The last several days of the trip before arriving in Richard's Bay, the crew of At Last started dreaming of a gourmet breakfast at a lovely restaurant in Richard's Bay. Not that we knew of one, we were just willing it to be true. I wanted desperately to have champagne and pancakes. Shadow and Britt started calling my breakfast wish champancakes because I kept saying that I was even going to pour champagne on my pancakes. This dream was somewhat due to the conditions we were facing on the last two days of the trip and partially due to the habit of drinking alcohol whenever we arrive to the next port, regardless of time of day.
Southern Cross joined us for a photo finish across the finish line. Neither one of us wanted to be last so we timed our arrival together perfectly. There were some antics on At Last as we crossed the line which Cathy (s/v Southern Cross) unfortunately got on video tape. As we were about to enter the channel, Harbor Control called us and asked us to move aside for a large tanker which had priority in entering the harbor. We relocated outside of the harbor near some red buoys and waited patiently for the tanker to enter the harbor. We later learned that these buoys had shark bait attached to them to keep the sharks away from the nearby beach.
As we again entered the channel, a local boat from the yacht club (s/v Nomad) escorted us into the marina. As we tied up to the dock, we were again greeted by many from the fleet. Craig, the skipper of Nomad, was there to welcome us and he presented us with a cold bottle of champagne. I could not have imagined a better welcome. Both Southern Cross and At Last popped open their bottles and toasted the crossing of the Indian Ocean. Something we all agreed that we never needed to do again. We went to the Yacht Club for breakfast and though they did not have pancakes or more champagne, we were quite content with what we ordered and were happy to have arrived safely.
At breakfast, Craig (s/v Spirit of Alcides) came around looking for people to join him overnight at a lodge in the national park we were to visit on Thursday. I asked Mark what he thought and he said, "We can do that." I was somewhat surprised that there was no discussion about the all of the things that needed to be fixed on the boat and whether we would have enough time to do them before the next weather window which would get us that much closer to our goal of Cape Town.
The decision to spend the night at the lodge in the national park was one of the best decisions we made on this trip. A slight exaggeration maybe but you be the judge. We had a tour of the Hluhluwe-iMfolzi National Park on Thursday which was part of our World Arc activities. We checked with Paul (rally control) if we could be dropped off at the lodge after the tour and he said we should figure out a way to not do lunch at the lodge but rather see if one of the drivers would spend the day with us on safari and then drop us off at the lodge at the end of the day to allow more time for seeing animals.
That is exactly what we did. When we got to the safari trucks, I asked the man in charge if there was a driver willing to take our group out for the entire day instead going to the lodge for lunch and rather drop us off at the lodge at the end of the day. One of the drivers said, "I'll take them" but further stated that he would only do it if we would go off route and "find some animals." We knew this was the right guy to lead us. So we stopped at a canteen for a takeout lunch at 10:30 am and didn't arrive to the lodge until 5:30 pm. And just let's say we found some animals.
We were in a pickup truck with the driver in the cabin. The bed of the truck was three benches where three of us sat in each row. The smart ones were the ones in the middle according to my calculation; they would be the last to be eaten. It's hard to describe our encounters with these animals. We were so close and so exposed that Steve, our guide, did begin our ride with a discussion about how close we were comfortable getting to the animals. We all said as close as we can. But when a white rhino was within spitting distance, I began to wonder whether some of us were questioning our earlier enthusiasm.
Meeting these rhinos was clearly the most exhilarating encounter. The first one we saw was actually walking across the road as we turned the corner. I let out an audible gasp despite Steve's repeated warnings that we needed to be very quiet as we approached any animals. Steve informed us that rhinos have poor sight and rely on smell and hearing for their key senses. The closest we got to several white rhino was when we were on a faraway road that Steve had never traveled. We were at the outskirts of the park. There were two rhinos there and we were close enough that one of the rhinos got a bit aggressive. He began stomping his feet and snorting - we were so close that the snorting seemed so loud! Mark turned to me with a look of mild terror while Cathy (s/v Southern Cross) whispered, "he is going to charge us." At this point she put her head down and had tears forming in her eyes. We have a great video of the event with Mark shushing Cathy and waving at her to stop with one hand while taking a picture of the rhino with the other. Now most would be quite concerned about this encounter until you hear about Steve's training.
