What we did on our summer vacation, literally

beware hippos st lucia.JPG

If you mention this blog post, you will be excused from some of the slide show when we get home. As we have said before, we are using the blog as a public journal and a safe place to store pictures, in case computers and hard drives get stolen/ruined. So, this is basically a travelogue but it does have some interesting moments (being charged by an elephant being the highlight but now you have to keep reading to get to that part).

We left Gabs on Christmas Eve to spend the week in Durban, South Africa, including our birthday. While not the best vacation we’ve ever had, there were some good moments.

A very busy Gabs airport

Teresa got upgraded on the flight from Joburg to Durban due to someone else’s seat mixup   through a domino effect including kids not being allowed in exit rows, (including dibs on an aisle seat- They couldn’t move her to a middle seat), she got business class for the one hour flight. While short, it included a full dinner (chicken tiki masala) while poor Gary got a simple sandwich but it was enough for dinner. We arrived in Durban, well actually, Uhmlanga which is between the airport and Durban. It is a small touristy town on the Indian Ocean. We picked it for our two free hotel nights coming to us as IHG members. Of course, as was to become the recurring theme of this trip, we got lost finding the hotel. Let’s just say google maps was a great disappointment this entire trip and with no cell phone data or gps we were lost A LOT. Directions is one area that let’s just say, is not the strongest part of our marriage.

View of Indian Ocean from hotel room

Sunday was Christmas Day so we didn’t expect much to be open. We decided to find our hotel in Durban as we were due to check in on the 26th but were going to St Lucia for the day and wouldn’t actually be back in Durban until 2 or 3 in the morning.. We first got hopelessly lost after checking out a bird sanctuary that was closed. We were given “shortcut”directions. We still don’t know where we ended up (we think we were way way west,  probably half way to Joburg)) but some guy in a gas station led us out and gave us vague directions to follow something or other to Durban City Center. We did fine at first but promptly got lost again. Somehow we made our way into Durban and followed signs to The uShaka Marine World which we knew was near our hotel.  What we eventually learned is that streets in Durban change names every kilometre or two and only a few streets go through and street names are often overshadowed by their Highway Name (M4, M12, etc). Our hotel in Durban was on the waterfront so how hard could it be? It was on what should have been a main street. Well, this part of Durban literally shuts down for the full two weeks of The Festive Season. This means most of the streets are blocked off with concrete barricades. After wandering for about an hour we finally found our hotel. What should have been a 30 minute trip, had now taken several hours. Now remember, we aren’t actually checking in and it is Christmas Day so after confirming that they will hold our reservation no matter what time we arrive, we set out for some sightseeing and hopefully a visit to a another nearby bird sanctuary- if it’s not open, at least it will be a pretty drive. First though we decide to practice getting to the hotel so when we come in the next night in the middle of the night we can go straight there. The hotel is actually on the main street but with the detours we had to make 10 turns and 2 roundabouts to get to it. It is a miracle we did not get arrested for cruising-we are now on a first name basis with the security folks at the various barricades. One other comment on the hotel.  All of this area is being rebuilt with some of the original buildings being saved but not many. This hotel left the original walls up around the parking lot so they act as a wall.  They look like bombed out ruins, very cool. We forgot to take pictures.

You guessed it, hopelessly lost again and now hungry. Don’t find the sanctuary but  manage to find a mall (there are several very big malls in Durban we eventually discover). Some of the restaurants in the food court are open. Of course, none of the ones that are more local and therefore different. We try one Italian place but they are closing because they have too much business (as we were leaving they were once again seating people so we did take it personally). Christmas lunch was at a Nando’s which is a grilled chicken fast food place we also have (and like) in Botswana. Given the other option was McDonalds, we were pretty happy. Thought we’d top it off with Italian ice cream but by the time we were done at about 3:00, they had closed down too. Closed and lost are two words that well describe this trip.

We made our way back to Uhmlanga, with several wrong turns- par for the course at this point.  Then, Teresa wised up and started calling places to see who might be open on Christmas night. One place said they were open on their web site but phone rang busy. Sent a text but no answer. Decided to head into “town” and try to find this one place. We parked on the street where we thought it was (sort of a main drag). Went into another mall type place and not sure now how we actually got there but discovered an Indian restaurant off a parking garage. Turns out they had only been open a week and we were the only non-Indians in there- always a good sign. Food was incredibly good. We had this amazing chicken dish topped with creamed spinach (recipes online say Saag but the name was longer than that although it did have Saa in it).  Durban is known for its Indian food so we ate it about 3 different times.

