Victoria Falls

December 19, 2012

Today is our last full day in Africa. We’ve experienced so much – from wine tours to scenic drives to leopard, giraffe, lion, rhino, and elephant encounters – that it feels like we’ve been here for a lifetime. Yet, it’s been so magical that it feels as if no time has passed at all.Leopard

We’ve been completely present here in Africa – no email, no Facebook, no cell phones. This is the longest period of time I’ve been “unplugged” and yet, I feel entirely connected. Monkey babies

We began our day with an excursion to Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The width, in conjunction with the height, of Victoria Falls forms the largest sheet of falling water in the world. The spray from the falls often rises more than 1,300 feet. We’ve been able to see the spray from miles away since we’ve  been in Zimbabwe. Victoria Falls

The falls truly are spectacular. We walked about a mile and saw the continuous flow of water the entire length of our walk. In some places it felt like the water was pouring uncontrollably over the edge. In other places, the flow felt more controlled, more consistent. Victoria Falls

Feeding into the falls is the Zambezi River, which looks like a huge, still, flat, body of water. . . until it reaches the edge and forms Victoria Falls. Vic Falls Zambezi

We saw a surprising number of people tempting fate, ignoring the danger warnings, and hanging near the edge of the viewing points. I didn’t experience any fear, but I do have great respect for the power of nature. Watching an elephant knock down a tree directly in front of us and hearing a lion’s roar from nearly 8 kilometers away – all in less than 24 hours – gave me an even greater reverence for nature. IMG_2950

Vic Falls Warning Sign and People

We spent a decent amount of time at Victoria Falls. I found myself spontaneously meditating several times. The sound of the water, along with the balance of beauty and strength, absorbed me. The quietness of my mind was punctuated by the sound of water crashing into the river below.

We learned about geographic changes to the falls in the past, as well as some forthcoming. Each time an island or piece of land falls down with the force of the falls, it changes the landscape and flow patterns of the water. It can take many lifetimes for this to occur, but as our guide described the developments, it was easy to look out at the falls and clearly see what he was describing.

After getting sufficiently soaked from the spray of the falls, we turned to head back to the lodge. On our way out of Victoria Falls park, we came across a large troop of Baboons. We didn’t seen any of the infamous, mischievous Baboons when we were in Cape Town and those we saw during our stay at Lion Sands were not in direct contact with humans. The baboons at Victoria Falls park have a lot of contact with humans and therefore can be quite. . . interesting.

We hadn’t expected to see the baboons, so I was surprised to turn the corner and see a gigantic male, lying spread eagle, with a smile on his face, taking care of some sexual urges, adjacent to the sidewalk. As I turned my head, I saw we were surrounded by baboons. Some of them jumped from tree to tree as we walked by, others approached us on the sidewalk. One baboon was not happy about having his picture taken and jumped out of a tree toward the head of the woman who had a camera in his face.  IMG_9987 IMG_9993 IMG_9998

We left the baboons and boarded our van back to the lodge. As usual, my friend and I weren’t ready to go back to the hotel, so we asked the driver to drop us off at the artists village. The moment we stepped off the van, we were surrounded by artists showing us their works.

I met a man named J.J. who carved a beautiful bird statue out of stone. The man next to him had made various stone sculptures including elephants, leopards, figurines. I wanted to purchase dozens of them. Speaking to the artists and seeing the results of their hard work was amazing. I envisioned carrying my luggage, which had already increased by one duffle bag, during the remaining three flights. Unfortunately, I had to be selective with my purchases.JJ Stone Birds

I bought two stone statues and then went inside a building where dozens of women were selling goods. Some locals had advised us to support the women as much as possible because “they’re the ones who take care of and feed the children.” We took their advice to heart and spent a great deal of time with the women.Wood spoons

I ended up purchasing several sets of carved wooden serving spoons, some wood dishes, stone dishes, and necklaces. Necklaces

At one point, I looked over at my friend and laughed. She had at least 20 handmade bags draped from her arms and was surrounded by women holding up dozens more bags. “Make a decision!” one of the women commanded, jokingly. My friend’s “decision” ended up including 11 bags and several other items she purchased as gifts.

With our hands and our bags full, and our wallets empty, we caught a ride back to the lodge. We laughed as we spread out all of our purchases on our beds. How will we get all of this home?!?dish

Spoons

As most of our days on this trip have been, today was jam packed with activities. Fortunately, we had time to grab a quick bite and a cocktail prior to our sunset river cruise on the Zambezi. We’ve made some good friends on this trip and it was fun to be reunited with them during the river cruise. Everyone was in a celebratory mood, enjoying every last moment of our time in Africa.

When we boarded the boat, we light-heartedly asked for clarification about which direction we’d be traveling. Earlier today, we witnessed the force of the Zambezi River as it rushed over Victoria Falls, we reminded our captains. They quickly soothed us with unlimited cocktails and some appetizers.

As we cruised around the Zambezi, we saw a baby crocodile lounging on the river bank. We were able to pull the boat fairly close to shore so we could observe the little croc for a while. Baby Crocodile

As we continued up the river, we came across several hippos. Our guides informed us that we couldn’t get quite as close to the hippos. They reinforced what we learned at Lion Sands – hippos are very territorial and can become aggressive if you enter their territory.  We watched the hippos from a safe distance and then cruised around the river some more.Hippo

We also saw impala prancing along the river banks and some birds we hadn’t previously seen. Impala

Bird

By the time our river cruise concluded, everybody on board had more than enough drinks. Our next activity was to take part in a special dinner, featuring traditional African food, dance, and drumming. Rather than get dropped off at our rooms, we asked the driver to take us all directly to the Boma, where our dinner would take place.

