Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Lions

As promised here is the second crazy wild life encounter we had in Kruger National Park.

After the crocodile feeding frenzy we drove to a camp called “Oliphants” to stay the next two nights, and when we arrived we went to check in for our morning hike with a ranger. We checked in and went to sleep so that we could get up at 4:30am for our hike. We met the ranger, hopped in the truck, and drove to the hiking site.

The weather was overcast and moderately windy, so we weren't expecting to see much wild life. But before we even jumped out of the truck we saw a gigantic White Rhino trotting around about 50 yards from us- pretty close for an animal that could do some serious damage to us even being in the truck. We got ready to go and the rangers proceeded to load their large rifles and tell us about how we should be sure to follow them single file (later we found out that the single file hiking was a precaution against one of us stumbling upon a python and getting eaten).

So we took off and about 5 minutes into the hike we found our rhino friend again and he checked us out for a while before spinning around and running off. I will say that for a while we weren't sure if he was going to charge or not, but the rangers assured us the charge would only be a bluff anyways and not to worry- I sure hoped so! As it turned out we just watched and it ran away. It was a very large creature. I imagine that the triceratops dinosaur must have somewhat resembled this beast with its nose horns and everything.

After the rhino we continued to hike down towards a gully wash and you could tell the rangers were talking about something-you just couldn't hear them. We walked maybe another 75 yards from where the rangers had their meeting and all of a sudden we stopped and they pointed at these dust clouds and some lions sprinting away from us towards the creek bed. As we kept watching one of the lions stopped at the base of a large tree and watched us while we watched it. I was actually the first person in line right behind the rangers so I got a great peak at the action. Those lions were as fast as lightening as far as I'm concerned. The rangers said that they saw the lions when they were about 20 yards away from us and that if the lions wanted to they could have been on us in the blink of an eye. Although that has never happened in their experience just that fact got your nerves going. That was the extent of the excitement on the walk, but we had another encounter with the king of the jungle later.

We had just finished watching some hippos and African Fish Eagle's from another wild life blind when we ran into some friends from the morning game walk, and they told us to go check out this elephant with huge tusks down by this particular part of Kruger. We left and actually found the elephant they must have been talking about because this elephant had the biggest tusks we'd seen yet- they were probably 6 feet in length and only maybe 3 feet from the ground.

As we were taking pictures of the elephant trying to push a tree down, we pulled over to the side of the road and rolled both the windows down we usually did. I was positioning myself for a good video shot from the other side of the car from the elephant when I looked back down the road to see a lion running at our car. All I could think to do was put the camera down, sit back in my seat, and yell at Kicker, “there's a freaking lion coming; roll up the windows, both of them!” As Kicker fiddled with the windows desperately trying to figure out how to save our lives by rolling up the electric windows, I got out my other camera and held my breath that the lion wasn't interested in us. Luckily it wasn't and it ran past our car and jumped down the side of the road to the river bed below the road.

Kicker and I looked at each other with wide eyes and began to breath again because this lion literally ran within arms reach of our car. We could have touched the lion as it ran past ,and it scared the snot out of both of us because moments before it came by we were hanging out the window in the way of the lion on the move. We thought we could have died but we later found out that the lion wasn't interested in us.

We looked up the road and noticed some cars stopped, which is usually a good sign that there's something to watch, and we found a lion crouched in the middle of the road obviously on the hunt. It creeped across the road and then sat up like a dog and was looking over the edge of the cliff down to the river below. Kicker looked over the edge from in the car and told me that the lion must be watching and stalking this herd of about 50 impala grazing down there. At that point we knew something cool was going to happen.

