Tag Archives: South Africa

South Africa Travel Tips

King of the Road

My wife and I loved South Africa and have been meaning to go back ever since. (Unfortunately there are a few other countries we haven’t been to that we’d like to explore before we start repeating places.)

Overall, we didn’t care for Johannesburg much. We met a couple on our safari and they were from “Jo-berg.” They told us no one ever drives with their car windows down as people will just reach through your windows to grab stuff (or worse). We stayed at a B&B and were about to leave for dinner when the proprietor stopped us and told us to take only what is absolutely necessary and leave everything else behind and walk only down the middle of the street (it was a quiet neighborhood). She said go directly to and from dinner and do not wander around. While I’m sure parts of the city are lovely, we didn’t get much of a good impression as even the locals had a “this place is awful but it’s what we call home” attitude. That being said, it is a HUGE city and fascinating to see none-the-less.

Cape Town, on the other hand, we loved. It was friendly. It had great restaurants. It had beautiful scenery. It was fantastic.

Table Mountain is where everyone takes a gondola up to the top and can see to the edges of the earth. While we were there it was closed for renovations so I cannot attest to whether it’s worth it or not.

The V&A Waterfront is where a lot of the restaurants are. We enjoyed strolling around taking in everything from fancy restaurants to street musicians and the general “harbor vibe” the entire area had. A regret is we waited until our last night to go down to see it and we certainly wish we would have discovered it sooner.

I can’t remember where exactly, but someplace in downtown Cape Town my wife and I threw down some beers one night. We generally try to do this one night while on vacation wherever we are. Whether we chug rum swizzles in Bermuda, caipirinhas in Brazil or only God knows what that was in Panama, we try to take in a hearty slice of the local night life. Whatever region it was, it had a number of bars within a couple of blocks. Everyone was out. Everyone was having a good time. Whatever bar we were at had a cover band trying their best and an enormous selection of cider beers. At the end of the night (after crushing some late-night food) we flagged down a taxi and headed back to where we were staying. While all taxis are metered, few meters are regulated; ask your driver ahead of time how much it will take to get you back to your hotel and base part of your decision to enter the car based on that.

We stayed at Atlantic View while in Cape Town and it was up in the hills towards Table Mountain. Below us, near the waterfront, was a lesser-known restaurant district (Camps Bay, I think). Most restaurants faced the water and we had our pick of places to dine while we watched the sun set over the ocean. My wife and I were just reminiscing about this trip and we truly enjoyed strolling along picking out a restaurant. Since it was their winter, there was a chilly breeze off the ocean, but nothing a fleece couldn’t fix.

Atlantic View, as I’m sure most places do, offer up a host of tourist options. Two we chose were visiting Cheetah Outreach and Wildlife Trust, where one of the perks is getting to pet a cheetah. It’s pretty quick and simple but also damn cool. We were the first to arrive so we got our tickets and were then the first to be allowed in to do some giant cat petting. Everyone arriving after us had to sit and watch us. It was nice to be first for a couple of reasons. One is that it was slightly “more special” because we were the first of the day. Being the 25th person to do such a thing wouldn’t have been so cool. The second reason it was cool is we were in, out and on our way to the next thing. We didn’t have to stand in line for a half-an-hour while fifteen people in front of us all had a couple of minutes each to pet a cheetah. I could see waiting around watching others pet the cheetah getting old quickly.

The second thing we did was the obligatory wine tour. We visited two or three vineyards and each rolled out the red carpet for us. (It may have been a honeymoon thing or it may have been standard operating procedure.) I’m sure you’ve done a wine tasting before (or at least something similar), but what I can most certainly advise is to be cautious when ordering delicious, delicious wine to send home. Make sure the vineyard has a distributer in your home country. If they don’t you’ll have to pay all sorts of taxes and tariffs, and you’ll have to find someone to be a licensed importer for you. Everyone I called in Chicago only wanted to deal with me if was importing 6,000 cases of wine, not six bottles. Of the two vineyards we ordered from, one had a US distributer and the other didn’t. The vineyard who didn’t was kind enough to refund our credit card when we told them it wasn’t working out for us.