We were the first ones to arrive at the Boma, so there was only one thing to do – have some drinks at the bar, while we waited for the restaurant to open. The remainder of the night was exceptionally entertaining. We sat at a large table, with the friends we made on the trip. At the instruction of our server, we blindly drank the most disgusting drink any of us had ever tried. We laughed at our ignorance afterwards. “We should have known it wouldn’t be good when he said, ‘don’t smell it’,” our new friend, Ben, reminded us.

We ended up turning the disgusting drink into a phenomenal people-watching game. Each time people sat down to dinner, we watched their faces as they too blindly drank the disgusting drink. It was hysterical to witness the domino effect of their expressions as, one-by-one, they tasted the drink.

The food was served buffet style and there was plenty of it. There were meats and stews that were new to us. Having been adventurous with the drink, some of us were a bit more reserved with the food, veering away from things like the worms. Nonetheless, there was great variety and we were sufficiently fed and hydrated.

As we neared the end of our meal, a group of drummers and dancers came out and performed in the center of the room. Boma Drummers IMG_3162

When we finished our meal, they handed everyone in the restaurant a drum. Have you ever walked into Guitar Center on a Saturday afternoon? Imagine a couple hundred people banging on drums at the same time.

It sounds as if it could be painful, but it was hysterical and a lot of fun. It was amazing to witness how everyone – no matter their age – became a child when they had the drum on their lap. Nobody waited for instruction nor a “go” signal. Everyone just started banging away. Eventually, the leaders reigned us in and had everyone in the restaurant drumming at their command. It was a blast.

When we got back to the room, we looked at our luggage, alongside our numerous additional bags of gifts, and laughed again. We’ll pack up tomorrow. It’s time to get a good night’s sleep. We have 48 hours of travel ahead of us and tonight is the last time we’ll be able to lie in a bed until we get back to Los Angeles.

Traveling To Zimbabwe: Lessons Learned From The Animal Kingdom

12/18/12 

male lion Leaving Lion Sands was exceptionally difficult. Our time in the bush was remarkable and enlightening. Being among the animals, observing their behavior in their natural habitat, with a knowledgable guide, was a spectacular way to continue to learn about and appreciate the animal kingdom.

There seems to be a lot of order in the bush. Everything these animals do and consume has an important purpose and is paramount to the survival of their species and others. There is no waste.

Things “work” in the bush. We learned about various animal calls that signal a predator is in the area. The waterbuck call we heard alerted waterbuck – as well as other animals that could be in danger – that there was likely a leopard in the area. Birds and monkeys also have sounds they make when they encounter other animals. There are many layers of communication in the bush, each working together as a system that feels more sophisticated than the internet.

Elephant CrossingThings appear to be more organized than we humans are used to. I inquired about the elephants: “Why does it seem like they have a predetermined plan that they’re all aware of and on board with?”

“Because they do,” Landon replied, shortly before explaining how elephants communicate utilizing various frequencies that we cannot hear.

The magnitude of the experiences we had in the bush makes it feel as though we should be able to overcome any challenges we face. If people begin to tune in more to each other and their environment, to communicate and cooperate the way these animals do, the world will be much better off. That’s something I think many of us know intuitively, but witnessing the potential every day helped solidify it.

Big elephant lookEvery now and then today, somebody would exclaim, “We saw an elephant knock down a tree!” – ensuring we all remember the mind-blowing experiences we shared. As we ventured into the city of Johannesburg last night, we wanted to make sure we didn’t forget our time in the bush. We’ve been supporting each other in this mission to remember the feelings, the lessons, the beauty, the grace, and the strength we’ve witnessed during the past few days.

We didn’t have to think about anything when we were at Lion Sands. All meals and drinks were included. We were told when we needed to show up for meals and game drives, and had plenty of time to relax in between.

The bustle of the airport, buzzing with holiday travel, lugging our bags around, standing in long lines. . . It was quite overwhelming. Our night in Johannesburg was a shock to the system. We weren’t ready to be in a city again and we couldn’t wait to leave.

This morning we boarded a flight to Zimbabwe. We’re starting to feel the impact of taking 9 flights in 14 days. Smart carts, customs, baggage weighing stations, passport check points, transfers from airports to hotels. . . It’s exciting at first, but as we near the end of the trip, there are times it feels exhausting.

“I’m so happy you’re here!” I’d say to my bags any time I felt the weight of carrying them around. I’m truly grateful that none of our luggage has been lost during all the shuffling. It’s been a good reminder that any discomfort we’ve faced has been the result of something good. Another flight equals another mind-blowing destination. Less sleep equals more adventures. I continue to remind myself of this until I’m once again overcome with the excitement of day one.

We arrived in Zimbabwe around 1:00 pm and checked in at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. The lodge is very nice, overlooking an active watering hole. We were still a bit rattled from spending last night in a big city and found it harder to settle in here.

After lunch and a cocktail we decided to embark on another adventure. We visited the activities desk at the lodge to get a sense of our options. We chose to take a “sunset wine train” excursion to the Victoria Falls bridge. It turns out this was a fantastic decision.

We had a wonderful time, as the train leisurely took us through a rainforest, while guides pointed out monkeys and warthogs. We watched artists carving wood and stone along the side of the train tracks. Warthog Zimbabwe

When we got to the top of the Victoria Falls Bridge, we learned a bit about its history. The bridge was part of Cecil Rhodes’s plan to build a railway from the Cape to Cairo. The railway never made it that far, but the bridge still stands, connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia. IMG_9838

As sunset neared, our wine train hosts opened a gigantic bottle of champagne and poured unlimited refills. With our champagne in hand, we watched the sunset on one side of  the bridge as a rainbow formed above the falls on the other side of the bridge. It was one of those moments that felt like a fairytale. Champagne at The Bridge

Rainbow Falls

rainbow fall

Sunset

We marveled at the fact that we drank champagne in “no man’s land” – the patch of land between Zimbabwe and Zambia. We smiled each time we walked back and forth along the bridge, venturing in and out of two countries, while watching the sunset and rainbow over Victoria Falls.

