I had the opportunity to join my sister Alena and her friends on a group trip to South Africa. Alena’s friends Heather and Matthew were going to visit Heather’s mother Karen, who was working in Pretoria. Alena and I were lucky to be invited on a safari adventure. It took us two days to fly to Johannesburg via Frankfurt. After a night at Karen’s home to get over our jet lag, we headed off to Kruger National Park. We took two cars, as Karen had to return before the rest of us. Neither Alena nor I had driven on the other side of the road before, so just getting out of town was an adventure.
We arrived at Kruger with just enough time to get to our first campsite before the gates closed for the night. While I saw many animals over our five days there, I can still remember in detail the experience of seeing my first one – an elephant, standing next to a riverbed, enjoying his dinner. Excited but cautious, Alena and I whispered aloud in delight. I could not believe we were actually in Africa, on safari.
The campgrounds were much nicer than I had imagined. The Satara campground served as our home base for the next few days. Alena and I stayed in a bungalow with two beds, a shower, and even air conditioning. The grounds included a restaurant and small store that sold gifts and groceries. Our first night, we had dinner at the restaurant. Walking back to our bungalow in the dark, I could not help but to be amazed by the starry sky above us. Never having seen the night sky in the Southern Hemisphere made the stars all the more spectacular. Although I was still pretty sure I could make out the Big Dipper.
Our daytime ventures driving through the park allowed us the opportunity to see many animals. But others, like the lion, remained elusive during the hot summer days since they were active primarily during dusk and dawn. Leaving the campgrounds during these times was only permissible through a guided tour, for safety reasons. So one evening we signed up for an evening tour in a jeep, where we did finally see some lions.
Inspired, we next decided to take a morning hike. I admit to initially being a bit nervous, primarily because we had to be up and ready at 4am, before the campsite officially opened, and we had no coffeemaker in our bungalow. How would I survive the day? But then I came up with the idea to get coffee from the restaurant the night before and put it in my water bottle. I would take the caffeine in any form. Oh, and yes, I was a bit concerned about walking among the animals.
We left the campground while it was still dark outside, and drove for about fifteen miles to where we would begin our hike. As we drove, our group dozed off. But being fully caffeinated and alert, my mind started racing, wondering why I had agreed to go walking where the wild things were.
Then the first rays of sun began to peek through the horizon, and dark shadows turned into trees and strange noises into rustling grass. As we sat in the jeep, waiting for enough daylight to start our hike, I realized how much I appreciated this quiet moment. I live a life where practically every aspect of my day has some background soundtrack. From sirens out my window, to the car radio, to the cell phone chatter of strangers on the street, to even the humming of my refrigerator at night, I had forgotten what true quiet actually sounded like. Right as I was about to take a picture of the daybreak, four giraffes walked by, eclipsing the sunrise. It was such a glorious sight, seriously a Lion King moment. And in true Hakuna Matata fashion, I was ready to hike.
After three days, Karen headed back home, and the four of us continued on to the Lower Sabie campsite. When we arrived, we learned that the campground had a pool (nice!) and that Karen had reserved us a tent for the night (huh?). I had expected a tent when we first arrived at Kruger, but had gotten pretty comfortable in the bungalow, so I wasn’t immediately thrilled. However, the tent was nice, and overlooked a river, giving us a great view. An open-air bathroom was attached, so it actually was pretty upscale for a tent.
With some free time before our evening tour, we decided to go to the pool. Rushing back to shower, I let Alena go first. She was in the bathroom for less than a minute when she came out and told me there was something in the shower. I went in to look, and sure enough, there was a bat in our shower.
Not sure what to do, I grabbed the first thing I saw – which turned out to be a toilet brush – and tried to shoo the bat away. It came flying right toward me. To this day, I can still see his bat face hissing at me. Alena and I screamed so loudly that Heather and Matthew came running over from their tent. Matthew and I tried a couple more times to get the bat out of the bathroom, but to no avail.
Finally, we blocked the entrance to the bathroom with everything we could find, then Alena and I used Heather and Matthew’s bathroom to shower. The bat did not show his face again, and the next morning we headed down to Swaziland.
As exotic as South Africa was, Swaziland seemed even more so. In fact, the more I read about it, the more fictional it sounded, like something right out of Coming to America. Karen had been there before, and had reserved us a room at the Mantenga Nature Reserve, located within the eZulwini Valley.
On our way to the to the Reserve, we drove past a long stretch of swank casino hotels and resorts. At the end of the stretch, we turned onto a dirt road that took us far away from the the resorts, in many respects. Five miles later, we were parked next to huts made from reeds and cow-dung which would serve as our sleeping quarters for the next couple of nights. It certainly was authentic. And smelly. Or maybe that was the wild boar wandering around.
With a full day of white-water rafting planned for the next morning, we decided to find a nice meal. We ended up at the Mantenga Lodge, located at the foot of Lugogo Mountain. Our outside dining included a breathtaking view of the mountain, and after a delicious dinner and stroll around the grounds, we all agreed that we would much rather stay there. We quickly booked two rooms, raced back to the Reserve to get our bags, and enjoyed a comfortable sleep and yummy breakfast the next morning. Truly one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.
After meeting our fellow rafters at Swazitrails the next morning, Alena and I quickly discovered that we were the only first-timers in the group. We piled into a van, drove out to the river, and after about three minutes of instruction, we were off. We had a decent ride while the rapids were mild, but as they grew in intensity, Alena and I ended up capsizing too many times to count.
The final rapid was pretty rough, leaving me with a very bruised behind. Alena got a nasty gash on her leg, which unfortunately required follow-up treatment once we got back to the U.S. But whenever somewhere asks her how she got her scar, she can just say “Swaziland,” which you have to admit sounds pretty cool.
Despite the injuries, I’m glad we did it. And it certainly was nice to come back to a comfy bed. We left early the next morning, and as we drove over the mountains, the clouds hung so low that it felt like Swaziland was a dream or a fantasy, disappearing into the fog.
Returning to Pretoria, we then caught a flight to Capetown. We stayed at The Tudor Hotel, located at Greenmarket Square, which has a large outdoor market where we picked up tons of souvenirs. Still a bit sore from our rafting adventures, we spent most of our time in Cape Town strolling around, wandering in and out of stores, enjoying the scene at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, and, always one of my favorite activities, hanging out at a coffee shop and watching the locals.
We had a memorable meal at the Africa Cafe, where you pay a set price, and enjoy a never-ending stream of dishes from all the major regions in Africa. It was a great way to experience the depth and variety of African food.
We also took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain. The ride up gave us an awesome view of the city below. Once on the mountain, you can actually see the area where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. And while there was no obvious demarcation, knowing that I was looking at one of only a handful of spots on the whole planet where two oceans meet was mind-blowing.
As we got ready to head home, my only regret was that we did not have more time to explore the rest of the Cape. Overall, it was an amazing trip, and during hectic days or while sitting in traffic, my mind frequently drifts back to these two weeks of sheer exotic adventure.