The lions started their attack and the impala must have caught on pretty quick because almost before the lion on the road did anything the impala took off running down to where the lion that ran by our car was. The ambush looked like it was set up perfectly for the lions, but in the end they didn't get any kill out of the arrangement. We watched as the lion that passed our car walked back to meet his buddies up the river bed closer to us, but as the lion got to where our car was he decided to come up the river bank towards our car again. As he came up the hill it started its crouching stalk again and was hiding behind a little bush. We looked around and figured it must be hunting this group of guinea fowl just 5 yards below our car. I had the video camera out and I started videoing. That lion looked up at us as if to see if we were ready and then it darted straight at the fowl, and our car consequently, as it dove into the group of fowl kicking up a bunch of dust but not catching any of the birds. The fowl flew away, we got an incredible discovery channel viewing of the hunt, but the lion missed out on dinner. The lion stood there again for a while and looked at our car and then finally went back down the hill to the river bank and lay down on the sand for a break.

Three other lions came to meet it and affectionately nudged him as they came and greeted him and then lay down on the sand themselves to wait for the next hunting opportunity.

It was such an incredible thing to watch and it really makes you appreciate how intelligent these animals are. What incredible creatures! And we were in the right place at the right time yet again. We later found out that some of our friends had been to Kruger 10 times before they saw their first lion and it only took us one visit and we saw an entire hunting sequence- unbelievable!

You guys should all get out to Kruger to enjoy Discovery Channel in real life. We're definitely coming back here before too long. Hopefully some of you will come with us.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Swaziland, Kruger, and a Birthday

We just got back to Pretoria and some internet access- that's why there haven't been any updates lately. The thing was is that we were in some pretty remote places, and while remote means no internet it also means a whole bunch of other amazing stuff that easily makes up for not being connected to the world wide web.

We drove from Pretoria to Swaziland to visit May Allen's aunt and uncle, and it took us all our navigational skills and about 4 hours of our day. It takes a little while to get used to highways in another country; things are just plain different, especially the driving on the wrong side of the road part but also the people crossing the highways on foot. I'm not sure what they are thinking but apparently everyone is thinking that same thing because tons of people run across the highways here.

After dodging the pedestrians we drove to the border of Swaziland and South Africa to deal with the customs there. The South Africa side was easy as we documented with our video camera, but once we got to the Swazi side that video camera almost caused us some problems. The border officer saw that I was taking video and very aggresively asked if I was taking pictures of him. Of course I said no and put the camera down on the floor of teh car. Our friendly border officer then grilled us on why we were coming to Swaziland, when we arrived in South Africa, where we'd be staying in Swaziland, etc. All of these questions would have seemed normal had they not been down with a scowl and a glare from this man's face. As we later found out from Dale, May's uncle, some Americans had been in Swaziland a couple months prior to our visit with CNN and had run some sort of documentary on how the king of Swaziland was exploiting his people. So, obviously, these guys at the border had reason to treat Ameicans with video cameras with some skepticism.

After that encounter the rest of the people we met in Swaziland were great. Dale and Irma, May's aunt and uncle, took us in and allowed us to stay at their house overlooking the "heavenly valley" of Swaziland in the capital city of Mbabane. It was an incredible view. We went to the local hot springs with Dale at 5am to get the morning started and then went around the kingdom to see what we could. With Irma we checked out their nail factory and then picked up some African crafts at the local spot. We only stayed in Swaziland for a couple nights because Dale and Irma sold us on Kruger National Park and set us up with reservations, so we left on Thursday to get over there.

We came in the south gate and drove up to our first night where we stayed at Skukuza camp. On our way in we were greeted by a giraffe walking across the street. We thought that was amazing- little did we know what awaited us the next couple days.

The next day we drove on some dirt roads to a wildlife viewing blind. This blind overlooked two different watering holes with a bit of a mound separating the two ponds. In the one on our right we could see probably five or six crocodiles and some hippos while the water hole on our left had some impala drinking from the water. As we looked closer at the hole on our left we saw that of the five impala drinking from the water one must have gotten too close and was stuck up to its chest in the mud. It was struggling to the point of exhaustion to free itself but it couldn't get itself out of there.