We’ve been in three countries today – South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. Not bad considering we only took one flight. Countries IMG_9854

The Elephant That Knocked Down A Tree and The Giraffes That Bid Us Adieu

12/17/12 

Big elephant lookThis morning we embarked on our final game drive of this trip. It felt sad, knowing our time here is coming to an end. The adventures we’ve had seem like dreams. Even as they were happening, the experiences have been so magnificent and surreal, they were hard to believe. The mood in our vehicle felt appreciative this morning. As a group, we were quieter than previously, absorbing every moment. It was as if we were collectively trying to extend time.

This morning felt serene, the bush quiet following last night’s storm. The first animal we saw was a sleeping rhino, which further punctuated the stillness of the day.

Eventually we came across a troop of baboons playing in a tree. Last night’s rain water fell from the leaves as they scurried around. The babies were jumping from branch to branch until the dominant male determined it was time to move on. He rounded up the troop, chasing the other baboons as needed, until they formed a line along one of the branches. We watched them walk away in single-file formation.Baboon Family Tree

While we were observing the baboons, an adult hyena came down the hill. One of the biggest misconceptions I had, based on documentaries and movies I’ve seen, is that hyenas are ugly, vicious animals. The babies we saw during our second drive were adorable, playful, and full of character.

Somebody else asked about the common bad reputation of the hyena. Landon explained that they’re quite nice animals, very social in nature. Like other wild animals, when it comes to basic survival needs, hyenas do what is necessary. Sometimes hyenas travel in packs, when they hunt or are fighting off predators – these are the images we often see portrayed in the media. However, our experiences of hyenas in the bush would portray them as calm, curious animals. Hyena

We continued making our way through the winding paths of the bush until Eddie signaled something to Landon. Eddie and Landon didn’t tell us what animal we were tracking, to minimize disappointment in case we didn’t find the animal in the end.

As we progressed through the bush, I began to smell the distinct odor of elephant dung. I had a feeling that we were tracking elephants, but we drove for quite some time before we spotted anything. One of the amazing things about having experienced guides and trackers is that they’re extremely knowledgeable about animal behavior, which direction the animals are moving (even once the tracks have disappeared into the bush) and how they’re traveling (group, solo, with offspring, etc).

Patience and persistence paid off as, one by one, everyone in the vehicle announced that they could see elephants. Landon kept driving, aware there were more elephants and ensuring we wouldn’t be in their path as they navigated the bush. When he stopped the vehicle we watched the elephants eating branches and leaves. Elephant

Elephant Eating

Although we were awestruck when we saw the large herd of elephants cross in front of us a couple days ago, watching them peacefully grazing was a new and equally breathtaking experience. A youngster passed in front of us and we watched as it fed off a tree. The young elephant appeared to be smiling, as if it had struck gold. Baby Elephant

elephant smiling

The elephants began to disappear back into the bush as they continued grazing on trees.

Landon turned the vehicle around, heading out of the area where we visited the elephants. We didn’t get very far before we saw a large bull feasting off a tree. The sound he made as he tore large branches off trees and devoured them, was incredible. His legs were thick, his feet enormous. He was just next to the main path, so we were quite close. Big Male Elephant

I took a picture as the large male pressed his trunk up against the tree. Having seen giraffes scratch themselves on trees, I assumed perhaps the elephant was relieving an itch on his trunk. This is another instance that highlighted how imperative it is to have experienced guides. Without saying a word, and before we had time to think about it, Landon repositioned our vehicle.

We then watched as the massive elephant knocked down the tree, with three solid blows to the tree trunk. IMG_2950

Blow #2: Elephant Knocking Down Tree

Blow #3:Elephant Knocking Down Tree

Thanks to Landon’s experience and quick thinking, we were well out of harm’s way as the tree toppled onto the road. We were speechless. The sheer power and strength of this amazing animal stunned us all. We remained for a few minutes and watched as he continued to devour the tree, the branches, and leaves, all of which were much more accessible to the elephant given the tree was now on the ground.

It was not a small tree: Elephant Tree Down

After our exceptional elephant encounter, we made our traditional coffee break stop. We asked Landon if we could make the coffee stop quick. We explained that we’d rather have more time on the drive since it was our final run through the bush. He obliged, but warned us that we’d likely seen all that we were going to see this morning.

We carried on, and as Landon foreshadowed, we didn’t see much in terms of additional wildlife sightings. It was just nice to take it all in, the expansive land, the sounds, the liberating feeling of riding in an open-air safari vehicle.

As we were working our way back to the lodge, Eddie enthusiastically alerted Landon, “Leopard!” Leopard

We watched as the beautiful, and often elusive, leopard made her way through the tall bush. It was spectacular and a wonderful way to end our safari. Leopard

We had a few hours between our game drive and airport transfer and we wanted to enjoy them as much as possible. We were sad to be leaving Lion Sands and so grateful for the experiences we shared there. We brought a bottle of champagne, some water, and the game Bananagrams down to the river deck. We watched the monkeys play and wrestle as we sipped champagne and continued to appreciate the magical adventures we shared at Lion Sands.

Reineck pouring champagne for our toast to Lion Sands

Reineck pouring champagne for our toast to Lion Sands

Final Monkeys

We decided to play an Africa-themed version of Bananagrams, utilizing only words pertaining to our trip. We made up new rules and collaborated on the board, more along the lines of Scrabble.

“That’s not how you play Bananagrams,” exclaimed another guest. “That’s how we play Bananagrams,” we replied in unison.Banagrams

When we concluded our game, we drank the remainder of our champagne, and headed to the lobby so we could be transferred to the airport.

As we drove out of the Lion Sands property – in a van much less comfortable than our safari vehicle – I was thinking about the giraffes. A giraffe was the first large animal we saw on this trip and we’ve seen at least one giraffe every day since. However, we didn’t see a giraffe today. As I was thinking about how magnificent and striking giraffes look against the African landscape, I commented aloud, “I’d like to see a giraffe on the way out.”

