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USMA Safari

Mike and Kathie Munson, Karl and Sally Ivey and John and Pat LaBelle
Sally and Karl Ivey, Kathie Munson, John and
Pat La Belle, Mike Munson and Camilla
Grimm at the Cape of Good Hope
joined   Camilla and me for a safari in South Africa from May 6th to May 19th 2014. The safari began in Cape Town. The Iveys and Grimms arrived first on May 5th, rented a ten passenger van for the group and drove to the group’s villa overlooking False Bay in Fish Hoek for the night. The La Belle’s arrived late on the 5th and spent the night in South Africa’s “greenest” hotel, the Hotel Verde which featured quite a number of eco-friendly and sustainable policies, practices and gardens. Karl and I picked up the La Belles midday on the 6th (sans the La Belle’s luggage which luckily arrived late on the 7th) and the Munsons later that evening, and then the party began.

View from one of our suites at the villa
Over the course of the next 13 days and nights, South Africa’s history, scenery and wildlife proved a wonderful backdrop for more important purposes – getting to know classmates and their wives better, and sharing priceless experiences. From John La Belle’s 3 years building his house on Ponce Inlet, times with SOG in Vietnam and Pat’s cooking and travels for WellPoint Health Networks; to Karl’s memories of his twin brother Glenn and experiences as a small-town lawyer and now gentleman farmer; to Mike and Kathie’s travels with the military, memories of Mike’s father and years with Edward
Mama penguin protecting its eggs
Jones; to everyone’s children, roommates and classmates (some BOTL ears must have been burning), to times at West Point, and afterwards, stories flowed. At first they burst from us all in a rush. Later, we paced ourselves and like fine wine savored each one. We shared too many memories to even begin a recounting. This recap of a priceless African journey we experienced together will have to suffice.

Even before the Munsons arrived on the 6th, we ate ice cream and walked the streets in little Simons Town, a quaint,
Simons Town
architecturally European burg which is the home of South Africa’s tiny navy. We also visited a penguin colony just a klick south. Penguins tucked under nearly every bush tended eggs or already hatched young. Some introduced us to the raucous braying that rightfully earns the African Penguin the nickname “Jackass Penguin.”

Yvette, our hostess at the villa, recommended we have dinner at the Harbor House, a local seafood Restaurant about a mile away right on the water at Kalk Bay. We took it as a good sign that the place was packed, and the meal lived up to Yvette’s billing. Multiple bottles of fine wine at the equivalent of $4 a bottle didn’t hurt our mood a bit.

Jet lagged, as we all were after our 15 hour (and longer) flights, we woke on the
A view of the Cape of Good Hope
7th to a beautiful sunrise over the ocean like the one pictured above.  We, who were trained by plebe year to clean our plates and ask for more whenever possible, pigged out on the traditional English breakfast of rashers and eggs our hostess, Yvette, had prepared, with add-ons like cereal, toast and jam and yogurt and muscli. Then we set out to Cape Lookout and the Cape of Good Hope, such a big part of western history since the Portuguese arrived in the 1480s.

Padrao of Diaz and Bartolomew
The scenery at the Cape was spectacular. The Cape juts out into the Atlantic like a long finger of rock, sheer cliffs falling away on all sides. We took a little cable car to the viewing area at the top of the cliffs and fell love its name, “Funicular.” From the heights we could see almost all the way back to our villa on the False Bay side of the peninsula and tens of kilometers up the Atlantic coast as well. On the way back we stopped to see the “Padrao” (a huge stone obelisk) commemorating the claiming of the Cape for the Portuguese crown by Bartholomew Diaz in 1488 and the successful voyage of Vasco de Gama around the Cape to the Indies in 1498.

After returning to the villa and dropping Camilla to wait for the La Belle’s luggage, we set out to see Cape Town from the heights of Table Mountain. We took the Chapman’s Peak road, a scenic route carved into a
Chapman's Peak Road
cliff side high above the Atlantic coast, to Hout Bay where we lunched at a nautically themed seaside restaurant called Mariner’s Wharf. There we hiked the waterfront and watched sea lions diving for scraps a local fisherman threw away as he cleaned his catch.

We continued north along the Atlantic coastline, the rocky shore dotted with beautiful beaches to our west and the jagged peaks called the Twelve Apostles to our east. We drove through the upscale communities of Camps Bay and Bantry Bay, hillsides lined with ocean-view villas, before turning
Gondola at Table Mountain
into Cape Town center and winding our way up to the cable car to Table Mountain.