Kicker and I looked at one another and wondered if we were in for some discovery channel action, half hoping the impala would free itself and half hoping the croc would come find it. As we were thinking this, one of the crocs from just beyond the mound separating the water holes worked its way to the impala's watering hole. As it slowly walked to the water's edge and slunk into the water, the impala in the mud got a bit skittish. The croc worked its way over to the impala and clamped down on its front shoulder. The impala let out a yelp and for the rest of the episode was silent and peaceful looking (as odd as that seems). The croc slowly worked its way out to the middle of the pond and worked on drowning and killing the impala until the impala's neck was limp. As he had accomplished this it was as if a dinner bell had rung and all of a sudden these crocodiles that could not see the action were migrating their way to the meal that awaited.

AFter a couple minutes there was a muddy croc feeding frenzy with reptiles spinning, thrashing, and twisting their way to an impala lunch. Two or three would grab hold of the impala with one holding and the others twisting off chunks of bone and flesh. After 10 minutes of these guys churning up the mud puddle the big daddy croc worked its way over. This thing was HUGE! Its head must have been 3 feet wide and its body close to 20 feet in length. It made its way straight into the action and just grabbed that impala away from the others and swam away. It came right towards the blind we were in and started chomping on the muddy carcass trying to arrange it so it would go down his gullet. He tossed that thing all over the place while some other crocs did the same with their morsels. The entire impala minus a leg or two fit in this crocodile's mouth and the only thing keeping it from swallowing were the horns on the impala's head. We thought that these horns might be a problem but that monster proceeded to simply crush the skull in and horns and all. Then it threw its head and throat back and let the whole animal slide down its throat- I guess that's how it got to be 20 feet long! We asked our friends here in Pretoria and they said this particular crocodile must be about 100 years old- truly a dinosaur of sorts.

After the crocs we figured our wild life viewing luck was all used up, but we were quite wrong. The lion story will come next when I get back from working out at Tuks University here in Pretoria...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Swim Meet, Techno, and SHARKS!!!

Well, we finished up the meet with two great swims for Kicker and myself. I had the 50 back and Kicker had the 50 free- as I said before, it was a day made for sprinters with no warm down and hardly any warm up. I ended up second behind my old Stanford teammate Randall Bal who edged me out by a tenth of a second or so. I was surprised at this meet to be going a 23.7 in the 50 with our training regiment, or lack thereof, so I think that it means good things further down the road in Singapore, Stockholm, and Berlin. Kicker's 50 was also a surprise for him. He went 22.6 and got 5th or so and he was happy with it. Honestly it was hard to even think about being anything but pleased with the swimming at a venue this laid back and friendly. It was the friendliest competition I have ever been a part of. I even talked to the infamous Russian backstroker who always gives you the stair down whenever he sees you (hotel, airport, beach, etc), it was a first and hopefully it broke the ice and his habit of shooting you the death stare.

After the racing was over we had a meal and headed out to meet our other friends from various countries out on the town. We first went to go help celebrate George Durant's birthday party and bought him a couple beers that you could probably only find in South Africa, a Hanza and a Black Label. We know George from swimming in the States where he swam backstroke for Tennessee. After we hung out at his place of choice we decided we'd better head off to another place and meet up with, basically, the rest of the swim meet that was out. We headed to a place called 80s and had a blast. This place was packed, hot, and blaring South Africa's best techno. I'm not much of a techno fan but when you're dancing to it with a bunch of new friends from all over the world of swimming you sure sweat a lot.

We bought a couple of the $1.20 beers (yeah, the exchange rate is perfect for Americans right now 10:1) and had a great time. We've actually been here for a week now and haven't even spent $100- not bad! Anyways, we danced until I had thoroughly sweat through everything I was wearing and then we kept at it for a little longer. It was epic to say the least. Everyone was out there having a great time, and if any of the other World Cups are like this I may just have to stay in shape for next year's circuit. This was definitely the best stop I've ever been to, and the fun was just beginning.

