South Africa

The Most Interesting Man in the World

Forget the dude from the beer commercials, we’ve met the real deal and his name is Nelson Siboza.

Nelson was our guide during our time in Kruger and while his knowledge of the animals was bottomless, his knowledge of history and politics had us spellbound.

As a young boy of 11 years, Nelson had to run away from his home in Mozambique because of the civil war. He described how young boys in his village were given weapons and told to kill their own families if they wouldn’t join the fighters. Instead, Nelson joined a group of older village boys and together they walked through the Kruger park to reach South Africa.

Not all of them made it: some were killed (and eaten) by crocodiles, others were lost in the bush one night as a herd of elephants walked thru the place they were sleeping and all of them scattered into the darkness. Actually, Nelson has written a book which is waiting to be published, called “Speaking to Darkness”, the title taken from that hectic night.

After a few days, some of the group found each other and made it to a small village. The village elders decided that they would adopt the boys and called the families to come choose. The boys were all taken by families who needed field hands but Nelson was too small for such work so no one chose him. He considers himself terribly lucky for this fact as he was eventually placed with a family who instead of making him work, sent him to school.

South Africa has 11 official languages and Nelson is fluent in all of them, as well as Portuguese and a bit of Spanish. He came to acquire all these languages by being lucky (his word) again. Since he had no money to continue his studies after high school, Nelson was forced to take a job as a taxi mechanic. Taxi drivers originating from all over South Africa, he had to learn to speak with all of them and this is how he became a polyglot. It obviously didn’t hurt that he’s a true people person.

Nelson saved his money and eventually made it to Guide school. He recently located his original family in Mozambique. He, again, considers himself terribly lucky to have regained all members of his original family which he does remember; the ones who died, he doesn’t, and thus can’t miss them. He now has two families! Nelson also recently found one of the boys he had run away with and asked him something which had been gnawing at him all these years: “Why had these older boys taken him with them when he was just a small child?” This, now grown, man asked Nelson if he wanted the truth or a story. The truth: “We took you because you were young and easily manipulated. We could send you walking ahead of us to make sure there were no land mines.”

Nelson’s story doesn’t end here. He, along with his white Afrikaans girlfriend, is building a “Spin City”: basically a public events arena where cars come to drift and compete while the audience places bets and cheers them on. He already has a Facebook page: “ShonalangaSpinCity” and expects to open mid-November. Nelson believes the proceeds from this investment will be enough for him to buy 3 micro buses which will enable him to open up a public transportation business in Mozambique, a country which is sorely lacking in such services. Years down the road, he will build a small Eco-hotel in an island off Mozambique’s coast for which he already owns the land. Nelson has such a passion for life that it’s easy to see how such a smart kid survived the terrible events from his childhood to call himself “lucky”.

We learned a lot about the animals from Nelson but we also learned a ton about Mozambique’s and South African history and politics from him. As a small example of the sort of things we talked about during “sundowners”: the Greater Kruger National Park is comprised of Kruger National Park (which belongs to all South Africans) plus twenty PRIVATELY owned game reserves. This is land owned by white people but it wasn’t always so and thus is a source of ongoing conflict. The land was taken by force from the African tribes by the white colonists. When Nelson Mandela became president, he promised the people that the land would be returned to its rightful owners but that promise has gone unfulfilled. This is the grievance the EFF is basing their platform for the upcoming election on. While Mandela was unable to convince the white landowners to give up the reserves, he did convince them to take down the fences which kept the animals from moving freely throughout the area. This is a great achievement for animal conservation but it didn’t benefit the black South Africans one bit.  The animals may roam freely between public and private land but access to the private reserves is limited to guests of the lodges such as ourselves. Due to the EFF’s push, the ANC, which is currently in power and expected to remain so, has increased efforts to compensate the descendants of those African tribes which were displaced. Many people feel that monetary compensation is not enough: how does one place a number on his grandfather’s resting place? People are still fighting to get the land back. Nelson believes that white South Africans are arming themselves, expecting a battle while blacks don’t want to fight but will engage in one if necessary. In the end, he expects the land to be returned to the descendants of the displaced African tribes such as our own tracker, Shadi.

“I just learned more about Mandela while watching the hippos than I ever did in school” exclaimed Fernando one evening. I think our work here is done.

Fernando, Alejandro, Nelson & Shadi

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A South African Village

While at Kruger, along with a few other guests, we were taken to visit an African village. We began our visit by touring the local school

where the 7th graders sang the South African national anthem for us, asked us some questions and told us a little about themselves. Although the little children peeking through the door were super cute, we felt uncomfortable about it all. I couldn’t help imagining our children back home put on display for the tourists, I don’t think anyone would stand for it.

We then visited the home of a traditional healer who told us how she cured ailments by consulting  animal bones and prescribing different herbs.

After spending a full year learning the craft, her apprentice was about ready to strike out on her own.

We also visited the home of the village chief where his wife explained how the chief resolved conflicts in the village and allocated land for newlyweds. Although houses used to be built with mud, nowadays most are made with blocks and the newer ones with brick.

