Sani Pass

Today was the real point of the whole trip. We wanted to do the Sani Pass before they tarred the road – which they are in the process of doing. As it turned out, they have only done phase 1 so far which was up to about a few hundred meters from the hotel. Phase 2 is in under construction and is basically from our hotel to the SA border post. As it was Sunday and in the Christmas holiday period, no construction is currently taking place and the road was very rutted and muddy. It tested our driving skills before we even got to the SA border post.

On the way up to the border post we did add another lifer – Gurney’s Sugarbird which we saw on a protea. The border post was quick and easy and then we were in our car again heading up the main part of the pass. The border post is at 1940 meters and the top of the Sani Pass is over 2700 meters. Straight past the border post it was evident that Low4 was going to be necessary. The road was very rocky and pretty steep. It was a really enjoyable drive up – not only because I enjoyed doing the drive but also because we were the last of the 3 cars and we could watch everyone else bumping up and down and seeing especially how Mr M’s car was adjusting to the terrain, using traction control, spitting out stones and wheel spinning.

On top of the challenging 4×4 drive up the Sani Pass (you can only do it in a 4×4 though remarkably we passed some taxis coming down from the Lesotho side) it was a very scenic drive up. We stopped a few times going up to take photos, admire the view and (of course) to do some birding. In the end S & I added 7 lifers today alone! That is probably the best day for adding lifers since we started birding (excluding the first few days when everything is a lifer). We added all but one of the specials for the Sani Pass and we are pretty sure we saw that one too (Bearded Vulture) but it was while we were driving and we can’t be 100% sure so I won’t claim it yet (hopefully we will get to see one before the end of the trip).

When we got to the top we did passport control for Lesotho (which again was a non-event) and then we headed to Sani Pass Chalets which houses the highest pub in Africa. After admiring the view a bit more and doing some birding, we went in and had an early lunch. It started raining shortly after that and we were thankful that the rain didn’t start while we were driving up the pass. It would have made it much more treacherous than it was already. By the time we finished eating and drinking, the mist was also rolling in and we were very thankful that we didn’t have mist when we came up either. That would have made it extremely difficult and stressful and we wouldn’t have been able to see the fantastic view either.

We had about 120 km to get to our lodge for the night (Oxbow Lodge) which is basically on the north of Lesotho. The speed limit in Lesotho is never more than 80 km/h and most of the time it is 60 km/h. It took us over 2 hours to get to the lodge especially as the roads are bend after bend and at some points pothole after pothole. You also have to be alert to the cars that just stop on the road and the occupants standing in the road.

We are the only people staying at Oxbow Lodge tonight. It is fairly basic with no electricity. They do (fortunately) have a generator that they turn on from 3pm-10pm and then again at 7am in the morning. They haven’t heard of the internet and so WiFi is clearly non-existent. I have a cellphone signal on my work phone so I am just posting this using that and then heading to bed. Sorry – no pics today because of the lack of signal but I will try tomorrow when we get to our next lodge.

P, S (for doing most of the driving in Lesotho today after the Sani Pass), H, C & K

Mountain Zebra NP Day 2

We were up early and heading out at 6:30am for a morning game drive. We decided to do a longer 4×4 route which turned out to be a lot easier than yesterday’s route. It was rocky in places but was not particularly difficult. We added a few birds for the trip and also added Eland. We did stop for morning coffee at a view point though they did warn you to alight at your own risk.

We were stopped at a waterhole – one of two that actually have water in it – when one of C’s school friends (incredibly they are also staying in the park) pulled up and asked whether we had seen the lion kill! We said no, they told us that a pride had killed a buffalo on the road and told us where to go. We headed off a top speed and sure enough found it. When we arrived none of the pride were eating and we saw a few lionesses and one male lion (and of course the dead buffalo). The females almost immediately headed off up the mountain side and the male was asleep in the shade. None of them eating the buffalo though.

We went back on two other occasions later in the day and while the male was still there, they were still not eating the buffalo. The staff at the camp say that all the cars are disturbing them and that is why they aren’t eating. We will go back tomorrow am to see what has happened over night. It was a great sighting though especially since a few people in our party had yet to see a lion in the wild.

We headed back to camp for breakfast. The chalets have DSTV and so I settled in to watch a masterful SA bowling performance against England, some slept and some went for a walk. Around lunchtime the G’s went to the other waterhole and we joined them shortly afterwards (we being me, S & K). We ticked off a number of new birds for the trip and we are now at 47 after the first 2 days.

Late afternoon we did another game drive and again passed the dam and this time added a lifer to our lists after seeing the African Black Duck. We completed a loop which took us up the ridge of the mountains and to about 2000 meters above sea level. The views over the valleys were amazing. A photo doesn’t really it justice.

