Saturday, July 23, 2011

Spier And a Cheetah Encounter

You are seeing it right, that is Steph and I petting a Cheetah!

With volunteering over, we had a few more days left in South Africa. For this part of the trip we hadn't planned anything ahead of time, hoping for some good recommendations once on the ground.  After talking over some suggestions with some of the crew from the boat, we opted to visit a wine retreat called Spier that has a Cheetah reserve on site!

Picking up a cheap rental car from the airport we drove away but something just didn't feel right.  As we pulled on to the loop around the airport, merging into traffic, I hit the wind shield wipers instead of the turn signal.  Hang on what?  Then it hit me - this was the first time I'd driven a manual right-hand side drive car.  Adjusting to shifting with my left hand, all the controls reversed, was tricky at first but on we went with nervous Steph in the passenger seat.  She wasn't amused when I told her.  Anyway, despite using the windshield wipers instead of the turn signals the entire way, we made it to Spier without incident.

Set in the middle of the Stellenbosch region, Spier is just outside of Cape Town.  So besides wine and Cheetahs they also have a bird sanctuary that has numerous species of birds to see and hold.  Arriving as they opened, we had our pick of birds to hold which made for a few good photos.

The Cheetah reserve is actually called Cheetah Outreach.  Its a really smart program that is trying to tackle eduction in local communities to help the Cheetahs in two ways.  First they have started a dog breeding program that is working to introduce Turkish Anatolian Shepherd dogs into livestock herds to help prevent conflict between farmers and the endangered Cheetahs.  Basically the idea is that the farmers agree not to kill Cheetahs in return for the program placing one of their dogs into the heard for a year paying for all the vet bills.  After a year the farmer can keep the dog at their own expense or give it back.  It has been an extremely successful program reducing livestock loss from farmers participating in the program by 95%.  To fully understand this, you need to understand the cheetah - they are built for speed and agility, not conflict, so they only attack prey where there is little risk they will hurt themselves in the process.  So with a massive dog protecting the herd, the cheetah are discouraged from attacking.  This helps the farmers and helps the cheetahs - its an inspiring idea!

Beyond that, the outreach program also breeds Cheetahs in captivity.  They then train them to be social so they can take them to local schools and events allowing younger generations to interact with them and raise awareness.  This includes the reserve park itself where visitors can help support the program by giving donations in return for close encounters to pet the Cheetahs like we did above.

Getting up close and personal was absolutely amazing!  I just can't describe the raw excitement it brings out.  The cat we were able to see was named Phoenix.  It was just after feeding time so he was still happily purring away, staring into one of the other pens, allowing us to give him a few strokes across his back.  A genuine experience and honestly something we weren't expecting.  We told him about Mia & Gypsy in hopes of making friends but he didn't seem amused...

The rest of Spier was equally entertaining.  It was a large complex, almost like a little amusement park!  It had gardens to picnic in, shops, local artist tents, a singing and music and local food outdoor buffet dinner experience, a hotel amongst cottage houses and an excellent fine dining restaurant.  We enjoyed an aperitif at the outdoor dinner experience venue (imagine huge sheltering trees, tents, canopies, winding paths, tables tucked in little garden areas, tree houses, soft seating, fires and tiki lights - a lovely atmosphere!)  But we opted to have dinner in the hotel's restaurant where the food and service came highly recommended.  Besides, we were in South Africa - we wanted good 'ol fashioned steak!  Our fabulous steak dinner and bottle of Spier wine was far cheaper than any average night out in London - it was the perfect to meal to conclude our great day at Spier.   

A few more photos

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Klienbaai Sunsets

Our volunteer house for the trip was actually in the village of Klienbaai, an even smaller town just next to Gansbaai.  Other than the shark diving centers there is only a small convenient store within walking distance.  This means after the shark diving trips are over mid-afternoon, there isn't much else happening in this tiny town.

Usually after the boat duties were over, we'd go back to the house and shower, removing any chum smell, then relax until sunset.  That's when we would go for walks along the coast to see what we could find which lead some of the fun photos you see in this post.  The scenery was amazing.  The weather had the waves crashing into the rocky coastline and set against the mountain in the background lead to some great views.  There was also some interesting sea life to stumble upon.

Winding down after all the work on the boat on the coast for sunset was awesome.  In the top photo you can see the shark boats in the distance ready for tomorrows run.  After sunset moseying back to the volunteer house we'd get one more surprise, the stars!  There was no light pollution so the stars would jump out at you on clear nights.

Back at the house we would fix dinner and light a fire to ward off the cool winter evening.  Then we would make adhoc smore's with the marshmallows, chocolate and cookies we could find at the convenient store.  Simple but effective.

More Photos

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Jack*ss Penguins

Penguins in Africa?  Well, yes - there are apparently many!  These cute little guys are more formally referred to as Jackass Penguins.  I'm not making that up, I swear!  They make a loud hee-haw noise exactly like a donkey.

With a day off from the sharks due to weather, we headed off to Stoney Point, Betty's Bay to see one of the three land based penguin colonies in South Africa. There is something special about seeing animals in the wild and in their original habitat.  No matter what animal, a first encounter is such a thrill.

And the penguins didn't disappoint.  What I can only describe as bumbling and stumbling around in there tuxedos, they were so amusing just going about their business - making nests, in and out of the water, grooming and sunning themselves.  On the site there is a board walk that allows you to wonder around without disturbing the penguins. It actually makes it easier to see them because the site is rough and rocky and would be hard to navigate otherwise for us humans. The penguins don't seem to care and have carved out paths which are like little highways allowing them all to reach their nests.

There really isn't much else to report other than what fun it is to just sit and watch.  One of the girls on the shark project who had already seen them said we wouldn't be there more than a half hour - well, she didn't know us and our amusement with watching animals and photographing them!  You just keeping wondering when they are going to topple over as they waddle around!


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cape Agulhas

When traveling sometimes you go places and you just can't help picture yourself on an map.  For instance you are standing at the farthest point you've ever been away from home and mentally visualizing it on a map.  Other times it might be some remote place where you can picture how far you are from civilization.  Or maybe you are on some island out in the middle of the sea or at famous landmark.  Well this is one of those times.  Standing looking out to sea, I couldn't help but picture where we were on the map, the southern most tip of Africa - Cape Agulhas!

Its more famous cousin, the Cape of Good Hope, comes later on in the trip but, this is actually further south.  More than that, Cape Agulhas is actually the spot where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet.  Initially I had visions of some big line that extended out in the ocean like some sci-fi movie or a big swirling vortex or some huge wall of water colliding, but no!  It was just a normal rocky coast line with waves crashing to shore.

The only real sign is a fairly simple monument which represents the geographical line scientists mark as the exact break between the two oceans.  Steph and I had a tug-of-war match to try and make the divide more dramatic, she won of course.

So besides dreams of Antarctica staring out to sea, we had a lighthouse to climb.  Red and white stripes as you'd expect, we ascended the steps to see what views awaited.  The views were great but it was so windy we didn't stay long.  Plus it was lunch time and a local fish and chips restaurant was calling our name.  We needed to refuel before trying to swim with sting rays.

However as exciting as that sounds, it didn't happen.  The sting rays were a no show.  Despite our best efforts, wet suits, chum line and all, we couldn't lure a sting ray into the bay where they frequented.  A combination of the wind and some off shore fishing boats were too much for our small trail of anchovy oil to overcome.  Oh well, maybe another day, we at least got a few good views from the small harbor.  

More Photos