If time permits, I strongly, strongly recommend a safari while in South Africa. The self-driving tour through Kruger National Park can work out in a pinch, but it is so much better if you can go enjoy a private game reserve. Two nights/three days would be a minimum. We went with Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve and their property butts up against Kruger National Park. (Well, sort of. Their property sits along the Sand River and directly across is Kruger.) Kruger is a five-hour drive on a national highway from Johannesburg. Our game reserve had its own private air strip and flights leave daily from the Jo-berg airport. It’s a twelve-passenger plane and can get you there in about an hour. The plane stops at a few other game reserves and a highlight, for me at least, is one of the airstrips was gravel. Taking off and landing on rocks makes me appreciate the fancy concrete runways so much more. Safaris vary in price, quality and, experience. The car ride through Kruger will probably offer you a glimpse of animals in “the wild”, but a private game reserve is a far better experience. (Obviously you get what you pay for. Sabi Sabi isn’t cheap, but I cannot recommend it enough.)

We went to South Africa in early-August, which is their winter. It’s the best time to go on a safari because the grass isn’t as long and there are less watering holes so the animals all congregate at the same few. Dress in layers because, near Kruger, the temperature was 0F at sunrise but 70F by mid-day. Near the ocean there is much more of a narrow range of temperatures so a long-sleeved shirt was fine during the day and a fleece worked at night. Everyone we encountered spoke English (although some with a heavy accent) so language wasn’t an issue for us.

While we were in the region we also explored Namibia, which is the least populated country in the world. If you have time, I’d say one reason to go is to see the stars. We drove to Sossusvlei and spent a couple of nights at the Sossus Dune Lodge. Because the desert is so dry and Sossusvlei is so remote, there was no light pollution. At all. The stars were amazing. While in southern Africa, if you’ve got the time, I’d recommend exploring the option of visiting Namibia, and specifically the Sossusvlei region. The adventure to and from was almost as good as sitting under the stars in the middle of the pitch-black desert. (You can read more at my page with Namibia Travel Tips.)

We truly loved our South African experience from the uber-populated Johannesburg to sitting by ourselves watching the sun set behind the sand dunes in Namibia, the world’s least populated country. No matter when you go, you’ll have a wonderful, wonderful time, whether you follow in our exact footsteps or create your own.

And send home postcards. Everybody loves getting postcards.

 

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Mother and Child Elephant

Mother and Child Elephant

I look back at pictures from our safari in South Africa and it makes me want to jump on a plane and go on another one. Unfortunately it takes a bit more planning and money to do that, but it was a truly majestic experience that I won’t ever forget.

In Kruger National Park, the animals can get overwhelmed by tourists snapping photos and surrounded them with their vehicles. On the private game reserves located throughout the African continent, the animals are better cared for and the experiences are incredible. Their comfort around people in vehicles gave it a whole new level of awesomeness.

The elephants, pictured above, weren’t too concerned about us in our vehicle because it is something they’re used to, and they don’t ever really have issues with people. Leaving animals with good experiences with humans will insure they aren’t scared of us the next time come back.

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Lion Cub on the Prowl

Lion Cub on the Prowl

On safari in Kruger National Park, I could sit and watch the lion cubs for hours. They’d jump; they’d play; they’d hide in the bushes to attack one another. It was just like the movie The Lion King where the two cubs ran and played with each other. I follow our Private Game Reserve on Facebook and have watched the cubs grow into adult lions and set out on their own. I’m extremely happy to have been able to see and spend time with the lions when they’re that super-cute “cuddly wuddly” phase of young and adorable. A few months later and they would have been able to eat me in one bite.

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Elephant’s Trunk

Elephant's Trunk

As big as elephants can be, some of my favorite pictures from our South African safari are the close-up pictures of them. In the South Africa section of the Galleries is a picture of an elephant’s eye and skin details. As I was scanning through images looking for something to post as today’s picture, I stumbled upon this photograph. I’ve seen this image before, obviously, but I really like the close-up of the elephant’s trunk as he grazes some food.

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Eating Elephant

Eating Elephant

There were so many parts of our South African safari that was, one way or another, on my bucket list; experiencing another culture, hearing the noises in the middle of the night, getting up close to animals, going to Africa, et cetera. One thing on the list, which I didn’t realize was on my bucket list until in occurred, was landing an airplane on a gravel airstrip.

