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; here is part three, about Cape Point and the penguins of Boulders Beach; here is part four, about wine tasting and stroking a baby cheetah in Stellenbosch; here is part five about shark-diving in Gansbaai; and here is part six about the train from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Expect me to be finished with this sometime in 2014.
I know, I know: this is getting silly. We went to South Africa in November, and now it's the following August, and I still haven't finished telling you about it, and trust me, nobody thinks this is more obnoxious and ridiculous than me. Except maybe you. You might. Do you? I wouldn't blame you if you do. I should've just written one big post about the whole trip in December and called it a day, but instead I had the bright idea to break it up into sections so I could do each spot justice and tell you about it properly, which now just seems idiotic because a whole year has almost gone past and I haven't even finished, mostly because these posts take forever and I'm kind of lazy, but also because I've sort of been busy establishing world peace, OKAY? Okay, not really. I just kind of wanted to make you feel bad for a minute. Establishing world peace seems like it would be a lot harder than sitting down and writing about a stupid vacation you took a million years ago, though, so we're gonna go with that if anyone asks.
Anyway, I've got to see this thing through, no matter how ridiculous and contrived it feels like it's become—I've had, like, three different hairstyles since the pictures you're about to see were even taken—but if it's any consolation, a) I'm almost finished, b) this is the last section on Africa—we've got a two-day layover in Amsterdam still to talk about, but I can skip that if you want because it'll mostly be me rhapsodizing about salty licorice—and c) we're about to talk about being on safari! THIS IS THE BEST PART.
See? I'm not lying. This is totally the best part.
It's also the LONGEST part—seriously, it's like a thesis, albeit a thesis containing a larger than usual number of lion pictures—so I'm going to give you a little pause here to find a high-protein snack and what's left of your patience.
Ready? Okay. So after our brief day in Johannesburg, we picked up our rental car the next morning and set out to make the trip up to Kruger National Park, which is about a six hour drive.
We'd heard a few slightly scary things about driving around Johannesburg, so we were careful to take as many precautions as we could. I kept my purse in the trunk so it wasn't sitting out on the seat, we put wallets, phones and cameras out of sight in the glove compartment, and—following the advice of our Johannesburg tour guide Henry—we cracked the windows of our car an inch while driving through smaller towns, so that if anyone did try to smash one, it wouldn't shatter as easily. That sounded counterintuitive to me at first—wait, you want me to open my windows if we go through a bad neighborhood?—but I had to admit that it made sense. You know, I've had a lot of people ask me if we ever felt unsafe in South Africa, and I have to say that we never did. Of course, there's always going to be risks, but traveling in South Africa, for the most part, is like traveling in any other unfamiliar country or large city: you take the precautions you can, you don't do anything stupid, you listen to the locals, and you hope for the best. It certainly shouldn't put you off visiting.
That said, the drive itself was quite an adventure. We passed signs warning us not to pull over because the area was a known "hijacking hotspot" (for someone used to seeing the word "hotspot" preceded only by the word "wifi," this was quite the eye opener) and other signs imploring motorists to "obey the rules or face the fire." We stopped, at Henry's suggestion, at a service station on the side of the motorway, where the largest size of coffee at a cafe called Mugg & Bean was referred to as a "Serious" coffee. I think we should adopt that over here, don't you? Small, medium, large, and Serious. Can I fetch those pants for you in another size, madam? Well, I'm carrying a little winter weight, so you might just want to bring me a Serious.
We went through a town called Limpopo, and had a lot of fun imagining being pulled over by the Limpopo popo. We drove through a few stretches of road inhabited by what Sean coined "loose bulls"—basically just a couple of bulls meandering leisurely down the asphalt—and another stretch where people would just dart out randomly onto the freeway to cross from one side to another. We paused at a tollbooth to hand over our money, and when the boy sitting in there handed us back our change, he asked us if we had any painkillers. "I've got a terrible headache," he said and I felt awful that I didn't have anything on me. I still think about him sometimes.
Five and a half hours into the drive, our GPS went insane. It started trying to make us drive down a closed military road, and then it threw a fit when we wouldn't. Sensing we were on our own from this point forward, we went up and down a different road at least four of five times, looking for the turn-off to the game reserve we were staying on. When we finally found it, we got further directions from the guard in the hut at the entrance, then promptly got lost again a few turns later. Picture us, in our tiny red rental car, bouncing along a dirt road in the dusty African bush, peering at inscrutable wooden signs leading down slightly foreboding tracks. Picture us becoming increasingly frustrated with, in turn, the GPS, the lack of any distinguishable markers, the rapidly dwindling daylight hours, and each other. Then picture one of us glancing up, mid-invective, to see this right in front of us:
A giraffe. A giraffe. Excuse my language, but HOOOOOLY SHIT A GIRAFFE.