Imagine our disappointment when we discovered that the winds on Table Mountain had freshened and for safety reasons the cable car had just closed for the day. Worse, it was likely to be closed the following day as well. We enjoyed the expansive view of the city spread out below us, but resigned ourselves to the fact that the trip up Table Mountain was no longer possible. We opted to return to our villa to tell tales and drink copiously to drown our disappointment. Camilla had arranged for Yvette to prepare a splendid dinner of Mediterranean chicken, roast veggies, creamed butternut soup, topped off by a sumptuous Malva pudding (we enjoyed left-over pudding for breakfast for the next two days). So heading back to the barn to drink, eat and swap more stories was not a tough decision.
Pedestrian opening water bridge in Cape Town

The 8th was the day we had scheduled a visit to Robben Island, the prison that housed Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he was incarcerated. We had hoped to get in some shopping in after another wonderful English breakfast prepared by Yvette, but the forecast was for a rainy late afternoon, so we moved our 3PM scheduled departure to Robben Island up to 1PM. We arrived at the Cape Town waterfront with time to spare before our boat ride to Robben Island, so we strolled around the modern waterfront shops and located the Belgian restaurant, Den Anker, at which we had reservations that evening.

Robben Island prison
At eleven, we boarded a modern, fiberglass, power catamaran for a half-hour ride out to Robben Island. On arrival, we disembarked and hustled to board a bus that would give us a tour of the island before a separate tour of the prison facilities. Our bus guide tossed a running patter of humor and historic facts at us as we passed historic quarters, a sunken trawler, the island’s church, and gun emplacements dating to the Second World War. The island had been used as a prison and/or leper colony throughout most of its 400 year history. It was an interesting tour, but secondary to our purpose in coming to Robben Island – to see where and how Nelson Mandela lived while there.

In an interesting twist on affirmative action, our guide for the tour of the prison
Guides at Robben Island are former inmates
was a former inmate. We were told all of the guides at the prison are former inmates. He delivered a memorized spiel in such sing-song, natively accented English he was hard to follow at times. We thought the use of better speakers, even if not former inmates, would be an improvement to the tour. Listening carefully, however, we got the gist of what he presented.

He had served 7 years at Robben Island before it closed. He was convicted of illegally leaving and entering the country, rather than any of the terrorist acts so often associated with political prisoners of the time. The list of countries he said he visited while illegally outside South Africa, including Zimbabwe and Angola, left no doubt in my mind that he had received paramilitary training at the hands of communist Cubans, Chinese and others while away and, without regard to the justifications for anti-apartheid terrorism of the time, probably deserved his conviction.

Prisons are not fun places. The prison dormitory’s resemblance to Camp Buckner notwithstanding, Robben Island was clearly not an exception. Spartan conditions, thin bedding, and pictures of inmates pulverizing limestone allowed us to imagine the life Mandela must have had for so many years. That he became such a healing force in South Africa upon his release is remarkable.

Hot chocolate and Amarula warmed us before dinner
Our trip back from Robben Island was not nearly as pleasant as the trip over. The boat we boarded for the trip back was an older, slower, steel, trawler-style vessel which rolled badly as the weather deteriorated and the promised afternoon rain rolled in. Some of us stood on deck as a precaution against seasickness. By the time we reached Cape Town, it had begun to rain hard and we were soaked. The bar of the Den Anker Restaurant was welcome shelter. Hot chocolate made by melting multiple chunks of fine, dark chocolate in hot whipped cream laced with Amarula (a fantastic liquor made from the fruit of the Marula tree similar to Bailey Irish Creme) warmed us before dinner.

Maybe because we started with Amarula, maybe because the fireplace was so
A working winery we visited
warm and welcoming but, in a trip filled with wonderful wine and food, the meal at Den Anker stood out. Even those of us who had been a little green around the gills aboard a rolling boat just a short time before, enjoyed a warm glow as we headed back to our villa for a nightcap and more storytelling.

The next morning we decamped from our villa for a whirlwind 24 hour tour of the wine country around Franschhoek and Stellenbosch before flying to Johannesburg and the second leg of our safari. Franschhoek and Stellenbosh were settled in the 1600s by Dutch Huguenots who had the foresight to plant grapes. If ever an export market
Incredibly intricate timber framing in church
for their crop was not available, what the hell, they could drink it all themselves. One of the many things Camilla and I like about South Africa is the availability of great wines at inexpensive prices.