Within three minutes of driving toward the exit, we were greeted by two giraffes. The driver stopped the van so we could enjoy the sight one more time. The giraffes were the perfect bookend to our adventures at Lion Sands. We’ve come full circle. It’s time to journey onward. GiraffeGiraffe

Safari Adventures: Lions Roaring, Lightning Strikes, and Coffee With Rhinos

12/16/12

IMG_2829This morning we again woke up before our 5:00 am wake-up call. Prior to arriving at Lion Sands, I mistakenly assumed it would be challenging to wake up so early. As it turns out, the sun begins to rise and the birds begin singing around 4:30 in the morning. Last night we slept with the curtains and glass doors open, so the sounds of the river and the birds, along with the morning light, came pouring through the screen doors this morning.

It’s very peaceful waking up here. The only place I’ve ever felt so calm is at the ocean. Tranquility increases with our growing experiences, as we continually witness the perfection of nature at work. Everything happens as it’s meant to here and there are no distractions to interfere with the experience. There’s no TV – what we witness here isn’t edited or planned. We are simply experiencing the grace and wonder of wildlife and nature. How it all “works” in the  bush is an affirmation of life as a whole.

Although we were headed out on our fourth game drive, we never know what to expect. “What are you taking us to see today?” I asked Landon. “Whatever the bush allows me to show you,” he replied.

As we drove out into the bush, Eddie scanned the road for tracks. He’s constantly scanning the trees, the bush, and the road. He’s totally relaxed, but his focus can’t be broken. A few minutes into our drive, Eddie popped off the vehicle and pointed out the fresh tracks of a male lion.

We followed the tracks for a while, in hopes of spotting the lion. We “poked around” – as Landon often refers to it – for long enough to question whether or not we’d actually find the lion. Then, as we rounded a corner, Eddie raised a finger to to the sky. We all looked up, expecting to see another unique bird. Eddie and Landon laughed hysterically as we looked into the sky. Straight ahead, the male lion was resting in the road. Lion

He was a mature male, with a full mane, the father of the Charleston cubs we’d seen during our first drive. Landon explained that the lion was full from a large meal and was resting while he digested. The lion lounged around for a bit and then made his way to the shade of a tree to cool off and sleep. He was gorgeous. I could have watched him lie there for hours. male lion Sleeping Lion

We continued on our way, but not for long, before coming upon two cape buffalo. These two were grazing and calm.  Further down the road we saw another cape buffalo.  This third buffalo was a very large bull, standing in some bushes alongside the road, solitary. When we drove by he had a look on his face that I’ve never experienced first-hand with an animal. His look was territorial and serious. If an animal could say, “Don’t look at me. Don’t fuck with me. Don’t even think about coming near me,” this buffalo’s expression adequately conveyed it. It was a warning to stay away.

“That’s one buffalo nobody wants to cross,” Landon said, without slowing or stopping the vehicle as we passed.  It was an important reminder that these are wild animals and we are in their territory. Having a good guide is not only nice, it’s crucial. It’s imperative to be with somebody who knows animal behavior and how to keep you safe. Cape Buffalo

We drove a bit further and came upon two young male rhinoceros. they are magnificent and look almost prehistoric. Each time we see the rhinos, I send out a silent prayer that the species is able to continue to thrive, that they remain safe from poachers. Landon said that more than 600 rhinos in the area have been killed by poachers this year. “That’s nearly two a day,” he added.

It’s extremely infuriating to know that people are killing these animals. It’s even more infuriating given the ignorant and senseless “reasons” these animals are being hunted. We were blessed to observe the rhinos for a while. It felt as though everyone in our vehicle shared enormous appreciation of and gratitude for our encounters with the rhinos. rhinos IMG_2857

Eventually, we pulled away for our morning ritual bush coffee and tea break. Eddie and Landon set everything up and started passing out our choice of coffee, tea, hot chocolate, orange juice, and smoothies. They also set out several morning snacks and cereals.

As we stood outside, sharing our perceptions of the adventures so far, Landon said, “the rhinos. . . ” Sure enough, the two male rhinos we’d been observing earlier had come down to check us out. “Not many people can say they’ve had coffee with rhinos,” Landon added.

As the rhinos approached, Landon made sure we were safe, keeping us close to the vehicle and monitoring their behavior. They walked around and looked at us from a distance. Their curiosity was tempered by their tentativeness, but we did share several special minutes together. The tables had turned – we were the center of attention and the animals were the spectators. Rhinos Coffee

After we finished our coffee, Landon and Eddie led us on a bush walk back to the lodge. Along the way they pointed out elephant, leopard, rhino, impala, and tortoise tracks. Eddie explained how to tell the difference between males and females, as well as the direction an animal is headed, solely by looking at its tracks.

Eddie also introduced us to several plants and trees, showing us how they can be transformed into toothpicks, toothbrushes, and fire extinguishers. He explained some of the properties of elephant dung, from headache remedy to mosquito repellent.

Landon pointed out the dung beetle which makes impressive balls out of the dung and uses it for mating and food. “You see how everything gets used in the bush,” Landon noted, highlighting the impressive, natural ecosystem and cycle of life.

“Bracelet time”, Eddie announced. While we were walking and learning, Eddie had been making bracelets for us out of tree bark. He presented one bracelet to each person, specially designed to fit their wrist. Eddie’s thoughtfulness and generosity is another demonstration of the hospitality and kindness of Africa’s people.

We returned to the lodge for breakfast and then went our separate ways to relax before lunch and our afternoon game drive.

An hour before our afternoon game drive we heard the roar of thunder as a downpour began. There was no complaining as we’ve truly lucked out on this trip. We are here during rainy season and this was the first rain we’ve encountered. My friend, Heather, and I sat out on our patio deck, drinking wine, eating cheese, and watching the storm.