I think we sort of laughed and clung to each other a bit. There was a lot of giddiness and a lot of swearing. Here was a giraffe, out in the wild, just moseying along next to our car! There was no-one else around—just us in our silly little rental car in the middle of Africa—and suddenly getting lost felt like the best thing in the world.
The second best thing in the world, however, was spotting an oncoming truck, flagging it down for directions, and finally not being lost anymore. After traversing what felt like the entire Balule Game Reserve, we turned down the well-worn path to our lodge.
Now when I tell you I did a lot of research about safari lodges in South Africa, you're not even going to be able to imagine the level of research I did. You might try and imagine the level of research you think I did, but you're not even going to come close. If there had been an exam about safari lodges in South Africa sometime around last September, I would have aced it. In fact, I'm sort of sorry that there wasn't, because that would have been a pretty hilarious exam and the one thing you can't say about most exams is that they're hilarious, am I right? I mean, Chaucer doesn't even come close. A safari lodge exam would be a blast, even without all the Wife of Bath references you'd get to make.
Anyway, I did a lot of research on safari lodges in South Africa and, more specifically, on safari lodges around Kruger National Park, and what I discovered is that they all pretty much offer the same thing: for your nightly all-inclusive fee, you get three meals a day and two safaris (one in the early morning, one in the late afternoon.) Once I'd figured that out, all I needed to do was find one that a) had delicious food, since we'd be stuck there eating it unless we wanted to venture out and fight a few vultures for a piece of leftover leopard carcass, b) had guides and spotters that came recommended, so we could be reasonably sure of seeing some wildlife, and c) didn't cost an arm and a leg.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Naledi Lodge. I cannot say enough good things about Naledi Lodge, which I am pretty proud of having chosen all by myself, and which I would recommend a hundred times over if you're ever thinking about making a similar trip. (Usual disclaimer: no-one has paid me to say this, asked me to say this, given me a discount to say this, or threatened to read my teenage diaries aloud to my co-workers during an all-hands meeting if I don't say this. I just really loved it that much and want you to stay there too.)
So we pulled up at Naledi Lodge and were immediately greeted by a man in full safari regalia, who ran up to the car and asked us if we were okay. "We were expecting you hours ago!" he said. "Did the map I sent you not help?"
The map you...? Oh, wait, the map? The map? The map I briefly saw as an email attachment called MAP.JPG and then promptly forgot existed? THAT MAP?
Oh well, at least we saw that giraffe.
The man in full safari regalia, who turned out to be Kjell—the owner of Naledi Lodge and our formidable host and guide—reassured us that we were still in time for the 4pm game drive, gave us a few minutes to get settled in our room, and then met us outside in the open-top car for our first venture into the bush.
I don't know how to describe the actual safari part to you except to say that each time we went out on one, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Over the course of six game drives—we did two a day, each three or four hours long—Kjell made it his mission to show us as much as he could. We saw four out of the Big Five—lions, buffalo, elephants, and rhinos (alas the pesky leopard eluded us, which, coincidentally, is the name of my new all-xylophone hipster rock band)—as well as zebras, baboons, wildebeest, hyenas, warthogs, impala, vultures, jackals, kudu, springboks, waterbucks, and giraffes (although none as close as the one outside our car the first day.)
Sadly, we did not see a honey badger.
Back when we were shark-diving in Gansbaii, our guide had told us that "wildlife don't take bookings"—meaning we shouldn't be disappointed if the sharks didn't show up. In Johannesburg, Henry had given us a similarly good piece of advice for our time on safari: "put your bush eyes on." Putting your bush eyes on turned out to be kind of like staring at one of those Magic Eye pictures that were popular in the early 90s, in that you had to let your eyes lose focus a little in order to make out shapes right in front of you. The only difference, of course, is that the shapes you were looking for were actual animals, and not magic sailboats painted sneakily by artists tripping on magic mushrooms.
My bush eyes found you, you.....whatever you are! (Cape Buffalo, if I remember correctly.)