Back to the camp for a braai. By the time we were ready to eat though it was pretty cold outside (it never got above 23 degrees C today) and so we all squeezed inside to eat dinner together instead. We really didn’t expect it to be this cold especially since yesterday was in the mid 30s.

Until tomorrow …

P, S, K (because they came out with me midday for a game drive), H & C

Japan – My thoughts

So here are my summary thoughts (in no particular order) about Japan:

They are very organised. Everything runs exactly on time. There are specific places to leave and board trains. The train stops at exactly the correct spot each time.

They are very polite and respectful. They form orderly queues for everything. I think they beat the British for their queuing ability. I am pretty sure we broke rules or laws but no one would ever say anything to you. They probably just thought ‘idiot foreigner’. Bowing is a thing you do regularly. When a train conductor leaves from one carriage to another, he/she turns and bows to the entire carriage. You walk past a cleaning lady in the hotel and she bows to you.

They are incredibly helpful. Even if they can’t speak English they go out of their way to try and help you and communicate to you. They clearly want you to be happy.

They are very neat and tidy. There is no litter around at all. Even though it is pretty hard to find a public bin (some days we carried our empty bottles around with us for hours before we found a bin), there is no public littering. They have trash days when they put out their trash and then even they cover it with netting so nothing blows away inadvertently.

While they might not be litterers, they must be the biggest consumers of plastic in the world. Given how careful everyone else is in the world about plastic, the Japanese seem to love plastic and they don’t seem to recycle most of it either. Everything comes wrapped in plastic and often two layers of plastic. We bought cheese for lunch the other day and the cheese was wrapped in three separate layers of plastic and the biscuits had a plastic outer cover as well as plastic inner cover. They burn their trash using an incinerator so not sure what they do with the melted plastic in the end.

Japanese are rule followers. They always stand a red pedestrian crossing even if there is not a car in sight. We sometimes crossed and then only would they follow. We might have created some lawbreakers!

Their rail system is fantastic. You can basically travel anywhere in the country on the train. If you have read the blog consistently you would know that we often took 6-8 trains a day at some points. In the entire time we were in Japan (just over 2 weeks) only 1 train ran late and then it was only 1 minute late and they made a public apology for it. If you visit Japan, get a Japan Rail Pass before you come. It is definitely worth the money.

For all their technology, they are really backwards in the use of technology especially for things like train travel. You have to have a physical ticket – see our Japan Rail Pass below which you have to show every time we entered and exited. Compare that to London where you can tap & go to get onto a tube or train, it really is surprisingly backwards. In addition, the more outside of the main cities you travel, the less widely credit cards are accepted. You must have cash in those places.

The Japanese love vending machines. There are ones all over the place. Yes I really do mean all over the place. You are never more than 100m from a vending machine. But they don’t take credit card (see point above). You can generally get about 20 different types of drinks from a vending machine and there usually are two next to each so generally 40 different drinks available.

Japanese seem to like their coffee cold and not hot. Even at Starbucks you get asked ‘hot or cold’ every time you order anything. The majority of people are having iced lattes or something similar. The vending machines also always have some form of iced coffee drink. Besides Starbucks, forget about getting a decent coffee though. They are actually the 5th highest coffee consuming country in the world but they prefer to use the “siphon and pour over” techniques for making coffee (drip coffee). Apparently they drink more coffee than tea now but as I said, I reckon most of that is some form of iced coffee.

Japanese love muzak. In the elevators, in the malls, in the hallways of the hotel, outside shops, inside shops, as you’re walking down a random street …muzak playing. Generally it is some classical piano (think Richard Clayderman for those who know him) or some 60s/70s/80s/90s US song. They love Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley etc. Nothing recent or modern out of the US – must be 20 years or more ago it seems.

Japanese love kitsch. You could clearly see it at Universal City. Branded merchandise does extremely well here. Hello Kitty is massive. You see it everywhere. Apparently there are over 15000 Hello Kitty branded merchandise. Disney characters are also very popular. The queues at the World Cup merchandising stands were ridiculously long. You clearly must have merchandise for every event you attend. At breakfast they had the restaurant decked out in a Halloween theme. Christmas adverts already up.

You don’t see overweight people in Japan. They only have 4% of the population classified as obese. They must be the sumo wrestlers only because I never saw any of them. It is probably because they (a) walk a lot (b) cycle a lot (see next point) (c) eat a lot of fish.

Other things you don’t see a lot in Japan are petrol (gas) stations and banks. Besides one bank that I saw in each of Tokyo and Kyoto, I don’t recall seeing a bank. ATMs are prolific but not banks. I also wondered where everyone fills up their cars because you hardly see petrol stations and when we did there were not a lot of people filling up either.