We were told the rain may let up prior to our game drive but it did not. I was pleased to see everyone in our group show up for the afternoon game dive, in the rain. “We didn’t come ten thousand miles to sit in the room,” said Ben, another guest and new friend.

Landon and Eddie passed out huge rain ponchos and we set out for a wet, adventurous drive through the bush. We our saw our common friends, the impala, first. All in all, viewing is considerably more difficult in the rain. The animals lay low and take shelter.

Eventually, we came across seven to ten cape buffalo, tucked away, grazing among the trees. We sat and observed them for a while. They looked truly majestic and at ease in the rain. Rain Buffalo

It was pouring rain, with thunder and lightening surrounding us. As we drove through the bush in our open-air vehicle, exposed to the elements, I began to wonder whether I was the only one questioning our decision to go out in this weather. Yet, as soon as the uncertainty began to take form in my mind, the excitement of seizing the moment and fully experiencing life took over. Before I ever had the opportunity to voice concern or a complaint, the words “this is AMAZING!” spilled out of my mouth.

As we poked around the bush some more, we came across a baboon family. The babies played while the adults groomed each other. Baboons IMG_2897

We continued to drive through the bush, amid thunder and lightening, down to the river. We spotted a fresh smoldering brush fire, sparked by lightening. The rain seemed to put the fire out, but we marveled at the smoldering trees.

The rain let up just in time for our happy hour drinks by the river. We stood outside and took in the beauty of the expansive landscape, reflecting on the journey and scheming for ways to extend our trip. I’ve asked everybody who works at the lodge if I can move in with them and they’ve all said, “Yes!”, but we know it will soon be time for the next portion of our journey.IMG_2900

In the distance, I heard a deep, open sounding, rumbling. “What’s that?” I asked Landon. “That’s a lion roaring,” he replied. Several minutes later I heard the distinct sound again. “How far can the sound of a lion’s roar travel?” I asked Landon. “Eight kilometers. It’s quite a distance!” he replied. The ominous sound of lions roaring in the wilderness of Africa is something I hope to remember always.

We jumped back in the vehicle after drinks and the heavy rains started up again. We were quiet and appreciative during the journey back to the lodge. This is our last night at Lion Sands and we wanted to take it all in.

An Unforgettable Safari: Elephant Crossings, Cape Buffalo, Hippos, Rhino, and Breathtaking Sunset

12/15/12

BirdI woke up at 1:00am this morning, too hot to sleep. The air was on but we forgot to turn on the oscillating vents, so it wasnt reaching the bed. It was too dark to get up and make sense of where things were, so I laid patiently awaiting the morning light, drifting off to sleep for brief moments at a time.

At 4:00am, we woke up for good, an hour prior to our scheduled wake-up call. We opened the curtains and watched the morning sky as the sun rose. Moments before our 5:00am wake-up call, we got up and got ready for our 5:30am game drive. We had set all the important stuff – cameras, hats, sunglasses, deet – out last night, so that we wouldn’t forget anything.

We met Landon and the group in the dining area and set out for another game drive. It was much quieter this morning, a further affirmation of yesterday’s blessings. Again we saw numerous varieties of birds, all new to us. The gorgeous colors of the roller bird were striking, making them among the easiest to identify. Roller Bird

In the midst of our peaceful morning drive through the bush, we heard what sounded like angry dogs barking. When we inquired, Landon said that was the warning call of waterbuck, signifying a predator is in the area. Landon speculated there may be a leopard nearby.

We didn’t spot a leopard this morning, but we did see a beautiful male nyala. Landon pointed out some of the distinct characteristics of this antelope, including the orange coloring on its legs. Landon said he’d do his best to point out a female nyala as well, so we could see how vastly different these animals look based on their sex. nyala

After the nyala, we spotted some waterbuck. These waterbuck appeared to feel out of harm’s way of the earlier predator, relaxed and at ease in the wilderness before us. waterbuck

Next, we came upon a baby hyena den. Suddenly, it didn’t feel like such a quiet morning, as the bush continued to present one amazing sighting after the next. When we first pulled up to the den, only one baby was visible.  We watched him as he watched us, our curiosities matched. We marveled at the size of his teeth when he yawned.  Baby hyena IMG_2404

After a few minutes of observing the baby hyena, three more babies emerged from the den. We watched them play, snuggle with each other, and explore the surroundings. They played like children left home alone. They were undeniably cute. I mentioned that it feels like hyenas get a bad rap, often portrayed as vicious and ugly. Landon agreed as he reinforced what we were seeing – a more holistic expression of the hyena. “They are very social animals,” Landon said. baby hyenas

On our way back to the lodge, we came across dozens of impala. Seeing them en masse was spectacular. “We call these ‘impala that survived the night’,” Landon said, balancing the reality with a bit of humor. Impala

Completely content, thinking we’d seen all we were going to see this morning, we were surprised and delighted to see two giraffes, grazing on the trees. They towered above the trees, happily sauntering through the bush, plucking leaves off the branches. One of the giraffes crossed the road in front of us and we enjoyed a full, unobstructed view as he devoured his morning meal. IMG_2527 IMG_2490 Giraffe

After our morning game drive, we headed back to the lodge for a delicious breakfast and some downtime. I spent the afternoon on the river deck, sipping champagne. It’s a beautiful space to sit, beneath a fig tree, overlooking the Sabie river. At one point, I looked up just as a hippo was entering the water. It was the first hippo I’ve seen on this trip. I watched him swim around a bit and listened to his grunts. I was the only person at the river deck, so nobody heard my declaration, “hippo!”hippo

Just before noon a troop of monkeys came out to the river deck. They fed off the fig tree for what felt like hours. There were several moms, carting around babies. Initially, all the monkeys were far more interested in the figs, than they were in me.