During the meet we had talked with Ryk Neethling about what he'd been up to and some of our plans to possibly go on a caged shark dive with Great Whites. Once Ryk heard our plans he went into his story about the time he jumped in the water with 14 eight to twelve foot tiger sharks WITH NO CAGE!!! Well, we thought that sounded pretty crazy, and he admitted it was one of the most unnatural things he's ever done- voluntarily jumping into sharky water, but he told us we had to do it. So we thought it over during the first day of the meet and came back the next day with mixed feelings; I mean, how can you really even begin to think about jumping into water with the notorious tiger shark? The idea actually kept me up a bit that night, but after Ryk figured we probably weren't going to call his shark guide friends he picked up the phone and called them himself. They said they'd be happy to take us out and that they'd do it all for free! Usually it's $200 USD but they insisted. They picked Kicker, Randall, Yolana, Sam, Chanelle, and I up from our hotel and drove us about 30 minutss to Rocky Bay. We quickly got our stuff together and got into the boat.

Now the weather wasn't exactly cooperating and while the sun was starting to break through the clouds, the wind was picking up quite a bit. There were white caps and some pretty big waves out there, but we hopped in the duckie and motored out to the baited spot about 8km off shore. On the way it was a rodeo ride as we sat on the inflated rubber sides of the boat and held onto the rope as the boat sped up the face of waves and down the other side. We were getting drenched and feeling the effects of the wavy ocean. About half way through our trip out there Sam started to feel a bit woozy and couldn't help but puke over the side of the boat. We thought it was just her at this point- little did we know almost all of us were in for that treat later.

As we got out to the dive spot the dive master, Marcus, jumped over board and quickly started baiting up the buoy while sharks were swimming all around him! As we watched him with the stationary boat and began putting on our fins, masks, and everything else, the ocean started to get to us again. Once we'd finished gearing up the sea sickness pushed us past any fear we had of hopping in the water because we figured just getting in the water would settle our stomachs- we were wrong but it was a great trick to get us in the water. We figured after the dive master jumped in and didn't get eaten it must be safe enough and after the trip out we had better not chicken out. So we jumped over the side and put all our faith in this guys word the the sharks would devour our entire bodies.

Far from it! Once you put your mask below the water line, there must have been at least 15 sharks circling within feet of your body. As we learned most were black tipped reef sharks and the others were dusky's. Now when I say only feet away from you, I mean, literally 1 foot away or touching you. In fact at one point a shark swam from behind me right between my legs, bumping me as it did so, and as it swam away I felt comfortable enough to touch just behind its dorsal fin and pass my hand down to its tail. It didn't do anything but keep on swimming. It was so smooth to the touch. I would say that the scariest moments were when you first got in that all the sharks are swimming around you and they do these very sharp turn from 15 feet below you and start swimming straight at you. You can only hold your breath and hope they don't want to taste you and you stare at them all the way until they gently turn away at the last moment to go around you. Mark, our photographer and guide, explained later that they when there's food in the water they think you're there to check it out and they figure you're just enjoying the same feeding experience that they are, so they don't want to eat us. As the sharks were on average about 6 feet in length its a good thing they didn't want to eat us because it seems they could have done a pretty good job.

It was truly amazing to be in the water with these amazing creatures and feel comfortable enough to touch them. They are such graceful swimmers and their eyes are fascinating to look at as they swim by you. They are completely gray and emotionless yet mesmerizing at the same time. we didn't see any tiger sharks, but the other boat that was out before us did. It would have been cool but nothing would have ruined the experience, not even the sea sickness that came on after about ten minutes bobbing up and down in the water.