No, I did not physically land the plane, however, as we came out of the clouds in our small, eight-seater airplane, I looked down through the window and saw our runway in the distance. As we got closer and closer to the place where we would be landing, I remember thinking “Why does that runway look different?”

There was something odd about the runway we were rapidly approaching. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it, but it looked a little more “rough” then most runways I’ve landed on.

Sure enough, as we were a few hundred yards from touching down, my brain processed that we were about to touch down on a gravel airstrip. I scrambled for my iPhone so I could record a video of us touching down.

It. Was. So. Loud.

Just driving on a gravel road can be deafening, but landing a plane on one seemed overwhelmingly loud. Additionally, being in an airplane, I felt like every one of the rocks “pinging” off of the wing was a little more terrifying than the rocks “pinging” off of my car’s fender.

In the end, it was a much smoother ride than I ever expected, but at the same time, it was so much louder than I ever thought it would be.

Obviously everything worked out and our plane landed and took off without issue. The whole thing took place after we left our safari, on our way back to civilization. Before leaving the wild animals that make a safari so incredible, we had spent time with the elephant above, as he enjoyed a mouthful of grass near Kruger National Park in South Africa.

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New Kid in Town

The following originally appeared with Vagabundo Travel Magazine on May 22, 2012:

“If you’re not comfortable, just let me know,” said Adam Richardson, as he started the engine of our Land Rover.

Adam was our guide with a private game reserve near South Africa’s Kruger National Park and he was talking to our tracker, Pauley. Pauley was firmly seated on the front of our vehicle in an attached chair, and the focus of our attention was a young, male leopard, with a notch in his right ear, who had recently wandered onto the property.

“Because if it is that leopard, we want to try to make sure we leave him happy.”

We first encountered the leopard a few days prior on a game drive shortly after he made a kill, and it was trying to drag the carcass into a tree.  The noise of the Land Rovers and cameras clicking away spooked the apprehensive leopard, so our guide chose to pull away and let him get slowly acclimated to human interactions before trying to get close again.

Now, a couple of days later, we were on a game drive through the bush and stumbled upon a large, male rhinoceros patrolling its area.  We watched as the rhinoceros approached his dung pile and proceeded to mark its territory.  Then our guide, knowing what was developing, zipped ahead to a nearby watering hole, realizing it was probably the next stop for the rhinoceros.

After we parked near some large bushes for cover, the rhinoceros approached the scene, checked out the surroundings and plopped into the mud pit.  He rolled around in the mud, freely passing gas, while my wife shot video and I took pictures. After he was finished, the rhinoceros made his way up the small incline towards a clearing.

About 15 feet from the watering hole, the wandering rhinoceros was caught off guard by a leopard laying in wait.  The rhinoceros jumped in the air from fright, but continued his course knowing the leopard wouldn’t attack. While Adam was repositioning the Land Rover for a closer view of the leopard, he realized it was the same apprehensive animal from a few days prior.

Very cautiously the leopard watched as the Land Rover slowly crept towards it’s resting place.  At a safe distance, Adam turned off the engine and for nearly an hour he, my wife and I chatted about everything from life as a guide to the potential back-story of this leopard.

Our guide’s goal was to give the leopard an opportunity to have a good experience with vehicles and people.  Each time the wildlife on South African game reserves has a good experience with vehicles, the more likely it will allow the vehicles to get in closer next time; the sounds of the vehicle’s engine, people’s voices or clicking cameras will no longer bother it as much.  In this particular case, Adam had a new animal on the property that could use some “TLC,” plus he had my wife and I in the vehicle and we were more than happy to give the leopard all the time it needed.

It was one of those unplanned moments in life where “going with the flow” was exactly what was needed.  As a result, the whole sequence became one of my favorite moments on our safari: the skill of our guide Adam to acknowledge an opportunity ahead with the rhinoceros aiming for the watering hole; the adorable “freak out” from said rhinoceros stumbling upon the new leopard; the new leopard checking out humans, letting out a large yawn and falling back to sleep for its nap; us parking and allowing the leopard to become acclimated to tourists and Land Rovers; knowing that, potentially, my wife and I are helping a family get closer to the leopard when they come for their safari in a few weeks or a few months.