Shortly after the monkeys arrived, another guest joined me on the river deck. Her name is Colette as well and she is from a town near the small town where I grew up. Colette and I laughed as the monkeys scurried around the trees, chasing each other, tossing figs they felt were sub-par, and playing. In time, the monkeys became comfortable in our presence and soon joined us on the river deck furniture.vervet monkey

The clever bushbuck stood under the fig tree, benefiting from the fig remains dropped by the monkeys. Every time I sat down to write, I’d hear a noise. It was either the monkeys, the bushbuck, or a hippo. It was too exciting to focus on writing so I sat back, enjoyed my champagne, and watched the monkeys.

The monkeys were very curious about us as well, often peering out at us, with expressions that mimicked our own. I looked up at one point and saw a baby monkey in the tree, hand covering its mouth, as if auditioning for the “speak no evil” role. Monkeys IMG_2564 IMG_2583

We were called to lunch around one o’clock. From the dining deck, we could see the monkeys had turned the river deck into their own personal playground. They chased each other around and swung in the swing chairs. They appeared to be having so much fun as they took over our afternoon sanctuary.

At 4:30pm we set out for our afternoon drive. Within minutes of leaving the lodge we saw several hippos and cape buffalo lounging in a river. It was amazing seeing two of the big five sharing space, enjoying the cool river. Landon mentioned that these animals can be very territorial, so seeing them together, in groups, was unique. He attributed their acceptance of one another to the heat – they all needed a place to cool off. Hippos and Cape Buffalo

I couldn’t help but stare at the cape buffalo. They are so perfect, they look like statues. Landon informed us that their commanding presence is matched by their strength and speed. As we watched them resting, Landon explained how powerful and dangerous cape buffalo can be. Cape Buffalo

We drove up the road a bit further and saw some elephants making their way to the river. We were a safe distance away, so we were allowed to get out of the vehicle to view them. Landon estimated there were thirty elephants in the herd. They ranged in size from small calf to large bull. They seemed so organized as they made their way toward the river. Staying close together, each elephant appeared to have a place and a shared, pre-determined, destination in mind. Elephant Crossing

We got back in the vehicle and drove up the road a bit further, just in time to watch the elephants walk up the river bank and cross the road in front of us. The sound of the herd of elephants walking at a solid clip was quite spectacular. We saw them eat along the way, keep youngsters in line, and continue off into the bush. I never imagined I’d witness a herd of elephants crossing my path, just a few feet away. Our third game drive provided another experience not to be forgotten. Elephants IMG_2673 IMG_2693

Continuing along our way, we saw a couple of rhinoceros. In just over an hour’s time, we had seen three of the big five. Rhino

“There was too much animal activity last night, so we skipped our drink break,” Landon noted. Given that yesterday was our first game drive, we had no expectations of a drink break. Tonight we enjoyed a happy hour like no other. We shared our appreciation with Eddie and Landon as we sipped cocktails, in the bush, at sunset. The sunset was magnificent and we collectively marveled at how blessed we are to be here. Bush Sunset

The increasing beauty of the evolving sunset provided the opportunity and backdrop for us to have more than a few drinks. The six of us in our vehicle took down two bottles of champagne, two bottles of wine, and some gin. We were giddy, if  not a bit drunk, as we made our way back to the lodge.

Tonight we headed straight to the bar, with our cameras, hats, sunglasses, and all our gear. We reflected on the outstanding events of the day – reminding each other that it wasn’t a dream. What we experienced was very real, but so spectacular it’s still hard to believe. We celebrated with more wine and were then treated to a traditional African BBQ, with our guides, out under the stars.

Safari at Lion Sands: Lions, Leopards, Elephants and More

12/14/12

ImpalaThis morning we woke up with the knowledge that we’d soon be headed on safari. Awareness and having ideas about events to come is one thing, actually experiencing them is another. We could not imagine what we were going to experience today.

We gathered our ever-expanding luggage, took our malaria pills, and embarked on our fourth flight of the trip. We flew directly from Cape Town to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport.

We were excited to start the next leg of our trip. We were greeted by our transfer guide who informed us it would be an hour and a half drive to the game reserve. After all the traveling we’d been doing, receiving notice of the forthcoming hour and a half drive was a bit of a bummer initially. As it turned out, the drive to the game reserve was fascinating, educational, and the perfect transition into the bush.

The bush viewThe landscape and views are a sharp contrast to Cape Town. There is no sign of a city in sight and the pace definitely feels slower. The land is lush and green during this time of year, the rainy season. It’s a very different perspective of Africa, a reminder of how large and magnificent this continent is. This is further pronounced considering, thus far, we’ve only been in the southern hemisphere and we’ve already experienced so much diversity.

We drove past several villages. The “electronics store” on the side of the road was showcasing an old Zenith TV alongside a VCR. From our perspective it looked more like an antique store, but here in the bush those items are high-tech. The barber shop consisted of an E-Z UP tent, four plastic lawn chairs, and two men awaiting customers. Children were playing outside. People seemed to be constantly interacting with one another, smiling, and walking along the roads.

All the people I saw popping in and around the various villages were with at least one other person.  Community seems to be very important here. It looked and felt as though people were at ease, genuinely enjoying their lives and the company of those they were with.  Even people who were working in the heat of the day, transporting goods from town back to the villages in wheelbarrows or atop their heads, were smiling.

We learned there are three tribes in the area, each speaks a distinct language that the others cannot understand.  “Everybody knows who’s in which village – where people come from” our guide informed us.  It didn’t appear as if there were any street signs in the villages we passed.  People are familiar with the dirt roads, their neighbors, and members of nearby villages.

When we pulled up at the entrance to the game lodge, we were stopped for verification – a process which took several minutes. There has been a severe problem with rhino poachers in the area so security is exceptionally strict.