In the morning we visited a working winery and browsed through the shops in Stellenbosh. We admired the beautiful architecture of this 16th century chapel and, in an it’s-a-small-world moment, met a wedding rehearsal party with multiple ties to West Point and Annapolis. Then we lunched at Haute Cabriere which was built in 1994 to commemorate the 300th
The wine and the dining is underground
at Haute Cabriere is underground
year of continuous wine production by the Jourdan family in Franschhoek. We dined in a cool underground setting, alongside a room full of racks of casks of fermenting wine. The five course meal with specially selected wine pairings was a special treat. We lingered over lunch so long that our next stop was Asara Wine Estate and Hotel where we would spend the night.

Camilla and I had arranged most of the safari so that our group would have exclusive use of the various facilities we occupied. Asara was an exception, and one we had not previously experienced. The luxuriousness of the
Another wonderful meal at Asara
suites fulfilled our expectations wonderfully. Another wonderful dinner and selection of wines almost made for too much of a good thing in one day.

We got up early the next day to catch the plane to Johannesburg.  Once there, we again rented a 10 passenger van and drove another 3½ hours east to the country town of Lydenburg. We spent the night at the Manor Guest House in Lydenburg, walked, purchased supplies for the next three days and visited the Lydenburg Museum with its gold rush and Boer-English wartime memorabilia. It was fascinating just to experience a typical South African small town with all its hustle and bustle before heading into the bush to visit Lapolosa Wilderness, our
Our private dinner at Manor Guest House
daughter Kelcey’s 28 square mile wildlife reserve. A whirlwind of sights and scenes best describes our single day in the wine country and brief stop in Lydenburg. But our gracious hosts Geoff and Caroline at the Manor Guest House opened the bar, bent an elbow with us, listened to our stories and shared theirs. Then they prepared a wonderful private dinner for us, making our passage more than memorable.

Lapolosa Wilderness is in the state of Mpumalanga right on the southern Limpopo border at the start of the Drakenburg Mountains. It encompasses a high plateau with a river, dam and great waterfalls to the south; hills rising to 1900
Our greeting party at Lapolosa
meters on the west; and cliffs on the east. The drive to Lapolosa from Lydenburg is 45 kilometers over two-lane blacktop then seventeen kilometers up rocky roads back into the bush. We knew we were finally in the bush when we were greeted by a herd of giraffe shortly after entering the reserve. The road up the hillside to the main plateau was barely passable for our 10 passenger van, and a rock punctured one of our tires about two hundred meters from the top. Of course, the spare was underneath all our luggage. How many old classmates does it take to change a tire anyway? Unfortunately, we got 
even better at this Chinese Fire Drill as it was an exercise we got to practice again later.
Punctured tire #1 

Visiting Lapolosa is like stepping back in time a hundred years. We would be the only guests during our stay. At the Main Camp each couple had a private, thatched, stone chalet with an expansive view of the sunrise over a lush valley. But the only modern conveniences are a limited number of solar panels, gas for stoves and hot showers, and a sometimes unreliable cell tower.

There, for the last fourteen years, our oldest daughter, Kelcey, has been developing a wildlife sanctuary with the goal of restoring the land to the pristine state it had before the land was stripped of most game animals by the Lydenburg gold rush,
The view from a chalet at Lapolosa
two Boer-English wars (in the second war the Boer Guerilla used the Lapolosa highlands as their last stronghold), and the establishment of numerous little cattle farms. Stone volunteer and guest facilities have been built, forty-five kilometers of twenty-one strand-tall game fencing has been erected and hundreds of kilometers of barbed wire fencing removed. Introductions of giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, impala, ostrich, waterbuck and many more species has begun to complement the indigenous game.

In addition to several other visits to South Africa, Camilla and I had spent two
Vervets looking for a handout
separate years managing the reserve while searching for and hiring managers for Kelcey. We wanted to share a taste of the bucolic African life we had come to love with our classmates. We enjoy the company of Lapolosa’s own troop of vervet monkeys, the howl of the jackals at sunset, the magnificent presence of herds of game animals, and so much more about life in the bush. Somehow, the lack of TV (sometimes we watched videos on a laptop) and “news” simply provided stress relief.