Arriving back at the lodge fairly late from our time with the rhinoceros and then the leopard, the other guests were all gathered near the fireplace swapping stories about their day’s game drives while sipping cocktails. Three women from the United States really, really wanted to see a leopard but hadn’t been fortunate enough yet, but they also knew that we had been very lucky to see a leopard every day (including an incredible kill on our first night). Because it was best for the new leopard to only have one compassionate vehicle near it — versus swarms of vehicles and tourists — other guides respectfully stayed away and mentioned nothing to their guests. As a result of all of this, it was sort of a situation that became “our little secret” with the other guides in the lodge. Showing up late, one of the women looked directly at me and said “Don’t tell me you saw another leopard today!”

I am a terrible liar, so I mumbled some sentence containing a “No” and quickly took a large gulp of my drink.

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Lion Cub Watching Its Mother

It’s been awhile — a long while — since I’ve posted an image to this space.

Somewhere towards the beginning of 2010, I decided to regularly post an image to my website. It was nice getting a lot of varied images off of my hard-drive and up on the website. My site’s traffic went from one  or two page views a week to nearly 8,000 page views last month. The biggest reason that number appeals to me is that, last year, nearly 15,000 visitors checked out my images.

That’s pretty cool.

If you follow me on Facebook, I recently posted a picture of greeting cards in a few UPS Stores. It’s nice to know that someone likes my photography enough to buy it and send it to a friend or family member. It’s also nice to know the images have gotten off of my hard drive.

That all being said, towards the end of last year I decided I was going to scale back my photoblog. Somewhere along the way I realized I was working harder on content than quality. I was trying to pump out an image a day, and instead of getting up early for a spectacular sunrise, I was staying up late working on blog images. Ask any photographer, they’d much rather take pictures than write about them.

So I’m scaling back my photoblog. Things are busier now more than ever, which isn’t a bad thing, but I’m going to take a bit of time off from photoblogging, then occasionally I’m going to post a blast of photos at a time. Instead of one photo a day, I may post five or ten at a time, a couple of times a month.

Please stick around for the journey. I truly enjoy photography and hope you’ll enjoy what I produce. Some images are good, some images suck, and some images even take my breath away. Hopefully changing up how I do my photoblog produces more breath-taking photos.

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Grazing Giraffes

One of the first things our guide asked us on our safari was “What do you hope to see?” I said I was hoping to see some baby animals (they’re always so cute) and my wife was destined to see giraffes.

As our time on the safari continued on, our guide heard about a group of giraffes on the edge of the property and raced to let us see them. They’re quiet animals, enormously tall, and vegetarians. They happily grazed on the leaves of the surrounding trees, and paid no attention to the Americans watching from not far away.

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Bringing Up the Rear

On safari in Kruger National Park, I could sit and watch the lion cubs for hours. They’d jump; they’d play; they’d hide in the bushes to attack one another. It was just like the movie The Lion King where the two cubs ran and played with each other. I follow our Private Game Reserve on Facebook and have watched the cubs grow into adult lions and set out on their own. I’m extremely happy to have  been able to see and spend time with the lions when they’re that super-cute “cuddly wuddly” phase of young and adorable. A few months later and they would have been able to eat me in one bite.

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Mother and Baby Elephant

I look back at pictures from our safari in South Africa and it makes me want to jump on a plane and go on another one. Unfortunately it takes a bit more planning and money to do that, but it was a truly majestic experience that I won’t ever forget.

In Kruger National Park, the animals can get overwhelmed by tourists snapping photos and surrounded them with their vehicles. On the private game reserves located throughout the African continent, the animals are better cared for and the experiences are incredible. Their comfort around people in vehicles gave it a whole new level of awesomeness.

The elephants, pictured above, weren’t too concerned about us in our vehicle because it is something they’re used to, and they don’t ever really have issues with people. Leaving animals with good experiences with humans will insure they aren’t scared of us the next time come back.

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Dinner Time

While on a safari in South Africa, my wife and I were fortunate enough to meet Nottens. She’s a female leopard and has grown up on the private game reserve located adjacent to Kruger National Park. The first night we were staying on the property, Nottens was tracking a meal when our vehicle spooked the animal she was about to pounce on. As Nottens made her way for other dinner options, we followed close behind.

