spot animals, so rewards will come quick and easy. Once you’ve gotten into your safari groove, make your way south, where, with patience and a bit of luck, you’ll locate lions, leopards, cheetahs, and rhinos.

(Upgrade option: With an extra day or two, make a stop at Blyde River Canyon, the third largest canyon in the world, on your way to the park.)

6. Pay your admission and enter the park.
At just 140 rand per day, admission to Kruger National Park is probably cheaper than admission to your local zoo! Seriously, that’s all it costs to enter into over 2.2 million hectares of wild lands filled with wild animals. Gate opening times vary depending on the time of year, but aim to arrive as early as possible for your best chance at seeing animals.

(Upgrade option: Opt for the Wild Card if you plan to spend more than six nights in the park or will be having an extended holiday in South Africa and visiting other parks. Good at all of South Africa’s national parks for one year from purchase, the Wild Card is an excellent deal at 1640 rand for a couple or 900 rand for an individual.)

7. Spend all day driving through Kruger.
With a park map in hand, pick your path based on the habitats and likely inhabitants that interest you most. Mix the paved roads with the gravel roads (all 2WD accessible), but don’t overestimate what you can cover in a day. You won’t be moving very fast as you stop to search for animals and snap photos. Picnic spots located throughout the park allow you to refuel without having to return to camp.

(Upgrade option: Spend part of a day or evening on one of the guided tours offered by the park. Options include morning and evening walks and sunrise, sunset, and night drives. At between 120 rand and 270 rand per person, the tours a good deal. To guarantee a spot, you’ll want to book ahead, especially for the tours leaving from the camps and gates in the south.)

8. Check into your overnight accommodations.
If you plan on camping, there’s no need, except during highest holiday season, to book a spot in advance, so roll into whatever camp is closest as gate-closing time nears and hand over 130 rand to secure a piece of land for pitching your tent. If you’re worried about roughing it, ease your mind. The campgrounds here have nice, clean bathrooms with flush toilets and hot showers; communal kitchen areas with electric burners, sinks, and hot water heaters; and grill areas. Some even have pools. You will also have access to the camp shops, where you can buy any food items you’ve forgotten or run out of, cleaning supplies, and souvenirs. If you don’t feel like cooking, opt for the camp restaurant, where you can enjoy a multi-course dinner for 135 rand. The bigger camps also have delis, where burgers and the like go for about 35 rand.

(Upgrade option: Skip the tent and reserve lodging at the campgrounds. Basic rondavels, which share bathrooms and kitchen facilities with the campground, start at 275 rand, and chalets with private facilities start at 640 rand. Make reservations in advance for any non-campground lodging.)

9. Repeat steps seven and eight to your heart’s content.
Stay until you see all of the Big Five (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhinoceros). Or you’ve counted over 100 elephants. Or you’ve witnessed a kill. At Kruger, every day’s an adventure, and you never know what the sunrise might bring.