However, I might say “inflict” rather than “share” because the ruggedness of
Grazing on the lawn by the Ed Center at Lapolosa
Lapolosa stood in contrast to the relative luxury we had experienced so far on our safari, and were to experience at Kristi’s Camp in the Big-5 Reserve Makalali which we would visit next. Karl graciously insisted the visit to Lapolosa was most special to him because it allowed him to experience the kind of life Camilla and I had led. I’m not sure everyone else carries that same memory, especially after I dragged most of the BOTL crew on what became known as “the Death March” to Enkosini Falls.

Black Wildebeest on Lapolosa Wilderness 
At Lapolosa, because it is not a Big 5 reserve and there is little danger, we are able to hike to the property without weapons or guides. This is wonderful for the school groups that come to visit from America each summer to experience Africa as it was hundreds of years ago. As a group we took advantage of this when visiting the Bass Dam Creek Falls that plummet 40 meters off a cliff on the east side of the property. We also hiked to see an ancient Bushman rock painting not far from the Main Camp and stretched our legs at will while on game drives in the old Toyota baakie (pickup) we used to traverse Lapolosa.

Babuti in the pizza oven
With the exception of one wonderful supper Kim, the GM’s wife and Lapoloa’s Administrative Manager, cooked and delivered to us, we cooked for ourselves every night. We leaned on Pat’s culinary skills, toasting babuti in the camp’s stone pizza oven, held a traditional braai (anything grilled on a barbie is a braai), and drank copiously while embellishing life stories, before disappearing back into the bush, flashlights in hand to find our chalets in the dark. We woke every morning to glorious sunrises and the scampering of vervets demanding to be fed before taking off to see more of Lapolosa’s sights and game by baakie and on foot.

Enkosini Falls at Lapolosa
Lapolosa is full of springs and rivers and has wonderful year-round creeks and waterfalls all over the reserve. The grandest of these is Enkosini Falls at the southeast corner of the reserve. There the entire Waterfall River, which forms the two-kilometer Buffelkloofs Dam along part of the reserve’s southern border, plummets 15 meters, then 30 meters across a wide stone face into a beautiful swimming hole below. The locals consider it a holy place and trespass to hold baptisms there. I had previously hiked to see the falls and swim under them numerous times with visiting volunteers and really wanted the BOTL crew to see them. So, on the day before our departure, I took Karl, Sally, John, Pat and Mike on the arduous trek to Enkosini Falls.

The hike to the falls is several miles long and across what I had to admit John accurately described as “a world class rock collection.” One must ford the Waterfall River at some point to get to the falls, and the hike back is just as rugged. As we got to the steepest section, a descent to the Waterfall River, the potential for a turned ankle and the prospect of having to carry a classmate (or wife) back out penetrated my thick skull. This was not a group of teenagers or twenty-somethings who could carry me out if I needed help. Later Karl described the trek as a “bonding experience” while John just shook his head. Mike and I agreed that the trek was at the limit of what many who have arrived at our stage of life should attempt.
John's Throne - part of a World Class Rock Collection

We left Lapolosa driving down from the plateau carefully. As navigator, Karl provided to avoid “tire-popper” rocks. Karl performed this service through much of our trip also helping us avoid potholes which in South Africa often become deep sinkholes. We were enroute to Kristi’s Camp in the Big 5 reserve Makalali, but I was
Replica of Long Tom Cannon at Long Tom Pass
determined that our BOTL crew would get at least a quick day trip through Kruger National Park on the way.

Kruger National Park is a priceless piece of South African heritage. By itself Kruger encompasses nearly 20,000 square kilometers devoted entirely to preserving South Africa’s unique wildlife and biodiversity. Recently it has been joined to bordering parks in Mozambique and Zimbabwe to create the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, roughly the size of the Netherlands. To my mind experiencing a private Big 5 reserve without at least seeing Kruger would be missing a wonderful experience, so I put it on our itinerary.

Up close with elephant in Kruger
On the way to Kruger we made a brief stop at Long Tom Pass, the site of a vigorous Boer artillery defense of the highlands from the British in the second Boer-English War. We continued on through the highland timber country into the lowlands where tourist lodges and fruit orchards take over the scenery. Unfortunately, we experienced another tire failure (again our now-repaired spare was under all the luggage). This necessitated a detour into Hazyview for an over hour-long tire repair and set our Kruger drive back substantially.