Slowly she crept along in the tall grass keeping a close eye on a large field full of impalas. Quietly she waited for the right moment to act and, as if giving her a gift, a few of the impalas broke away from the rest of the pack and walked right into where Nottens was hiding. Suddenly, she sprang from her hiding place and scattered the impalas. In one lightning-fast move, she reached out her giant paw and brought down an impala, quickly breaking its neck. Our guide put us in a fantastic position to watch the drama unfold, and after the coast was clear, he drove us closer to the kill site.

Nottens was fast at work devouring her catch. This was Africa at its wildest, and the leopard knew her time was short. Before long, hyenas caught on to the action and wanted a piece of it for themselves. Using strength in numbers, three of them moved in, driving Nottens from her meal. Wisely, she ate as much as she could before the hyenas arrived so when she ran off it was with enough food to make it another day. Meanwhile, the hyenas couldn’t settle on who should eat, so they began to fight amongst themselves for the meal.

After we originally spotted her, barely ten minutes had passed before Nottens brought down an impala. A mere six minutes of feeding had passed before hyenas had chased her off. Such is life on the African bush.

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Black-collared Barbet with a Snack

Last week I asked how many pictures I’d take on any given vacation, and I genuinely didn’t know.

There is always discussion amongst photographers about taking too many pictures. One of the guys I frequently work with is on an effort to take less pictures this year. In general, a lot of photographers can hold their finger on the camera’s shutter button and fire off nearly a dozen frames per second. They then have to go through and decide which of those dozen is “the best.” The guys next to me at baseball games will do this for every pitch for most of the game. At the Air and Water Show in Chicago a few weeks back, one photographer I know took nearly 3,000 images in two days. Wedding photographers can shoot several thousand images in a day. So when my co-worker says he’s trying to take less pictures, I clearly see his point. Nobody picks up a camera and says “I want to sit in front of a computer editing images all day long!”

So to answer the question how many pictures can I take on a vacation: I suppose it varies amongst photographers, location and time spent taking pictures.

For myself, whom I’ll call a “serious hobbyist,” spending a week in Maine during autumn netted nearly 600 pictures. While in South Africa, which is where the above Black-collared Barbet is native to, I took 1,100 images during the five-day safari.

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Curious Kudu

One of the nice parts about going on a safari via a private game reserve is, I feel, the animals are far more docile. In the massive Kruger National Park anyone can drive through and scare the living bejeezus out of the animals, but private game reserves are far more strict on some rules, yet loose on others.

This really pays off with the different animals because they’re not as terrified of humans as they may otherwise be. As long as the animals are continuously left with a good experience with humans, they will continue to not be as terrified of them.

So, at a watering hole while in South Africa, we were able to sit and watch elephants drink water while other animals moseyed up and drank as well. The kudus (picture above) did glance over at us on occasion, but for the most part everyone did their thing and life continued without much care for the humans in the land rover nearby.

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Lone Zebra in the Wild

Recently I changed how I was going through my pictures.

Normally I’d import however many images I took, scan through them to choose the better ones, then post those in the galleries section, on this blog or on Facebook. Lately, however, I learned I’m skipping over a lot of good photographs in search of the next better one.

I learned with India to take the time and go through each picture to look at it.  Yes, it may take several days, but I’d rather not fill my hard-drive up with 1,000 images I won’t ever use, and instead see about making all of the better pictures work.  Between this photoblog and my stock photography sales (which I’m terrible at keeping up with), I can certainly do more with all of the pictures I’ve taken.

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Leopard on the Prowl

This is Nottens. She’s a female leopard and we stumbled upon her while she was out in search of dinner on our game drive in South Africa.

Rumbling through the African bush, we spooked a small animal that Nottens was getting in position to pounce on for dinner.  The small animal darted away, and Nottens set out in search another meal.  Our guide, Trevor, knew a clearing ahead, which Nottens was most likely headed to, and we raced ahead to see what would unfold.

In front of us, the leopard slowly crept towards a group of idle impalas (the deer-like animal, not the car) and waited for her chance.  As the impalas began to move, some headed straight into the waiting ambush.  In what seemed like a fraction of a second, Nottens had brought down an impala with a single swipe of her paw.

