Sunday, March 18, 2012

Feeling the "Circle of Life" Vibe


John showed up in the airport in the hunting Phils hat and said it was the "safari edition"
John and Gerri with some zebras, storm clouds gathering.




Me and boDelgrande happy to be reunited on this adventure
I have been very lucky in having opportunities to travel, between studying abroad and having a family who preferred family vacations to Christmas. Unfortunately, this gave me a bit of travel fever starting from a young age. “When are we going to Vacation?” Vacation was a place I believed to be a mix of my Aunt Ev’s house in Rhode Island, my Grandma’s farm in Virginia and Florida. My mom blames herself for exposing me to the Caymen Islands at 17 months. I am not really sure what caused it, but I know that like a good Malaria infection, it comes in waves.
Having just hit the 9 month mark and only being out of Swaziland for a couple days in December, I needed to get out. Have a break. See my family, not to mention the First World in all it’s glory. As if there was any doubt about leaving for 2 weeks, the green mamba at my stesh (bus stop) confirmed my decision.
The Manzini airport is miniscule even compared to Atlantic City’s. They only have little 20-seater prop planes that only fly to Johannesburg. Although during that 40 minute flight you get a snack and even a drink. Ya hear that Delta? Joburg was slightly overwhelming at first, but a welcome change. I sat drinking an Illy coffee, my dopamine receptors overwhelmed after being used to Ricoffy (the worst instant coffee money can buy) and waited for my mom and step-dad. I have to say, it was awesome to see them and it got normal pretty fast. There is always a degree of “getting used to” things and people again, but apparently even after being in a hut for 9 months, you can acclimate to your old life quickly. 
We flew the next morning to Hoedspruit in the Northeast of South Africa, just North of where I live in da Swaz. I was glad we got to drive 2 hours through the low veld so they could see what it looks like outside the nice lodges. We settled in at Simbambili, which is gorgeous and tucked away in a private reserve that backs up to Kruger National Park. Kruger is something like 10 million acres. The game lodge takes you on 2 game drives a day, for 3 hours each, at dawn and dusk. The vehicle is a convertible Land Cruiser and must have great suspension for the kind of off-roading it does. There are no seat belts and I wonder if anyone has ever been bounced out.

Ranger and Tracker doing what they do

Lion tracks
The first game drive was the funniest so that’s what I will recount. It’s 4:30 and after an 85 degree day, the humidty lingered still. 15 minutes into the drive we stop to watch a bunch of zebras and impalas grazing. We began hearing thunder in the distance and dark clouds on the horizon. We go further into the reserve looking for animals when the lightning started. I love lightning so I welcomed this at first. Sure as Killimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengetiiiiiii, we got caught in a deluge of rain with no rain gear save for some janky ponchos provided. The thunder and lightning was simultaneous and striking all around. I have to say it reminded me of Jurassic Park, going through and getting stuck in puddles (this was reinforced by the fact we were warned the monkeys had learned to open the deck doors unless they were locked…like velociraptors). Our ranger took out his ear piece so as not to get shocked and didn’t know the other vehicle had cornered a group of lions when we came upon them. There were 4 startled lions right at the wheel under where I was sitting when the ranger saw. And the lightning struck. “And The Thunder Rolls”. We quickly sped away. Despite being dramatic, we were cracking up, between being soaking wet holding onto the bar in what felt sometimes like a log flume, so we didn’t end up as pissed-off-Nala’s dinner – it was a very Griswold-esque experience which is incredibly fitting for my family vacations.
The drives since have been perfect. Its beautiful out here, so calm and still, and all of a sudden we will come upon a leopard who will roll around in the grass for us like a kitten or a couple of giraffe heads popping up over the trees. We saw a herd of female elephants of all different ages today who were eating trees right by our vehicle. Having an obsession with baby animals, I felt like Kristen Bell in “Sloth Meltdown” when we saw the baby elephant. We also saw a bull elephant (male) who mock-charged at us due to his cranky and territorial nature and that was easily the scariest moment of my life.
gulp

Leopard posing

Female elephants

 Last night our vehicle had a flat tire. It was slightly unnerving to stand about while it was jacked in the dusk. Just 30 minutes later we came upon 4 lionesses eating a Water Bok dinner less than 10 feet away.  You could hear them crunching on the bones and see the antlers on the skull of the animal. One got up and started walking toward my side of the vehicle to lay down and I have to admit I was scared. The day drives feel like you are in control of the situation, but at night, it feels like you are in their world and having an axel break then would be less than ideal. But their world is awesome. We felt very lucky to see the "big five": leopard, lion, elephant, rhino and water buffalo, as well too many other animals and birds to count. I don’t need to talk about how bangin’ the food and wine are because I may reread this in a couple weeks and cry into my bowl of rice and beans. Out of the three legs of this trip, seeing animals at Kruger was the one I was least excited for. Now, I don't know how anything could ever top it. It was a truly exceptional "bucket list" experience and I recommend anyone to add it to theirs too. Having just watched the Lion King with my Swazi family a few days ago, I am feeling the Circle of Life vibe completely. We have a few more drives and then it is off to Cape Town! 
Bull Rhino: a big dude!
 I am savoring this because my travel bug will be subdued for years to come with broke-ness in the next phase of my life. Thank God for Hostelworld and the bus system.
Random SA Fact: Rhinos are one of the “Big 5” here and hard to spot. Unfortunately, their horn is highly coveted by poachers for its “medicinal properties”. There is a good documentary out there about Chinese traditional medicine and the poaching industry. Sadly, you can remove a rhino horn without killing the rhino but poachers just kill them because its easier. Last year, 500 rhinos were killed in Kruger National park alone. They say if rhinos are continually hunted at this rate, there will be no more rhinos in SA in 5 years. Sad thought. With the Lorax coming out soon, here is an environmental message: poach eggs, not rhinos.

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