Undeterred, but wondering how long it would take to drive through just a small part of the park and on to Makalali, we entered Kruger after noon. The drive
Curious zebra in Kruger
through Kruger was spectacular. We were treated to wonderful and close sightings of all kinds of animal life including giraffe, elephant, rhino, hippo, kudu, waterbuck and more. We didn’t get to see lion or leopard but were hopeful we would see those at Makalali. At one point our van was entirely surrounded by a huge herd of African Buffalo. This is a cousin to the Southeast Asian beast of Vietnam many of us were warned never to shoot; or, if forced to shoot, to do so with .50 caliber or better, because M16s or .30 cals would just piss it off. We managed to zip back out of the park just as the sun was setting with only
Surrounded by African Buffalo
minutes to spare before the gates closed. We wouldn’t have traded that afternoon in Kruger for anything, but it did cause us to get to Makalali quite late.
Claudia Schnell and Robin van der Berg were our hosts at Kristi's Camp. They met us at Makalali's gates and led us thirty minutes back into the bush to the camp. 

Makalali is a twenty six thousand hectare reserve, the combined holdings of several owners who have taken down their fences to share traversing rights. Kristi’s Camp is a beautiful tented camp within Makalali, built on decks overlooking a sizeable dam occupied by hippos. We woke to their breathy
The dining hall at Kristi's Camp
snorts and bellows for the next four days. Our individual tented suites were furnished in the style of a luxury English safari, with canopied beds, overhead fans,casual chairs and sofas and tiled showers. Each morning and afternoon Claudia of Robin (or both) would take us out on game drives in a Land Rover specially designed for game viewing. Claudia and her kitchen staff prepared sumptuous breakfasts, lunches and dinners, every one worthy in taste and presentation of a four to five star restaurant.

BOTL Safari Trekkers on the hunt
No matter how beautiful they are, one can almost become jaded at the sight of herds of the commonplace impala at a Big 5 reserve. Impala’s numbers, coupled with the arch-like design on their rears and the fact that a single impala is only a quick snack for a lion, earns them the nickname "McDonalds." As we drove through Makalali we saw lots of herd animals, giraffes, elephant and others. But one comes to a private Big 5 reserve especially to get a chance to view the King of Beasts, and the lion viewing during our time at Kristi’s Camp was unusually good. On our first day Claudia found a pair of
young lion males on a wildebeest kill for us to view. The next day, right at sunset, we encountered a pride of lions consisting of a mature male and two mature lionesses, an immature male and two immature females and three cubs. The memory of watching them lie on a dam wall and listening to the deep rumble of their calls still brings chills. When the got us to leave, the entire pride walked within a few feet of us as night fell. We drove right into this same pride the next morning some fifteen kilometers from where they had been the evening before. Once again the entire pride walked within feet of our vehicle.

Robin tracking on foot - .375 or bigger is mandatory
After Robin tracked rhino on foot into dense brush we got an unusually up-close viewing of a mother rhino and nursing her baby. We also caught two brief sightings of leopards on the way back to Kristi’s Camp. One had what appeared to be a mongoose in its jaws. A leopard sighting is extremely rare and random encounters like these rarer still. It is far more typical to find a leopard sleeping off a good meal in a tree. One guide will find the leopard and radio other guides, and soon guides are lining up to take turns
Released pangolin waddling into the bush
viewing the cat.

Rarer still is a pangolin sighting. Prized for the medicinal properties of their scutes by sangomas (traditional healers or witch doctors) pangolins are worth tens of thousands of dollars. Like rhino hunted for its horn, pangolins are dangerously close to extinction. One afternoon we gathered with volunteers from other Makalali camps to view the release of a pangolin that had nearly been electrified trying to crawl through an electric fence.

Karl, Pete, Mike and John - BOTL Forever
All good things must come to an end. Reluctantly, we left Kristi’s Camp to drive the Munsons, La Belles and Iveys to Hoedsprit for their flight back to Johannesburg and on to the United States. The Iveys would spend another few days visiting shopping and visiting a military museum before their return. The two weeks we four couples of the BOTL spent together was priceless. Reaching back almost fifty years to our plebe year we rekindled memories and forged bonds in new unique shared experiences. It was a time we all will treasure.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful account of a great trip and tour of South Africa and all it has to offer. Well done!