I am recapping, excruciatingly slowly, the two-week trip we took to South Africa last year. Here is part one, about our layover in Paris; here is part two, about Cape Town; and here is part three, about Cape Point and the penguins of Boulders Beach. Expect me to be finished with this sometime in 2014.
If only our trip to South Africa had actually been as long as the time I'm taking to tell you about it, right? Sorry about that; now that I'm knee-deep in commuter traffic and work deadlines and a mild concern about why the check engine light keeps coming on in the car, I keep sort of forgetting that all this gloriousness actually happened. So tell you what, let's collectively remove that vice-like grip of everyday stress for a minute—I find a gentle touch does it; maybe some cajoling words—and take a little trip back to Stellenbosch, which could aptly be described as the Napa Valley of South Africa. Are you wearing your eating pants? Did you bring your ID? Oh please, girl, you need it; you don't look a day over 18.
Stellenbosch is only a 45-minute drive from Cape Town, so we hopped in our rental car on our third or fourth day in South Africa and made our way there, using the map we'd been given at the hotel reception. "On your way," said the woman at the front desk, "you should stop at Spier."
"Spier?" I said. "Why? What's there?"
"Oh, there's a cheetah sanctuary," she said. "You can pay a little bit of money to stroke a cheetah."
And just like that, our next destination became Spier.
The cheetah sanctuary turned out to be a place called Cheetah Outreach, a non-profit that aims to raise awareness about cheetahs—an endangered species—and puts the money it makes towards helping to conserve them in the wild.
Meeting with a cheetah is called a "cheetah encounter," a fact I got a bit of a kick out of when buying the tickets. "Two encounters, please" I said to the ticket-taker, which is not something you say very often in most other areas of your life. In fact, I think I might start adopting it at the movie theater ("two encounters with George Clooney, please" at a screening of The Descendents, say. Hey, I will take any encounter with George Clooney I can get.)
Meeting a cheetah is not unlike meeting a very important foreign dignitary. First, you have to wear a special badge. Then you have to apply hand sanitizer, leave your bag in a locked-up cage, and listen very carefully to which parts of him you're allowed to touch (though I imagine they leave this part out when you're being briefed on meeting President Clinton, BA-DUM-DUM.) After that, it's just a whole bunch of waiting around for a while, before you're finally led into a private enclosure to meet with the VIP himself.
Uh, wait. This is okay, right?
I did used to have a video of me stroking the cheetah before I accidentally deleted everything on my iPhone—it was mostly me staring wide-eyed at the camera, my expression pure and unadulterated HOLY SHIT—but I've lost that now, so you'll have to imagine instead the total silence of the cheetah enclosure, punctuated only by the clicking of the camera shutter and the occasional heaving snores of Sir Sleeps-a-Lot.
There were only four of us in our little group, and we each got about three minutes one-on-one time with the cheetah, plus a minute or so in pairs if we wanted it. Stroking him was much like a stroking a regular old house cat, to be honest, albeit an enormous one who required his own handler. Because we had just lost Charlie a few days ago—and I know this sounds stupid, I know—I found it weirdly emotional to be so close to a cat again, but sort of therapeutic too. Charlie says hi, I whispered to him. In my head, of course.
This cheetah was old—fourteen, I think they said—but there were baby cheetahs frolicking around outside as well. Do you know one thing you're not supposed to do around baby cheetahs? Make the sort of pursed-lip kissy noises you might make at an adorable kitten, that's what. I found this out the hard way when one of the attendants stuck her head out of the enclosure and found me cooing idiotically at one. "Please don't make those noises," she said coolly. "I'm so sorry!" I cried, horrified at myself. "I totally didn't even realize I was doing it."
Whatever, Spier. Stop making your cheetahs so cute then.
After the excitement of that side trip—which included jumpstarting our rental car in the rain, the battery having died somewhere around the time we were getting up close and personal with a cheetah—we made our way on towards Stellenbosch, which is so gorgeous that it cannot even be believed.
Our destination was Rust en Vrede, a winery I'd read had a fantastic lunch deal: steak, fries, and a glass of their glorious red for around $18 each.
I'm not sure if I possess the words to describe just how enjoyable this was. We ate in the wine cellar, which was hugely charming, and the food was out of this world. I'm not even normally a red wine drinker—I prefer a cold, crisp glass of white—but this one was so good that I have been scouring the Internet ever since we got home, trying to find a bottle for myself. And the whole "one glass" thing, by the way, is a total lie; the guy topped mine up three times and counting.
What year is it? Who is the president? Can you say the alphabet backwards?
After a little wander around Stellenbosch, we made our way to the neighboring town of Franschoek, which neither of us knew exactly how to pronounce. We solved this by just saying "Fran..." and then making some guttural noises in the back of our throats for the rest of it. This served us pretty well until we had a chance to overhear some locals saying it so we could copy them. (It's "Fran-shook.")
We stopped quickly at La Petite Ferme, where we bought a bottle of excellent Sauvignon Blanc for, I kid you not, five dollars—I just opened it a few weeks ago and wished I'd bought several more—then dropped in at Haute Cabriere, where they were tasting champagnes. (Oh, really? Twist my arm.) If it sounds like we knew what we were doing, by the way, we totally didn't; we just stopped at places that looked pretty. We didn't do a whole lot of tasting, honestly, partly because Sean was driving and couldn't indulge, and partly because we were still so stuffed from lunch at Rust en Vrede, but the scenery was so mindblowing and the experience so much fun that it didn't really matter.
There are tons more pictures—of cheetahs and wine country both—over here, and I'll be back with my next South Africa installment soon so I can tell you all about how I went cage diving. Oh yeah, I said it: cage diving. With great white sharks. You heard me. What, you thought stroking a cheetah was as brave as I got?