Boxing Day- December 26th and another public holiday. But, today we have reservations for a 5pm turtle tour in St Lucia, about 3 hours north of Durban. This is where you go out on the beach and look for nesting and newborn Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles. This time of year, you are almost assured of seeing some but we get ahead of ourselves. Actually, only got slightly lost finding the right highway north. Would have been uneventful but Gary got a speeding ticket. Totally unfair- he had been right on the speed limit but they were waiting at the bottom of a long hill and our number was up. No problem, we can pay at the Durban police station or at a grocery store (2 chains- Spar or Pick N Pay) except that it takes two weeks to be assigned the reference number needed to do this. We can backtrack and try to find the police station in the closest town and pay there (officer can’t give us directions and our track record on finding anything has not been good).  As it turns out we have until March 3 to pay and we are going To Capetown in February.  So that is our plan. Sure beats being arrested on the spot with me not on the rental car agreement.

We make it to St Lucia in good (within speed limits) time and stop at the office for our tour. Turns out there is a boat cruise on Lake St. Lucia (an estuary) leaving in a half hour for two hours which is perfect. There are hippos and crocs to be seen so off we go.

Yes, there’s a crocodile there

After lunch at a seafood place- Gary got his seafood- Teresa had a great salad, we walked around St Lucia until it was time for our turtle tour. We were the last of 10 to be picked up so Teresa sat in the front seat with the driver. We were the only native English speakers besides the guide. This is what we are loving about this experience. As Americans, you feel like you are the only ones in the world but on these trips we have taken, we have yet to encounter other Americans. Actually, on one of our flights there was a family originally from Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) who now live in Boulder, CO. There was a very nice couple from Denmark and a group of 6 from what sounded like German but not too sure. The folks from Denmark did talk to us about Trump. The whole world is worried, if that’s any consolation.

Cut to the chase- we were in the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park which is comprised of 5 different ecosystems. On the way to the beach we saw an abundance of wildlife with some highlights below. (Hang in there, almost to the elephants).

Cape Buffalo- that leaves only Rhino on our Big 5 list

So, we arrive at the beach and spend a couple of hours looking for turtles- nothing, nada, bubkas. About 9 pm we start the 2 hour drive (depending on animal sightings) back to St Lucia. We are all pretty bummed but hey, thems the breaks. We are barreling along (10-15k/hr) when the driver/guide stops and backs up. He has spied something in a tree (pitch black remember). The driver did use a spot light as he drove.  We wondered why, if it was just to look for animals that might jump on the road (major cause of accidents in Africa especially at night) or if he was trying to find animals for us to see. (He did need to redeem himself after failing to find any turtles).This dwarf chameleon was sitting there, two inches. Hard to see but then it wouldn’t be a chameleon if it were easy. Totally redeemed himself.  What an eye.  It has been a theme, we have been on several game drives now and I can’t believe what these guides see as they are driving along, probably the animals are assigned a place on the map so they know where to look but even after we stop we have trouble seeing what they saw while on the move.

Dwarf Chameleon

Now we are really going back when we are stopped dead by a looming figure ahead. It is the body and rear end of a young male bachelor elephant. He is half in the road. Then he moves more into the road and we now see his head and another elephant. They are head butting/playing and in no hurry to leave. Apparently they were there the night before and are quite aggressive. They don’t like lights so we cut our spotlight and only have our headlights which we need in case they start charging like they have done before. We are not allowed to take pictures as the flash could spook them. So, we sit. And we sit. Then we hear branches breaking right next to us. The driver backs up.  Three more elephants appear. It’s an early New Years Eve Party. So, we sit. And we sit. They move off to the side every now and then but the guide knows they can turn on a dime- don’t let their size fool you. So we sit. And we sit. All told we sit for about an hour when another safari vehicle pulls up next to us. We inch forward very slowly as the elephants move down the road in front of us. We make sure we know where all 5 are because we don’t want to get caught between them- unable to reverse or go forward. There is no other way out. We are finally left with just one in front of us and believe the others have moved off to the side at a safe distance. With one last protest, the one elephant turns around, flaps his ears and trumpets. He takes one step forward, our hearts are in our throats (and the guide’s is on the reverse shift) and then he realizes that while one vehicle would be a fair fight, two together is too big a threat and he backs off and moves into the bush. We quickly speed up and get past. We finally arrive in St Lucia about midnight and begin a 3 hour drive back to Durban. Remember that opening picture- Hippo Crossing 3k- Hippos are active at night. We drive very carefully and finally start breathing about 5k in. We get back to Durban and check in at our hotel at about 3:15 am.

Being the old fogies we are, Tuesday was a kick back day to recover from the late night. We were going to stop by the dive shop to find out what was happening on Wednesday and then Teresa needed a new bathing suit. Surprise! Tuesday was a public holiday and EVERYONE, and we do mean EVERYONE in Durban was headed to the beach.