After trying to fight the urge to throw up while watching the sharks my stomach won the battle, and I puked up almost every bit of my breakfast straight into the ocean and the water my friends were snorkeling around in- I know, I'm a good friend. While snorkeling we were essentially just alternating between puking and shark viewing- a great combination. At one point, the dive master saw I was feeling a bit funky and asked, "how are you doing?" to which I replied, "I just puked my guts out but I'm having a great time!" It truly was such an amazing experience that nothing could possibly come close to making it anything other than the experience of a life time. How many times will I ever get a chance to dive with a guy who has been on Discovery Channel's Shark Week for free in South Africa? AMAZING!

We posted the pictures from the dive and if you're ever down in South Africa you must go look up Mark and Gail for a shark dive (www.bluewilderness.co.za). They've been at it for over ten years and they never had the slightest problem- it'll be something you'll never forget.

After the dive, Mark and Gail took us over to their house and made us lunch as they finished making copies of the underwater pictures that Mark had shot. We played with their daughters, then jumped back in the cars to head to the marine park in Durban. They know everyone there so we did that for free and got a personal tour of all the sharks and fish there in the aquarium from Steven, Gail, and Mark, some of the most knowledgeable people possible. After that we were beat and extremely hungry so they dropped us off at the hotel and we ate and passed out of exhaustion. An incredible 24 hours of South African adventures and parties. What a trip and we haven't even been to Swaziland yet.

Luckily Dale just got back to us with directions to their farm, so we leave in the morning and more updates are on their way.

(way to go if you read this far...)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

From Pretoria to Durban...

Since we last updated the blog we've jumped cities within South Africa and come to the beach city of Durban. Before we left though we had a great couple nights with Clive, Hanlie, and Daniel in Pretoria. They cooked us a barbeque of South African food and we ate it outside in their back yard at their family dinner table. The weather is nice enough where they eat regularly outside- it's great. The night consisted of everyone enjoying red wine, barbequed meat, and great conversation. We had some great long laughs where you can hardly breath and your face starts to hurt along with the some toasting of one another and stories from past National Team trips (Daniel is quite interested in our swimming lives as professional swimmers). I must say it was a unique night, and as Yolana said it truly was a "memorable night."

Since that night we've flown to the meet and swum a couple sessions. The flight was an easy 40 minutes in the exit row again, this time thanks to Yolana who worked the airline workers for us. As we were landing Kicker and I got a great overview of the city and the beaches. Durban's Indian Ocean looked pretty stormy when we were flying in, but you could see how the waves could be fun to ride on a more organized day of waves; that plus the warm water could make it a fun destination. Our shuttle driver from the airport to the pool showed us his favorite surfing spots at "North Pier" and some some other pier I can't remember the name of, but from our hotel room on the 16th floor we can see all the piers and surfers out there every day. I think I'd take the California surf with the Indian Ocean warmth after watching the waves from the past couple days- not that impressive, but still fun to see people out in the line up on the other side of the world.

Yesterday was the first day of competition and we did pretty well. I can't wait to show you guys all the video but we just don't have the time or resources to put anything together on the road here. Internet connections are hard enough to come by when you're not uploading a HD video. Anyways, last night Kicker had a great 100 free and got 5th with a 48.8. Kicker said he felt good until that last 25 and thought it was quite a good showing considering the fact that we've probably been surfing more than swimming lately. I swam the 50 fly and the 100 back last night finishing 4th and 2nd respectively. On the 50 fly, I thought I was going to win considering my lead at the 25, but with a short stroke into the 25 wall that ended up cutting my hand I ended up fourth. Blood was dripping down my hand all the way to the doctors room. In the back Randall just plain swam a great race and beat me by a second or so; I went a 52.02 and am pleased with that time.

Tonight I have the 50 back and Kicker has the 50 free- what a great day of sprinting. No warm down necessary and that's what every swimmer enjoys. We'll let y'all know how it goes.


Monday, October 13, 2008

The Beginning of our Journey...

This is Peter with a bit of an update from our travels so far. It's taken a while to get things up and running as far as this blog goes because: 1. it took 30 hours to get here, 2. we stopped into a farm in Pretoria the first couple days we were here and they didn't have internet, and 3. we've been a bit lazy just trying to conquer the jet lag.