It was finally time for her dinner.

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Leaping into Flight

For whatever reason, I don’t have many pictures posted in the photoblog from the safari Alisha and I took in South Africa.  It’s a shame because we had a wonderful time and I came home with a plethora of pictures — 1,107 pictures to be exact.

I could easily do a month or two of safari pictures every day that didn’t make the South Africa photo gallery, but instead I’m apparently going sparingly with them.

So here’s a picture of a Bateleur eagle leaping into flight.

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Elephants on the Move

I took a lot less pictures on our safari then I thought I would — which was a good thing.

On our first game drive, we exited the area in which our lodge was located, and promptly saw a group of elephants. All the while the elephants ate, I took a number of pictures. Eventually I slowed down my picture-taking, and then I stopped and just enjoyed the elephants.

I suppose a better photographer would keep shooting away, but I wanted to enjoy nature. It turned out to be a good thing, because we would see elephants several times throughout our stay, and many times in better light, closer experiences or, in the case of our final encounter, the elephant came up and sniffed the hat off of our tracker. Cool stuff.

During our stay, we came upon a watering hole that was the place to be, apparently. We watched a herd of elephants drink up and head out, just as another group came over the hill to also get water. (In the picture above, there is a tiny baby elephant that was adorable to watch.  He was still learning to master his trunk, so it was fun to watch him suck up water, only to mostly miss his mouth when he tried to drink it.) As we sat, birds and Kudus came up to get drinks, as well.

These experiences would become my favorite part of our game drives: sitting and watching nature for a long period of time.  Eventually, I’ll get to the story of how we sat for a half-an-hour, helping a leopard get acclimated to his surroundings, but in the meantime, quietly sitting and watching elephants do their thing was pretty remarkable, as well.

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Nottens

On our first safari in South Africa we were motoring around in the Range Rover, looking for whatever wildlife we could find.  As we were rumbling along on some trails, we scared a small deer-like animal from the underbrush and it fled in terror of our vehicle.  As we approached the area where the small animal was hiding in the brush, we saw a leopard who had been lying in wait.

Apparently we interrupted its dinner plans.

So, an adult female leopard (named Nottens) gave up her hiding place and set out in search of other potential food. We followed her through the brush, and our guide recognized she was heading towards and opening where a large group of impalas (more deer-like animals) were milling about.

Nottens crouched low in the grass and waited for her chance.

About this time the impalas split into two groups. A few went a direction away from the hiding leopard, while the majority blindly wandered directly into the leopard’s vicinity.  With lightning speed the leopard jumped into action, scattering the impalas.  With one of it’s giant paws, the leopard grabbed a fleeing impala from mid-air and dragged it to the ground.  Dinner time.

The above picture is of Nottens, as she moved from her original hiding spot to her new location near the impalas.

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Cheetah Spots

This is Joseph, he’s a ten year-old cheetah in South Africa.

Cheetahs are the world’s fastest animal reaching 0-50mph in just three seconds (by comparison, it took Ferrari up until 1999 to get that fast that quick — cheetah’s have been doing it for 3-5 million years).  At full speed, a cheetah’s stride is about 23 feet, which helps them attain their top speed of 75 mph. Adult cheetahs have over 2,000 spots, and the fur texture varies with the color.

And they purr like kittens when you pet them.

In Cape Town we had the opportunity to pet a cheetah.  South African cheetahs decimate farmers’ livestock, so farmers are trapping and killing the endangered animals.  Cheetah Outreach is an organization which raises Anatolian Shepherd dogs side-by-side cheetahs, so the dogs are then placed with livestock and look after them — all the while keeping the cheetahs away.

Slowly the cheetah population is coming back, and the farmers’ livestock are now endangered by other things — like the farmers.

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Lion Cubs

I posted pictures online from our safari in South Africa.  You can click your way over to them in the Travel Photography section by clicking here. The albums are cut up into two sections; Namibia and South Africa.

During out stay, we really enjoyed the lion cubs.  There were many times I put the camera down just to watch the cubs tackle and play with each other.  At one point, we watched a lion cub hide behind a tree and jump out to playfully “attack” it’s mother.

Lion cubs are so damn cute.

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