Given the road blocks, this meant we would have had to wait for 2 hours in traffic to go the 5 minutes from our hotel to the dive shop so we decided to stop on our way home as we had no choice on routes if we wanted to get back to the hotel (Think of a maze of one way streets with barricades wherever you want to go). So we headed to the closest mall which should have been about 15 minutes away. About 1.5 hours later- yep we got major lost again- we found it and got the suit. So now it’s lunch time but on the way to the mall we did manage to go by where we had planned to go for lunch- either closed for the holiday or no longer in existence. We made it back to the hotel and went back out on foot to a little cafe nearby where we tried Tramezzinis. They are like paninis. Very tasty. Went to the dive shop and were told the dive probably wouldn’t happen due to weather and since we haven’t dived in 3 years, we would need a 3 hour refresher which we could do on Wednesday and dive on Thursday. Neither of us wanted to spend our birthday in SCUBA skills hell so we bagged it. We tried to book snorkeling but everything was booked until Friday and we were leaving on Friday.  Took a walk along the beach and back to our hotel. Went to a local brewpub for dinner that was also very close to the hotel.

Wednesday December 28- our birthday- should be a public holiday but isn’t. By now Teresa has really wised up and in addition to the mediocre maps we have, she has started taking pictures of google maps close ups for possible destinations. Doesn’t mean we stop getting lost but it does improve our chances. We head out to the Phezulu Safari Park to see crocs and snakes and Zulu dancing. Then the plan is pizza at a place nearby then off to a nature reserve for a nice hike then back to town through The Valley Of 1000 Hills and out to dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant. So much for plans. We do get lost getting to the Park (totally googlemaps fault) but get there with enough time to see the snakes and crocs, watch the dancing then be back for croc feeding/snake demonstration . Croc feeding is a sight to behold. They throw in whole dead chickens. Not every croc gets one but that’s ok because they don’t need to eat very often. If one lands behind their head, they have no idea it’s there and wait to get one in front of them- maybe. They literally crawl over each other to get a chicken-like a scene from Animal House.  Gary had the camera and we had a perfect shot of one facing us with a whole chicken sidewise in his/her mouth but he was so mesmerized by the sight, he missed the shot. It started to rain during the snake demo so Teresa missed getting her picture taken holding a Boa Constrictor (She did it once years ago in Seattle and has never been afraid of snakes since.)

So, ready to go on with our day. Not so fast. At the end of the snake demo Gary got violently nauseous and all he wanted was to get back to the hotel. He had to drive- remember we didn’t make Teresa a driver on the rental.  So, lunch was a grilled cheese with bacon sandwich for Teresa and a Sprite for Gary from the petrol station near the hotel that had a fast food chain in it. Happy Birthday! Gary slept all afternoon and felt better by evening so we headed out for Ethiopian. Found it fine but it was closed- looks like for good. Teresa thought she remembered a place from her list that wasn’t too far and we managed to get in the neighborhood when we found another Indian place. Food was very good once again. After dinner we got a shake at a nearby restaurant and saw this poster which got us to talking with some folks there. You just can’t get away from Trump.


Our last full day in Durban we headed to the Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve with promises of game to watch while you hiked. Yes, we got lost again-  really beginning to hate googlemaps and composing a letter to google in my head. We were also out of gas but thankfully at the 11th hour found a gas station and discovered we were on the right road to the reserve. Also spied a place to get bunny chow for lunch. The reserve was beautiful- forest and meadow and a castle to boot. Our 5.2k trail should not have taken us by the castle but you got it, the one place on the trail that was not well marked and we ended up on a different trail. But, got to see the castle and vervet monkeys. Saw several other animals but no chance for pictures- one was a deer type and the other was most likely a mongoose.  All the snakes we had learned about the day before are present in the reserve but we saw none of them- just as well. Knowing us, we would have gotten lost on the way to the hospital to get the antivenom.

Stopped for bunny chow for lunch- a Durban Indian staple. It Is basically a hollowed out loaf of very soft white bread (1/4, 1/3, 1/2 a loaf) filled with your choice of meat in a sauce. We opted for the deboned chicken. Mutton seems to be the most popular. We also got roti which ended up being like a burrito as the filling was the same as for the bunny chow.  OK but don’t think we’d go out of our way again to have it.

Dinner was at a very trendy Italian place in the Berea neighborhood. Teresa finally felt like she might be getting the hang of Durban streets.

Friday was travel back home and in our usual style we messed up and took a detour getting to the airport but we had left plenty of time so we eventually got there and the rest of the trip home was uneventful. At least the pilots have a better sense of direction.

Two last comments. Our hotel had an amazing buffet breakfast (both hotels actually). At one of them we actually learned there is a right and a wrong way to place the silverware. The waiter actually removed the “wrong”one and brought us a new correct one.

And, for our Phoenix friends and family- you are never as far away as you think unless it’s us trying to get to you and then it will take a few extra turns… See you in November!


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