Cycling is clearly the first method of transport anyone considers. They have paid bicycle parking. Cyclists don’t use the road, they use the pedestrian walkways. Even though the roads have markings on them for cyclists, no one seems to ride on the road. Helmets are entirely unnecessary. Never saw anyone wearing a helmet in 2 weeks. Mothers cycle with their children in seats behind them (sometimes even two seats for the children). You would think that Japan would as a result have lots of international cyclists but B reckons its because their legs are too short and their riding style wrong.

M’s pet peeve about the Japanese is they wander around and don’t walk in straight lines. People don’t really seem to be in a hurry ever. They are on their phones incessantly and maybe that is one of the reasons they wander seemingly aimlessly when walking on the sidewalks. It drives M insane. Their phone usage is a thing to behold though. At the restaurant 2 nights ago the man at the table next to us was on his phone the entire time except when he was eating – no conversation with his wife at all.

Japanese must eat out a lot. They have very basic facilities in their homes (from what we can see from the AirBnBs we stayed at) but there are thousands of restaurants around. It seems (from my quick google search) that what is quite common is that people buy pre-cooked food at a market, supermarket or restaurant and take that home to eat. Eating out though is expensive. Fast food will start at around R150 ($10) per person. Expensive restaurants will be very expensive – R3000 ($200) per person could easily be the cost for a good restaurant. The quality of the food is generally very good though. Their sushi is really in a different league to what I have eaten elsewhere but expect to eat sashimi, nigri and maki as the main items. The stuff we get at home isn’t ‘real’ sushi.

Every restaurant has chairs outside. Even if the place is empty they make you sit there first before they give you a table. Not sure if it’s because they just love queues (see point 2) or if it’s because they want everyone to think they’re busy or what. You should expect though to always be made to wait before you get a table.

Japanese toilets are a thing to behold. M has come to love the use of the ‘shower’ facility in the toilet. Don’t know how he is going to cope when he goes back home. Some of the toilets have a place to wash your hand on top of them. Very clever because when you flush the water runs into a bowl at the top and you can wash your hands. That water then flows into the cistern to be used for the next flush. That is a clever form of recycling and I wonder why we don’t have these back home. It really is sensible. The controls next to the toilet seats are amazing though. Still haven’t figured out what they are all for. Every Japanese toilet comes with a heated seat though. You can generally adjust the temperature as well. Now that is what I call unnecessary.

Japanese people don’t seem to feel the heat or sweat much. It was pretty hot and humid the whole time we were in Japan. Yet we would often see people wearing jerseys. Hardly anyone wear shorts. We were sometimes pouring with sweat and they were walking around like they were in Iceland in the winter!

Japanese woman dress extremely well. I don’t think I saw a poorly dressed Japanese woman – regardless of their age. Hair, makeup always done well. It is clear they take pride in their appearance. It was very noticeable and striking. I left this one for near the end of the blog for O’s sake (soon to become M’s wife) but I must admit it was one of the first things I noticed (M was well-behaved though O).

It also seems like there are a lot more Japanese woman than men. The ratio of women:men is 1.05 but it feels much bigger than that. It seems the women are often out and about. In restaurants you will often see tables of women meeting for lunch or dinner but never men. Apparently Japanese young adults are dating less and less. The men are socially awkward and some withdraw entirely from society. They are called hikikomori and they estimate that 600 000 young men (aged 18-30) now fall into that category. Young women are interested in pursuing careers and so dating has now fallen to an all time low. It is a further problem for the Japanese birth rate which is already pretty low at 1.45. Despite knowing all of this, we saw a lot of young families and young children in the main cities especially in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. It seems the older people live outside of the main cities.

Japan is very quiet. Eerily so at times. You wonder where the 140 million people are actually because unless it is rush hour, you don’t really see them on the streets. We saw the most people at the stations and on the trains. During the day they must be in their homes or at their offices and they don’t venture out a lot. But even when they are out, they are quite. They don’t talk loudly and their children are generally very well-behaved. Their cars aren’t noisy (many of them are hybrids) and I think we only heard someone use their hooter once. Once or twice someone on a bike would ring their bell at us but otherwise it is very quiet.

I know that is long but I hope it is worth the read! I certainly have enjoyed my time here and I know B & M did as well. It really was a great experience. If you have the means, I would say give Japan a visit!

P, M & B

Osaka Day 2

The guidebook basically said Osaka isn’t a place to spend any time. If only we had read that before booking two nights here! It is a very modern city with hardly any tourist attractions. Universal Studios is one of the main attractions and that doesn’t hold any attraction for us. The people arrive in their hordes though to come to Universal City. It must be doing very well. It doesn’t seem to change much whether it is a weekday or a weekend either. It seemed as busy yesterday as it was on Sunday. It is also a must-do to dress up to come to Universal City it seems. Minions seem to be a firm favourite of the locals. If you’re not dressed up then the you must at least be wearing bunny ears, Mickey/Minnie mouse glasses, frog or fish headbands. Everyone has either one or the other. It also seems a great place to meet girls if you’re a single guy – seems like 2:1 girl:guy ratio visiting the place.