From the minute we met Steve, our guide, we knew he was someone special. He kept us out for the day because he was determined for us to have the best safari experience ever. He loved his job and everything he did and said made that evident. He told us it was a quiet day and he was on a hunt for each and every animal. He informed us that for three weeks every three months he goes for training. During this training, he lives in the bush with his mentor(s) and the last trip had 15 people receiving training. Only three people ended the trip after three weeks and he was one of them. During the three weeks, he studies the animal behavior including inciting the animals to help learn how to respond to aggression. In order to qualify as a guide, he needs at least 450 close encounters with each of the big five animals. The big five are the elephant, buffalo, leopard, lion and rhino. They are given that name because they are the most dangerous to hunt. Steve was a fantastic guide and he offered to take us on another tour when we are in Cape Town. He is from Cape Town and will be there over the holidays. There were nine of us on the tour with him and he asked for our emails at the end of the trip and he termed us the "crazy yachties." A good time was had by all.
By far my favorite animals that we saw that day were the zebras, elephants and the giraffes. We saw many zebras along the way. They were right on the side of the road and sometimes in the road as we passed. They would stop to look at us but mostly kept grazing or looking about. The stripes on their body were like art work. They matched the contours of their body and flowed so smoothly over their bodies. Their manes were an extension of their stripes (see the photo). This mane stands erect most of the time except when the zebra is sick and the mane begins to lag to one side or the other. The mane is also a deterrent against prey as the prey grab their mane thinking it is their skin but are unable to gain a grip because it is only hair.
Another favorite was the giraffe. We saw some the first day but on the way back to the boat from the lodge, we saw a whole group of them. They were so close that we could see the outline of their spots. They are such majestic animals. They have few prey in the wild and are mostly vulnerable to lions/leopards when they are young. They do not travel in groups but are rather loners which is why it was so unusual for us to see so many together. They appeared to be so curious when we stopped to take pictures. They stood and stared at us until we left.
Another favorite were the elephants. Steve was quite upset as we set out for the lodge that we had not seen any elephants. Suddenly, less than a mile from the lodge, we encountered a breeding group of elephants, with five of them blocking the road. There were several cars in front of us (yes, you can drive through the national park yourselves) but they waved us through. Clearly when you encounter five elephants blocking the road, you would rather have a guide move them along then your hired car. Steve drove very slowly as we approached the elephants. He told us that this was a herd of females and their calves. No males allowed. We saw one calf that Steve said could not have been more than a week old. The entire herd was at least one hundred, we could see about ten up close and another ten in the distance, maybe more. We were so excited; no one had time to count. We saw them tend to their young and rip a branch from a tree. They were huge yet elegant in their movements. Unbelievable!
After spending the day with Steve, we were amazed that so many people took hired (rented) cars into the national park. Steve warned us if we ever were to drive ourselves to...
• Do not try to drive quickly away from an animal once you see them. They will chase you.
• Turn off the motor as soon as you encounter an animal so you don't spook them. Most of these animals rely on sound more than anything to determine threats.
• Don't drive a VW or any type of car which whose engine fan turns on once you turn off the motor. This fan will spook the animal and cause a charge. If you google animal encounters in South Africa, the car will most typically be a VW. This happened when we encountered the elephants. We signaled to the car behind us to turn off their engine. They did but then their fan went on.
• Stand your ground when encountering these animals.
The rest of our time in Richard's Bay we spent mostly at the yacht club or at the local mall. We were able to buy some more much needed items for the boat at the mall. The Zululand Yacht Club was also a very special place. They put on a phenomenal dinner for us one night with live entertainment. They had other barbeques while we were there and we were always welcome. Mark was quite excited that South Africa is such a meat loving area. They don't have a good grasp of what a vegetarian is at all. Mark and I had a huge meal featuring a T-bone steak at the yacht club one night for about six US dollars per person. It was way too much food and very good.
We will begin the rather difficult sail from Richard's Bay to Cape Town on Monday, November 19th. After much discussion and several changes of plans, we have decided to leave and head for Durban. The weather window (the period of time the weather is favorable for sailing) is only long enough for us to get to Durban. It will take us less than one day to get there.