But we're up and running now. It's been a great trip so far even though we're only a couple days into it. We've boarded our flights and traveled from LAX all the way to Heathrow in London, only to complete the half way mark of our journey. We hung out there in a private lounge that some credit card of Kicker's gave him the priviledge of visiting. Then we boarded our next plane from London to Johanesburg- only about 12 hours long. The first leg of the flight was great since the plane was basically empty which allowed me and Kicker to jump into full rows of empty seats and lay down to catch 8 hour "naps" on our flights to London. Then on the flight to Jo'burg we got an exit row which helped us stretch our legs out. Thanks to Kicker's sweet talking the ladies at the South African Airways desk put in a good word and got us a good seat.

Since arriving in South Africa, our friend Yolana picked us up with her friend, Sam, and we went to their other friend's place in the country side just on the outskirts of Jo'burg. We hung out there for a day and a night taking naps, playing tennis, and watching rugby (the host family's son's were playing in a televised match). I'm not much of a rugby fan, but it's sure easy to get into a sporting event when you watch it with player's family members. It was actually a really close game and luckily our host family's son's team won the game.

The second day at the farm outside Jo'burg we decided to visit a game park about 5 minutes away and we got to see some amazing creatures and a wondrous cave. There are some pictures on the slideshow, but the photos cannot do justice to what these animals look like in real life. We got there just after the game park was having its feeding time, and the lions, wild dogs, and cheetahs were out and about. The lions were probably the most active. There were around 8 lions with one tearing away at the carcass of water buffalo or something. At one point a female lion tried to sneak a bite away from the male and there was a bit of roaring and clawing. I think the lioness decided it'd just wait it's turn.

After the game park we hopped back in the car and drove to meet our host family in Pretoria. On our way there we went to see the son of our host family play in his high school symphony rehearsal. It was a pretty fun event mostly because it was in another country but also because it was incredible hearing about 400 hundred kids playing instruments and singing to the tune of Superman. If it wasn't so hot and Kicker and I weren't jet lagged we definitely would have stayed awake the whole time. Bascially, we desperately needed the coffee at the break. It was, honestly, a good show.

After the show we made our way to the family's house we were going to stay with and met Hanlie and Clive. They are very generous and have been feeding us like kings. We are staying in a pool house all by ourselves and their house is quite remarkable. They designed and renovated it with help from their daughter who is a very accomplished artist. We loved everything about the pool house except for the monstrous, hairy, mean looking spider we found crawling around the tile floor last night. I was coming out of the bathroom walking back to the bed when I saw a "rain spider" (as we later found out it was named) working its way past my bed on its way to Kicker's bed which was on the ground. Of course we are in Africa and to my knowledge anything that looks mean in Africa probably is mean in more way than one. So we took appropriate action and got out the camera as we continued to yell and scream about how "freaking big this freaking spider was." After a couple pictures where the spider reared back on its hind legs, we decided it probably didn't like us and it was time for us to flip flop crush it to death. So Kicker grabbed my sandal and was trying to pick it up to dump it off outside when he decided that his strategy was just too risky- after all the spider was just about the size of the flip flop. After Kicker dropped the flip flop while I was yelling at him, I picked it up and smeared that spider all over the floor.

Today when we woke up at 12 noon South Africa time, we found out from Hanlie that our friendly spider was just that, totally harmless and in fact a good omen, much like the lady bug. Well, we smashed it on the tile floor and didn't really care about that good luck mumbo jumbo. That's what I'm going to do any time I see a spider the size of my hand rearing up on its hind legs, I'll tell you that much. Either way we survived the night and had a good work out with the club team at Tuks University here in Pretoria. Friendly people but the pool is about 84 degrees and we're at about 55oo feet in elevation- it's hard to breath to say the least. We did a pretty easy work out and didn't worry about impressing the coaching staff. Maybe we'll do that in Durban.