M woke up at 10:30am yesterday and as we were in no hurry to do anything I was quite happy to let him sleep. We had to go and book our train tickets for today and unfortunately there is a no ticket office at Universal City so we had to go into Osaka. We decided to just go the main train station to do it. Japan for being very advanced in many things, is still a little backward in use of technology for the trains though. Our rail pass is a paper pass and to book a seat on the shinkansen you have to go to a counter to do it (you can’t use the ticketing machines). Unfortunately it seems a lot of people need to go to the counters to do things so there was a LONG queue at the station.

After we had booked our tickets we went to find some lunch. The train station is built next to/underneath/on top off a massive underground shopping mall which also spreads to next to the station (yes I know it confusing but it is actually true). There is a whole complex of restaurants next to the train station and after walking past all of them we settled on a burger place (tired of Japanese food for the moment!). Despite tables clearly being empty inside they still make you queue outside first. Not sure so that it looks like they’re more busy than they really are or to make you appreciate your table more or whatever but it definitely is a ‘thing’ in Japan. The burgers were good though.

I had a call with the office in the afternoon so we headed back to the hotel for me to be able to do that and then after the call we headed out to the Dotonbori region of Osaka. It is an area of Osaka that runs next to the Dotonbori canal and is lined with restaurants and bars (including apparently some of the most famous Osaka ones). It required 3 separate trains to get there. It is one of Osaka’s most popular tourist spots and we can attest to that being true. It was packed with people and a lot of foreigners (most English I have heard spoken since we got to Japan). The area actually dates back to 1615 when a guy called Doton had the idea to build the canal and make the area into an entertainment and shopping area. He actually died before it was completed (a war interrupted the completion) but it was finally completed and it did bring a lot of trade to the area as he had hoped – even 400 years later that remains true!

We walked up and down and around the area trying to find a restaurant we felt like going to and eventually settled on an Italian restaurant. Yes we know we should have probably tried one of the local places but we really just didn’t feel like Japanese food again and so we went for pasta instead. The added bonus was that they had a large screen TV showing the Scotland v Samoa rugby game so we could get to watch some rugby while we ate. I had a seafood pasta which was very good and packed with seafood.

By the time we had taken the 3 trains back again, it was almost 10pm and so we headed to bed shortly after we got back to the hotel.

Until tomorrow …

P & M

Lower Sabie to Letaba

We had a long drive ahead today of around 160 km.  That might not seem long when you can travel 120 km/h but when you average around 30 km/h then it is a 6 hour trip.  We decided to get up around 5:30am and leave when we were ready so that we could do a significant amount of the trip when it was still cooler and good for game viewing.  That turned out to be a really good decision.  Not only did we time it perfectly to arrive at 2pm at Letaba (check in time), it was also getting extremely hot when we arrived (35 degrees) and no animals were to be seen and we were wilting in the car.

The drive from Lower Sabie north to Letaba while a long one does go through some really good game viewing territory. The first bit of the drive was incredibly green and we added numerous additional birds to our trip list.  We also saw a hyena lying in the middle of the road (probably the same ones we saw yesterday am), a honey badger cross the road (first time I have seen that in the Kruger) and two white rhino.

Shortly after the Tshokwane picnic spot I spotted lion. No one else around – just us and them (before some other cars arrived and they saw what we had spotted). And they were active walking north and stopping occasionally to smell the air (like they were thinking about hunting). As the lion were on Helen’s side of the road (and I saw them) she said I had earned the right to go first on the blog sign off tonight. The sighting was particularly good as we eventually counted around 12 lions in total including teenagers and some much smaller cubs too.  Nothing better than spotting a predator yourself when in the Kruger Park!

We also added a lifer today – Mosque Swallow.  It is an uncommon summer visitor to the Kruger. The migrants are very much present in the Kruger at the moment – the number of swallows we have seen is more than I have ever seen before.  So far (by the end of today) we have seen 91 different birds. That is incredibly good for 2 days in the Kruger Park and beats any previous record we might have had. We have gotten much better at birding but the bird life is prolific as well at this time of the year.

What has surprised us is how quiet the Kruger Park is at the moment.  Having only ever come in school holidays for the last 20 odd years, it is a real treat to come when there are so few people here.  At Letaba we are in a circle of about 15 huts and only 4 of them are currently occupied.  Given we don’t have the constraint of school holidays ever again, I can see that this will become a regular occurrence for us!

Until tomorrow

P & H