Afterwards, we watched a group of young boys dance for us

before we were led to a traditional lunch consisting of pap and chicken.

It was quite good, Fernando even went in for seconds. Here, two women demonstrate how maize is ground in a traditional way to make the pap which Fernando has really taken a liking to.

I still think it tastes like an undercooked potato and falls like a brick in your stomach. The jokes from the guide about how having at least two wives is necessary to have good pap weren’t all that funny either. Did I fail to mention that polygamy is quite common in these parts? Most men, our guide included, have at least two.

An interesting fact is that while the village inhabitants are all Africans, the shopkeepers (in every village) are mostly Indian. The guide explained that the Indians have established a shopping web whereby they negotiate goods’ prices in bulk and thus are able to undersell the local African shopkeepers and slowly drive them out of business.

My opinion about this village visit is ambivalent. Learning about how the people live, their culture, their food, is exactly what we desire when traveling to a new place. However, making the students perform for the tourists just doesn’t feel right and it left us with a sour aftertaste.

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The Rhino Problem

Kruger is home to about 8,000 White Rhinos. Poaching is a huge problem which has been attacked in several ways, none of them successful.

As in the Waterberg, they begun by poisoning the rhinos’ horns to make them unfit for human consumption. The problem was that the poachers couldn’t tell which horns were poisoned until they removed them so rhinos continued to be killed just the same. If you’re wondering why the authorities didn’t just poison all of them, that’s because it costs $1,200 to do just one.

The authorities then tried removing the horns proactively but that didn’t stop the poachers. See, poachers track rhinos by their footprints and droppings. They can not tell by these signs whether a rhino has had its horn removed. After spending days tracking a rhino, the poachers tend to get mad when they finally find it missing its horn. They would kill the rhino anyway. Killing the rhino served the purpose of not having it go wandering around, leaving fresh tracks which they might then mistakenly follow again. Dehorning all the rhinos would have cost a whooping $8 million and would need to be redone every few years as the horns grow back so this was out of the question.


Next, they decided to assign an armed guard to every rhino. You would think that having their own personal bodyguard would ensure the rhino’s safety but it made it even worse. The problem here was that people are easier to track than wild animals. People have routines, they tend to come and go from their post at the same time and using the same path daily. This was a boost to the poachers who could now simply track the humans to find the rhinos. Ironic.


Protecting the rhinos is a very complicated endeavor and we haven’t even talked about the corruption it enables. When a live rhino with two horns is worth about $50,000 while one horn sans rhino is $60,000 PER KG; one begins to understand the magnitude of the problem.
It would seem that the only sustainable solution would be to cut demand. Educating people not only about the plight of these animals but also about the lack of effect of rhino horn on any ailments is likely the only way to proceed. May we learn in time to ensure our grandchildren get to share the world with these magnificent creatures.


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Greater Kruger


Arriving in Kruger is exactly as you imagine it to be. There were baboons on the landing runway and elephants on the road.

We saw crocodiles sunning themselves


as we drove to our “hotel”.


Every room is a separate “tent” from where you can look out at the bush. Animals roam freely thru the grounds and thus we were accompanied by a guide whenever we went to/from our rooms.


Every morning at 5:30am we went out on game drives, returning at 9 for breakfast. Out again at 3pm for another game drive, returning at 6 for dinner.


Jeeps can accommodate 7 people plus the guide and the tracker but they never had more than 6 passengers and most of the time it was just the four of us. We saw so many animals that it came to a point where seeing a giraffe was nothing to get excited about.


A herd of elephants bathing is amazing though no matter how many times you see one.





Made even better by the youngsters’ antics.


The Greater Kruger Area is about 20,000,000 hectares, a UNESCO site, and home to thousands of wild animals.



Fish Eagle

Hyena on the prowl

Zebra, Giraffe & Termite Mound

Buffalo w/ Fernandos

We were very lucky to spot several leopards, both resting


and hunting


She was unsuccessful and the impala she was chasing was able to run/jump away. She calmly walked on looking for other prey.





One afternoon, as we stopped for a “sundowner”, Fernando kicked away some elephant dung and left a new colony of termites vulnerable to the sunlight. Our guide quickly covered them back up with other dung, which is abundant.


On our third day here we had to change hotels as construction was begun very close by and it chased all the animals away. Our second hotel wasn’t as nice, it was dated and the people there weren’t the best; but (huge but) it was situated in front of a small waterhole and lots of animals came by at all times of day and night to drink from it.


Baboons & Kudu

We had our meals on the deck overlooking the waterhole.


And sometimes animals would find shade under our very feet.



This little guy had great fun using the dirt bank as a slide climbing up and falling down over and over again until his mom called him over.



“thou shall not pass”


On one afternoon game drive, our guide drove like crazy to get to where the hippos had been sighted in time to watch them come out of the water for the night.


They spend the nights on dry ground munching on grass and the days submerged in water to avoid sunburn.



On our last morning we were incredibly lucky to come across a pack of wild dogs on the hunt.


Kruger is home to 2500 lions, 900 leopards and ONLY 108 wild dogs. People who have been coming to this area for years have never seen them. How incredibly lucky were we?




