Travels in South Africa – Part I

Our first several days in South Africa were mainly spent traveling around, killing time until our stay in Kruger and our visit to the LaJuma Research Station.  The change from Madagascar to South Africa was sort of crazy, although not as crazy as Madagascar to USA.  For one, you go from 1 white person in every 100 on the street, to more of a 3 white people in 10, or more in the O.R. Tambo airport.  We were mostly up in the northern province of South Africa, Limpopo, which is not touristy at all and has very few white people.  And there’s like cement and pavement everywhere!  And very little sheet metal in the cities!  And actual stores instead of stands on the side of the street.  Granted, once we got out into Limpopo proper, and away from Joberg and Pretoria, it was only a few steps up from the better areas of Madagascar.  Cement buildings instead of wooden, but still thatched roofs, roadside stands, and goats and cows allllll over the place and in the road.  But there were real roads in South Africa, and streetlights, and stores, in comparison with Toliara.

A South African village in Limpopo

Limpopo highways are sort of interesting in that they don’t have many exits.  The major highways are virtually all toll roads, and they’ll have an exit every 10 miles or so, where you can stop, get gas and food from a gas station/fast food place, and that’s it with one exception.  They also have “picnic areas”, which is the best I can describe them, which are literally a pull off, 10 feet from the road, under a HUGE tree, with cement picnic tables and a trash can.  You can apparently pull off here to eat or rest.

One thing I will say about South Africa – the animals and food are AMAZING.  I have never had so many amazing meals, and especially the meat, which is literally the best you’ve ever eaten.  And all for like $10 US at the most expensive.  You could spend $20 on dinner, dessert, and drinks, at one of the best restaurants in Makhado, and in the US, that meal would cost you $70-90 bucks.  I cannot even describe how good the food/meat is.  Free-range, grass fed, cooked to perfection, Oh my god.  Needless to say, I ate soo much, especially coming off of Beza food, and because it’s so cheap, you’re like why not??  I almost made myself ill several times from overeating.  And as a result gained like 10 lbs in South Africa alone.  But it was so worth it  :).

We ended up driving all the way to Louis Trichard/Makhado (South Africa cannot decide if it likes colonial or African names for all the cities, so every couple of years they all switch back and forth), and staying there for a few days to visit LaJuma Research Station.  Frank and Michelle are interested in starting a project there, so our whole purpose in South Africa was to check out the site.  And wow, talk about a difference between research sites.  They had buildings, like dorms, enough to accommodate almost 50 researchers!  And internet, and electricity, and a town trip once a week that everyone got to go on, and a fridge for every 3 people.  It was insanely luxurious!  The best part was hearing the manager tell us how sorry he was that the accomodations were so poor, the road so rocky (45 minute drive in an high clearance vehicle), and the price so high.  And the students were complaining about how far away from town they are at 1.5 hours.  We just laughed.  Let’s see, Beza = 8 hours from the nearest actual town, tents, no refridgeration (and screw food, I would have wanted it for research samples!), 1 hr of electricity a day, and no internet/phone.  It was like going from a shack to Holiday Inn and hearing the people at the hotel complain that it’s not Windsor Palace.  Don’t mistake me, I LOVED Beza, but the difference in amenities was just laughable.

The view from one of the LaJuma Research Station camps.

LaJuma itself is gorgeous.  It’s located in the middle of it’s own small reserve, surrounded by 5 other properties that are ranches or private reserves, all of whom have given permission to the researchers to work on their land.  Up in the mountains of northern South Africa at 1300 m, the view is incredible.  There are leopards, vervet monkeys, tons of wild ungulates like bushbucks, warthogs, a baboon, you name it.  The guy who runs it allows you to do everything under his researcher permit, so you don’t have to worry about all of the red tape, and its about $400 a month to work there per person.  He also teaches for free at the local black university, and it was amazing to see an Afrikaans guy trying to give so much back to his students.  The primary function of LaJuma is for other researchers to come and work there, and Ian, the manager, is the most helpful guy I’ve ever met.  I’ve never been to a research station where the people there were so honestly interested in helping you succeed.  Most places you succeed without them, rather than with enormous amounts of their help.  Research is clearly their number one priority.

And finally, a word of caution.  Be aware that in Limpopo, toilets flush for only as long as you hold the handle.  Cora, Anthony, and I were all rooming together for most of our travels in South Africa, which led to it’s own hilarious moments, but my favorites definitely revolved around the toilet.  ‘We’ (hrm, someone who shall remain nameless, not me) did not hold the toilet down long enough and definitely clogged it one morning.  Obviously we ran a little late that morning.

Me in the mountains around LaJuma


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