Bath Lion SandsThe moment we stepped out of the van, onto the grounds of Lion Sands, I felt extreme peace. The air is spacious and calm. The bush doesn’t just look vast, it feels vast – wide open. The only sounds I heard were birds, a vervet monkey rustling in the trees, and the sound of the Sabie River rushing by.

We were greeted by the wonderful staff of Lion Sands who further reinforced the calm atmosphere, handing us lavender washcloths for our faces.

We were taken through orientation and lodge safety. The staff was quick to point out that there are no fences separating us from the wildlife.  The animals are free to roam around the property as well as into and out of the neighboring reserves. There is to be no walking alone after sunset. Somebody will escort us to and from our room following the afternoon game drives and before and after dinner.

Lion Sands BedWe were shown to our rooms and told to meet back in an hour for our first game drive. The room is beautiful.  The wall facing the river is made entirely of sliding glass doors, reinforcing the “middle of the wilderness” feeling.  We were reminded to ensure the screen doors remain locked. “The monkeys are very clever and if they get into your room, they will do some redecorating,” we were told.

The sunken bathtub, rainforest shower and double-sinks are welcome amenities. There are no shared walls – each room is a free standing bungalow.  The individual wooden walkway leading to the front door makes it feel as if you’re arriving home.

We opened the bottle of champagne in the minibar and celebrated our arrival. The curious voices of friends were swimming in my head, “Will you be staying in tents??” they asked before I departed for Africa. The juxtaposition of that question and the spa-like room coincided with our champagne toast.

At four o’clock we met up with our group and were introduced to our guide, Landon. Landon has been a guide for twelve years, working at Lion Sands for nine. Landon introduced us to our tracker, Eddie. Eddie grew up in the area and has extensive practical, as well as intuitive, experience spotting animals. I asked Landon how the past few days of viewing had been. “It’s been a bit quiet” he said, noting the previous rainy days.

There are no guarantees on safari. The land is expansive, there are no fences constraining the animals into any one area. They are free to roam across thousands of hectares . Furthermore, weather conditions can be unpredictable. The bush is particularly thick this time of year due to the rains, making it more difficult to spot wildlife.

HornbillWe set out in an amazing vehicle, capable of traversing all types of terrain. I was immediately struck by how many species of birds we saw, including birds I’d never heard of nor seen before. We also saw numerous impala, one of the most abundant mammals in the bush.  Then, a call came over the radio.

The guides and spotters speak a hybrid language, appropriately called “bush language”. They understand each other completely. To us, it sounds like code. Following the call over the radio, we started tracking a mysterious animal. Landon and Eddie kept it a secret at first, so that we wouldn’t be disappointed if we didn’t see the animal. Eventually, they let us in on the secret so that we could help them spot it. “We’re looking for a leopard in this area,” Landon said. “It’s very rare to spot them,” he added.

After our search proved futile, we decided to move on. We headed somewhere else, clear to the guides, unknown to us. As we made our way to the next destination, we came upon an old male giraffe, scratching his back and neck on a tree. He was stunning, leaving us speechless and in awe. There is nothing like seeing these animals, in their natural habitat.

First GiraffeI was mesmerized by the giraffe, more than I could have expected. Perhaps it’s the way he looked against the backdrop of the bush, his body extending from the earth, through the lush green trees, and up into the open blue skies. The giraffe seemed peaceful and content. I watched the giraffe as I removed the long lens from my camera. I smiled at the discovery that we were too close to use a long lens. We watched the giraffe’s behavior for several minutes, laughing as he walked in circles around the tree, to relieve his itchy skin.

“Something else is happening and I want to try to make our way over while the light is still good,” Landon said. We bid farewell to the giraffe and set out again. “Elephants!” someone shouted. “The elephants are just a bonus,” Landon replied with a smile. We looked to our right and saw two young male lions, with a large female. They were resting, weary after a large meal and the heat of the day. I put my long lens away entirely – it clearly wouldn’t be needed. Lions
Landon explained that these are the only surviving members of the Charleston pride. The young males’ mother was killed, so her sister – the female lion we were watching – took them under her care. The other pride in the area is the Southern Pride, 18 lions strong.  Landon said the guides have been paying close attention to the Charleston pride. This pride is significantly outnumbered and their long-term survival is questionable.

Landon’s words, as we marveled at the lions, were an important reminder. We are not in a zoo, we are not in control of the outcome, humans don’t interfere.  We are truly witnessing natural order, survival of the fittest, the wild kingdom in action. This is life, unfolding before us. Lions Charleston Pride

The lions are magnificent. With each movement came sighs of “awwwww” from the vehicle. The elephants remained in clear view, although at a greater distance, while we observed the lions. Lion

Lion

We left the lions lounging and sought out to find some more animals. Beneath a beautiful fig tree we spotted four rhino. It was wonderful to see them, with even greater appreciation, given the recent assault on their species. Rhinos and Figtree

Rhino

Darkness came quickly as we scurried through the bush. “Leopard!” Eddie exclaimed, pointing toward the trees. We drove further to get a closer look and sure enough, we saw a gorgeous leopard in the tree. Leopard

With each animal sighting, we counted our blessings and gave thanks. We know this is not something to take for granted. We’ve heard stories of people being here for three or four days, never spotting lions nor a leopard. Within an hour and a half, during our first game drive, we saw four of the big five.

We continued on our way, traveling at a much slower pace. Suddenly, Landon turned off the lights and shut down the engine. “There’s another leopard. This one is stalking its prey” Landon said, pointing to the leopard in the grass.

The leopard was strategically placed downwind of the impala so they were unaware of its presence. We observed as the leopard laid low in the grass, patiently awaiting his opportunity.Leopard Stalking Impala

Landon explained that leopards are very patient and will wait hours for a kill. He said they have a very high average success rate of 60%, compared to the approximate 40% success rate of lions. We pulled away before the leopard made his kill, ironically to get back to the lodge for our dinner. We later heard from another group that the leopard was indeed successful, capturing and killing a young impala.