Female Kudu

Male Kudu

Vervet Monkey

These little guys are Dwarf Mongoose. They are the feared Black Mamba’s fiercest predator. They are the size of my hand and look as if flying when they run. This morning they were curious about us and allowed us to photograph them.


Yellow Beak Hornbill

We spent the most amazing four days here and would love to visit again.

A beautiful end to our Kruger visit.

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The Waterberg district is located in Limpopo province and home to enormous private game parks which make this area a popular safari destination.Unfortunately, some of the private reserves are in the business of catering to hunters. They breed animals for the sole purpose of selling a hunter the right to kill it. Unconscionable!

Zebra & Wildebeest

We traveled here for a very special type of safari: on horseback. Ant’s Hill, along with its neighbor Ant’s Nest, comprises 5000 hectares and thousands of wild animals. Their specialty is horseback safaris although of course they also offer game drives by jeep, mountain biking and walking tours. No hunting allowed here.




The place is gorgeous. The boys got their own room which is more like a villa with a front balcony the size of a small bedroom from where they can look out at the “Bush”.

Fernando and I got the better one this time called the “Hideaway” because it is tucked far from the main lodge in between a rocky outcrop. We even have our very own pool! This is definitely not roughing it.

Walking from the lodge to our villa in the darkness of night for a scaredy cat who still remembers her Catholic upbringing is an excercise in valor. I asked the manager that first night if there was anything out there that would eat me and she said no. I confronted her the next day when I found out that leopards live here. Her response was that they are seldom seen. Today I found out that there are hyenas too! “Don’t worry, they don’t usually go for people.” Don’t get the wrong idea though, everyone here has absolutely outdone themselves making sure we have a good time.  The scariest portion of our safari was when, during dinner one night, a fellow tourist from England declared that Donald Trump would definitely become the next USA prez!

We got our horses on our first morning and set out for a 3 hr ride.


The horses are kept semi-wild: they are fed twice a day but roam free otherwise. This means that the animals here are used to the horses walking around them, drinking from the same waterholes they drink from


and sometimes even going down for the night in the same area. This makes a horseback safari ideal as the animals will accept the horses, and their riders, coming amongst them without bother.


Getting in that close to the animals is absolutely wonderful.


Unfortunately for me, that first ride proved to be too much torture: it made my bad knee angry and I had to give horses up in favor of a jeep. Don’t feel too bad for me though, I got a private guide who had an encyclopedia for a brain.
He tracked the animals by their footprints and droppings and told me more about them than I can ever remember. He recognized birds by their call and rhinos by the rubbing of their horns on a termite mound. I’ve never been that interested in birds or insects but Mike had such passion for them that it was impossible not to catch it. I could probably give you a lecture on termite social structure after all I learned from him. Interesting tidbit: mounds are kept at a toasty 32•C so that the fungi the termites farm can thrive and if you put your hand over a termite chimney you can feel the warm humidity emanating from it.

Termite Mound

He also told me about how the “Sonbird” while very similar to our hummingbirds, evolved from a completely different line. This is called convergent evolution. He made an embarrassed pause here and I had to coax him into continuing. Turns out that USA tourists have a reputation for not accepting evolution and thus the guides are trained to thread lightly on the subject. Once I reassured him that I wasn’t a dimwit, he excitedly went on to tell me about the different lines of evolution which gave us aardvarks in Africa and anteaters in America. We talked about leopard evolution and buffalo diseases. Or rather he talked while I interjected an ooh and an aah here and there.



Our days consisted of twice daily 2-3hr game drives for me, horse rides for the guys. We had lunch together “in the bush”, meaning next to a waterhole from where we could see zebras, warthogs, impala, kudu

and even a shy zebra come by to have a drink.


In the late afternoon we had “sundowners”: we would be taken to different spots on the property from where we watched the sun set while having drinks. The chef took pride in his dishes and rightly so. Tipical African dishes included Ostrich (much better than the one we had in CapeTown), Kudu (similar taste to Roast Beef), Impala (good steak), pap (hard and dry fist-size ball of white maize), biltong (best jerky ever), and dry wops (dry sausage). Everything, but the pap, was delicious.



Rhino poaching is a huge problem and signs prohibiting it are everywhere. The Waterberg area is losing about a thousand rhinos every year. This outnumbers the births per year and thus the population is declining rapidly.

Suzy with calf

The main culprits are the Chinese with their demand for rhino horn which is thought to be an aphrodisiac. Although scientific studies have proven this claim to be untrue, they have done nothing to curtail demand. The reserve has now taken the drastic decision to inject their rhinos’ horns with poison rendering them not just useless but outright dangerous to human consumption.


Rhinos are beautiful creatures and it is terribly sad that this measure has become necessary.
This place definitely falls outside the range of our usual trips but that’s the thing about Africa. To be able to participate in a horseback safari, a private game reserve is the only way to do it. Having now got the hang of what a safari is like, we travel to our next destination, the Greater Kruger, full of anticipation for the “big 5”.


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