My most successful instance of putting my bush eyes on was when I spotted the baby lion cub we'd been tracking in the undergrowth for a couple of days, returning each morning to see if he'd make an appearance. After Kjell and our tracker Sidwell had been peering into a thicket of brambles for several minutes, my bush eyes suddenly started working and I made out the lion cub's bright blue eyes and the flicker of a cat-sized paw. "There he is!" I whispered. Kjell confirmed it and clapped me on the back. "If you don't want to go back to San Francisco," he joked, "there's a job for you here."
Oh hey, I'm a five-day-old lion cub, and I challenge you to find anything as cute as me in your whole life ever again.
Our time at Naledi passed far too quickly in a wonderful blur, and our three and a half days quickly started to follow a pleasingly familiar pattern. Each morning, Kjell would knock on our cabin door around 4am, and we'd have 15 minutes or so to get ready and meet him out front in the jeep. With the sun not yet up, we'd drive around for a couple of hours spotting animals, and then stop for coffee around dawn.
This also gave us the chance to use what Kjell called "the bush toilets," which basically meant finding the closest tree you could duck behind. "They're all unisex!" he'd joke, as I prayed furiously that I wouldn't bump into a lion while wandering off to answer nature's call.
Aw, come on, I just want a belly rub.
Back at Naledi, we'd have breakfast as a group—Naledi only has a few cabins, which meant there were never more than six of us on the game drives or at meals—then spend the rest of the day reading in the open-air treetop lounge or lying around by the pool.
After a delicious lunch and a few more hours of relaxation, we'd meet up again for the 4pm game drive. We'd drive around in the open-top jeep, following the crackly tips that came in over the radio, then stop around 6pm for my favorite part of the entire trip: sundowners. Every afternoon before we left Naledi, Kjell would ask what we wanted to drink that night, and then, under the setting African sun, he'd mix up cocktails and set out snacks, and we'd hold up our sundowners and toast to another successful day. If I ever make it to heaven, I want it to be exactly like that
Looking awfully happy for someone with such a hastily-made ponytail, missy.
After another hour of animal-spotting in the dark, we'd bump along the trails back to Naledi, where the lit torches at the entrance would welcome us back and we'd have a shot of Amarula, which tastes like Baileys but better, and then gather for a three-course dinner outside, where we'd talk about the sightings we'd had that day.
Of all the animals we saw, the lions were my favorite. Perhaps it was because we'd just lost our cat Charlie and I was feeling a particular affinity towards anything feline, or perhaps I just really have a thing for lions, but it was our encounters with them that were the most unforgettable. Right at the end of our very first game drive, long after the sun had set, we turned a corner on the way back to the lodge to find a dozen lions gathered around a giraffe carcass, their massive jaws stretching and chomping, their rope-like tails swatting the air in pleasure. They looked and sounded for all the world like Charlie when we'd throw the remains of a rotisserie chicken in his bowl. We stopped a few feet away and sat in silence, watching the lions feast, and when we finally pulled away, I thought I could probably have sat there forever. "Let's head back for dinner," said Kjell finally, breaking the silence. "Which hopefully won't smell like that."
Yeah? I ate a rotting giraffe carcass and I liked it.
On our last night, we came upon the lions again—in a different spot this time, the giraffe carcass having been picked clean and left to the vultures—and pulled up right alongside them. They were grizzling here and there and then suddenly one of them—Big Boy, the leader of the pack—picked up his head and started to roar, and the rest of them joined in. Of all the videos I lost when I stupidly deleted everything I'd taken in South Africa, this is the only one I managed to salvage. At the end you can hear me laughing in pure unadulterated joy.
I feel unendingly lucky that we got to take this trip to South Africa and create this bounty of indelible memories. Everyone we met was impossibly friendly and welcoming, and everything we saw was more beautiful and exciting than the last thing we saw, and if you ever have a chance to visit this incredible country, I'd jump on it faster than a lion on a giraffe carcass. And while I do feel that we, as a society, need to collectively agree to finally retire the phrase "I want to go to there," Balule Nature Reserve just outside of Kruger National Park is where, if given the chance, I would want to go. Every single time.
In the meantime, I know it feels as though you've seen a picture of every single animal in South Africa, but if you want to see more—including wildebeest, hyenas, and warthogs, oh my—there are approximately seven squazillion more safari pictures over here. If they're sort of average looking, they were taken by me. If they are ridiculously good, they were taken by Sean, who is lucky I have not printed out that belly-rub-lion picture from above and mounted it over our couch, the only reason being that I'm afraid the lion's giant balls, when reproduced at that scale, would put potential visitors off their dinner.
(Oh go on, scroll back up and have a peek. You can't look at anything else now, can you?)