It was getting into the eighth hour and I was starting to get a bit fidgety. I’ve done seven-hour flights, even eight, but I was stuck in economy on a flight to South Africa, and we were only halfway there. At eight hours! Can a human even exist for that long a time in a cramped position, with nowhere to go except up a narrow aisle, stepping over outstretched legs, hoping not to trip in the dark. Sitting beside me, and being very calm, was my youngest daughter, Caroline. Her eleventh grade trip, something I promised each daughter, would be to anyplace she wanted to go. My oldest chose Paris with a quickie Chunnel train to London for an overnighter.
After a few calming mantras, and movies on demand, we were just minutes from landing at Johannesburg. There, we’d switch to our final flight to Cape Town, the mother city, so to speak, of this booming country that has become a modern tourist destination in just a short time. And yet, the country’s ways are still tribal; there is still a great divide between the “have’s” and the “have-nots,” more so than seems fair.
On a tour of a township outside Cape Town, called Langa, we saw the poorest of the poor, existing on whatever scraps they could find, but then celebrating Good Friday in their good clothes with arms outstretched to praise God. Our tour driver, a gentleman named Thandis, asked if we’d like to see a service in the local church. We didn’t hesitate. The faithful danced in the aisles while their babies slept on shoulders. One entrepreneurial lady, named Vicky, created a bed and breakfast in the area, and with the donations of tourists like us, takes the local children on cultural excursions, to places like Robben Island where Nelson Mandela had been incarcerated. It’s a way, says Vicky’s daughter, for the children to know there is a better life out there and to stay in school, since only those children who show good grades on their report cards get to go.
That experience was one I never thought would be on our agenda. We were never afraid on our tour and wherever we went, people were very friendly, and allowed us to ask questions about their lives. Like Thandis told us, the people have always lived this way, and they know no other life. Despite the somberness of the tour, I was glad to have experienced this with Caroline.
But it was time to get the reason we came. Two more flights to the northeastern part of the country and Kruger National Park, home to the big five: leopard, lion, rhino, elephant and buffalo. And home to malaria, hence our travel medicine. (As I said to Caroline right before our deposits were due, “Are you sure? South Africa?”)
Kruger Park is an immense preserve that features thousands of animals that come out at all hours of the day and night. We stayed at Africa on Foot, a camp that featured drives into the jungle in the evening, and morning walks with a guide who carries a really big rifle. The weather was perfect, and as their winter was just starting, the temperatures were like our spring..a really good spring. Nights featured a gentle cool breeze, especially welcomed since there is no A/C at the camp, let along electricity, and hot water. As Caroline said to me when we arrived, “I guess I can’t straighten my hair.” I replied, “I think not.” (However, in fairness to Africa on Foot, they did allow us a bit of electricity in the evening for a few lights, but their energy reserves were small, and plus, they wanted to encourage their guests to “unplug”).
The safaris were an adventure well worth the marathon plane ride! We got to see elephants, zebras, giraffes, impala, and chase what we heard were lions on the run. With walkie-talkie in hand, our guide, Rein, drove us over bumpy terrain to get to this spot or that spot where something magnificent was spotted. Other guides driving in their own vehicles with their own group of tourists would call to each other as an animal was spotted. Then back to our camp for some conversation with the other guests, a hearty meal, and a nap, or circle time around the fire, depending on the time of day.
One particular morning, on a walking safari, we headed to the watering hole. Anyone who has seen the Disney movie, The Lion King, knows that the animals LOVE the watering hole. And, this morning, about 15 elephants were having a ball. A few of the males were showing off for the females and tossing their trunks at each other, another pushed a foe out of the way, and two others wrestled behind the bushes. It was quite a morning. And here we were, on foot, only about 200 feet away. But as our guide said, “As long as they don’t fear us, and we keep quiet, we’ll be okay.” Believe me, we even breathed with great quietness.
We were gone for a total of nine days, and the trip was really planned around what Caroline wanted to do. On days we didn’t have a tour, she slept in, when we were in Cape Town, we visited the green market for the best souvenir prices (haggling is welcome AND expected), and if she wanted to get “take out” we did just that. I was just amazed that we were where we were, what felt like another planet actually, with a bit of Jurassic Park thrown in. The food and the service were impeccable, and despite my annoying habit of asking everyone what time it was (I’d forgotten my watch, and time was all thrown off), every staff member was patient and kind. At every request, we’d hear, “My pleasure, M’am.”
Two things I’d like to recommend: first, consider a trip to South Africa for just it’s “out of this world” experience; and, second, take a solo trip with each of your children, to the place of their choice before they go off into the world. What an eye-opening experience for my teenager to know that there are places out there where the cell phone and the internet are not king. But, the title actually belongs to a four-legged creature with a roar that even miles away, sends shivers down your spine.