Somewhere along the way – earlier in the afternoon – we saw a wildebeest  It’s hard to keep track of the series of events on such an active and exciting afternoon and evening of viewing.

Wildebeest

We headed back to the lodge well after dark and returned our cameras to our room. “We’re ready for drinks!” I said, telephoning the staff so they could escort us to the bar.  After enjoying a couple glasses of wine, we sat down to dinner. It was nearing 9:00pm and I wasn’t all that hungry.  I decided to eat “light” and order the salmon. Soon, the largest piece of salmon I’ve ever eaten was before me. The food at Lion Sands is outstanding – from salads through main courses and dessert – delicious.

After dinner, we took showers, and are going to bed relatively early (11:00 pm) tonight, in anticipation of our 5:00 am wake up call tomorrow.

Friendship, Lessons, and Community in Cape Town, South Africa

December 13, 2012

Camps Bay BeachToday was our final day in Cape Town and the only day we hadn’t booked a full day of activities.  We attempted to sleep in, but still woke up around 6:00am, so we went to breakfast and got an early jump on the day.

After breakfast we set out to explore Cape Town on foot one more time.  The first day we walked around Cape Town we were a bit delirious from the preceding 36 hours of travel.  Having been here a few days now, we were able to absorb much more during this second go-round.

We’d hoped to do some final gift shopping so we made our way down to Long Street.  By this time, we’d showered and had a very leisurely breakfast, so we were surprised the shops weren’t open yet. I glanced down at my watch – it was only 8:00am – that explained it.

We continued to wander as we waited for the shops to open and came across a collaborative bucket list project, “Before I Die”.  A wall outside of a business was covered with chalkboard paint and the words “Before I die I want to…” were written  next to numerous blank lines.  They have chalk inside the shop so that everyone can finish the sentence in their own words.

Before I Die

We were, of course, too early – the shop with chalk hadn’t opened yet – so we read the wishes of others. Some were quite funny and others were truly touching. I was filled with gratitude, reading the community bucket list.  One of the things I wanted to do before I die is travel to Africa. Simultaneously reading and fulfilling a bucket list, I smiled and gave thanks.

By the time the shops opened, our attention spans for shopping had diminished. We popped in and out of some stores quickly, eventually deciding to go down to the beach instead. As we were walking back to the hotel we came across a protest in front of the courthouse.

Social Justice Coalition Protest

I spoke with some of the protesters to find out what was going on. They explained that an independent commission of inquiry had been established to investigate crimes and potential law enforcement corruption in some of the most densely populated townships.

“I don’t feel safe at home,” one young woman told me. “The commission of inquiry gave me hope that I’d be protected and things would get better, but the Minister of Police is trying to stop the commission’s work.  There’s a court hearing right now,” she added. We watched as the crowd grew and their chanting got louder. As we turned to head back to the hotel, busloads of people were arriving, hoping their voices would make a difference.

Tomorrow we leave for safari at Kruger National Park which means there was much organizing and re-packing to do today. I went back to the room and packed, thankful that I had purchased another duffle bag the day we arrived in Cape Town.

Cold water Camps BayNext I headed to Camps Bay beach for a couple hours.  It’s summer so the beaches are quite busy, but the water is cold.  It was somewhat deceptive as I equate crystal clear waters such as those of Camps Bay with warmth.  I walked into the waves for a minute so that my body and mind would believe what everyone had told me about how cold the water is here.

After the beach, I met up with some friends who live in Cape Town.  I initially met Maureen and Adrian during a really special trip to Alaska in 2010.  We’d each been selected in a lottery to visit McNeil River, a protected park that has the highest concentration of brown bears in the world.

During our four days at McNeil, Maureen, Adrian and I would talk about travel, life, coffee, and wine. It’s no wonder we became friends. “If you’re ever in Cape Town, give us a call! We’d love to show you around,” they said when our time at McNeil came to a close.

It was so nice to be reunited with Maureen and Adrian on yet another special trip. They brought me up to their home and we caught up over wine, while overlooking the windswept beach. I hadn’t mentioned this to them, but two things I was sorry I didn’t do while in Cape Town were go to Signal Hill and eat sushi.

“Shall we go get a bite to eat?” Adrian asked.  And then, as if reading my mind, “Do you like sushi?”

When we got in the car Adrian asked if I’d been up to Signal Hill. “No… that’s one thing we didn’t have time to do,”  I replied.  Within 7 minutes, we were atop Signal Hill and Adrian was pointing out some of the city’s landmarks.  The views at Signal Hill are spectacular.  As we looked down at the stadium, built initially to host the World Cup, Adrian and Maureen shared additional history about the development of Cape Town and possible plans for the stadium moving forward.

Spending time with Maureen and Adrian made South Africa feel like home.

View from Signal Hill

When they dropped me back at More Quarters following dinner, it didn’t feel sad – it felt exciting. We talked about where in the world we may see each other next. Perhaps we’d all meet in Alaska again.  Of course I’ll reach out the next time I’m in South Africa.  We might reunite in London. . . or on a trip to see the polar bears in Churchill. Maybe they’ll come visit me. . . or perhaps we’ll meet somewhere none of us has been yet.

Traveling around the world is what I enjoy most. My time in Cape Town offered further reinforcement as to the importance of doing so. Traveling broadens perspectives, opens minds, allows us to form friendships with people we otherwise may not meet. Travel allows us to witness, first-hand, how others respond to global and local challenges – environmental, political, and social. New solutions can emerge from listening to, learning from, and collaborating with other cultures. Understanding and compassion increase as experience reminds us that we are not alone, that people on the other side of the world want the same basic things we do, and that everybody has something they’d like to do before they die.

Time for sleep.  Tomorrow is a big day as we head into the second portion of our journey – safari.