I remember my sister Molly writing in her first post about Africa that she had no idea where to begin or how to fully capture her experiences there.
It’s so true.
Africa is this majestic, dreamlike place that deserves more than words and pictures. Those expressions just can’t capture its richness, beauty and depth. I hesitated to write because I don’t want this blog post to put boundaries on the way I remember my time there—some of it is remarkably indescribable. But I don’t want to forget anything about the journey, either. I’m hoping Africa will forgive me for not being able to do her justice in my writing, but I’m determined to attempt to bring you there.
After we arrived in Johannesburg, affectionately dubbed Jozi or Jo’burg by the locals, we met with Molly and her roommate Alyssa to join some others from our group to eat dinner and toast to our good company and forthcoming adventures.
We spent the following morning exploring the Apartheid Museum.
The museum immerses its visitors in the country’s history of racial segregation and illustrates Nelson Mandela’s role in taking down the tradition of apartheid. It was a heavy morning, as remnants of apartheid’s legacy are evident throughout the country in the form of poverty and racially divided townships, but just as we’ve experienced gradual improvement since the civil rights movement in our own country, so are the citizens of South Africa.
After we left the museum, Mike and I and our friend Brian grabbed a cab to pick up Molly and Alyssa to make a local orphanage visit—one that Molly had arranged for the afternoon. Our driver—we belatedly realized—spoke next to no English and had a very limited understanding of the city routes and roads. We drove for close to three hours through countryside that reminded me of very remote corners of Kansas—flat, golden fields and run-down pastures divided by dirt or gravel roads and sparingly sprinkled with low rolling hills. Our driver stopped frequently to ask local road-wanderers for directions in Zulu, but they usually rubbed their chins looking stumped, chattered a bit, and then pointed up the road.
Just as we made our way down what we decided would be the final wrong dirt path, a guarded steel gate appeared on our right next to a low concrete wall adorned with the letters TLC, an acronym for The Love of Christ Ministries. It’s an orphanage completely funded by donations and staffed with volunteers from around the globe. We met five volunteers there, all in their very early twenties—three from Canada, one from Germany, and another from Oregon—who spend their days caring for and playing with children and babies sent to them by mothers who aren’t able to financially care for them or don’t want to raise them. Bara, the hospital in which Molly and Alyssa are interning, also sends abandoned babies there.
We talked with a German volunteer who had spent a few months at the orphanage before going back to Germany, only to realize that the children she had left at TLC still “had her heart.” And so she returned to work with them for as long as she could. And I think she described it perfectly. The minute you lay eyes on these babies, they have your heart. I fell in love with almost two-year-old Laurel, so smart and sweet and adorable, who snuggled up under my arm to read a book. It’s easy to see how loved the children are by the volunteers there and the ambivalent feelings that would plague them when a child is adopted. While I was worried that our visit would be heart-wrenching and tear-jerking, it ended up being just the opposite. It was an incredible home filled with caring people, beautiful children, and hope for what lies ahead for them—hope that too many other abandoned babies in the area won’t experience.
We spent the drive back to Jo’burg talking about three-month-old, cuddly, chubbiest-cheeks-you’ve-ever-seen Charlotte, 1-year-old future sports all-star Alaric who (coincidentally?) learned to both throw a ball with Brian and open a window while we were there—we couldn’t help but think the two tasks might hold figurative meaning together, and one of the little twin boys who belly-laughed contagiously when Mike tickled him.
To bring the day to a close, we stopped by a local market to haggle for souvenirs,
drank coffees at a small café to shake off our jet lag and drowsiness from our previous late night of drinks, then met some others from the Columbia group for dinner in Mandela Square. It was so comforting to spend the day with Molly, listening to her and Alyssa’s stories about their time at Bara, and just being. My heart ached to leave her that evening, but it did help knowing I would see her in a couple of months. I’ve really missed her.
The following day, we woke up early to make a 5-hour bus ride to what would be our home for the following two nights—Bongani Mountain Lodge, tucked away in the private 7.7 square-mile Mthetomusha Game Reserve in Mpumalanga on the southern outskirts of Kruger National Park. My photos truly don’t do our experience there justice.
The scenery (aka the bush) alone makes the trip worth it—rolling mountains thick with lush, green vegetation and flecked with purple Wild Fox Gloves, yellow Morning Glory, and magenta Pride of the Cape.
But there’s something distinctly majestic about being guests in the wild animals’ kingdom.
To soar in an open-topped jeep through their mountains to simply admire them in their natural habitat without the thought of hunting or of conquest or of their being caged at a zoo on human turf is just purely humbling. A theme of newfound respect for the creatures there seemed to radiate from our jeeps each day. And on top of that, the crisp mountain wind caresses your hair and beckons your senses while the bush gently ushers away any thought that would impose on living in the present. I’ve never been to a place more calming and welcoming. No internet to surf, no texts to send, no phones to answer; just the sounds of distant roars or squabbling baboons or snapping trees being taken down by far off elephants.
Our jeep’s driver Stanley and tracker Elliot spoke softly to each other in Swazi, the regional language, throughout our drive. They were a seasoned team; Stanley compared them to a married couple.
Elliot would notice tracks on the ground and motion with subtle confidence which way to go when the dirt trails diverged. The man’s eyes saw everything—a green chameleon blending into a leaf, a brown spotted owl perfectly camouflaged high up in the branches, grazing impala on a rock in the distance, or a gray elephant softly fanning its ears on a rocky cliff far away. We constantly found ourselves imploring aloud, “How did you see that?!” to which Elliot always acknowledged with a quick look back at us painted with an ear-to-ear grin.
And Stanley was just as impressive. He gave us a thorough story of every animal and plant we stopped to admire—the group of five wallowing rhino whose horns were cut down to deter poachers from hunting them; the towering giraffe whose tail was missing and infected due to birds who peck at the parasites in it, keeping the wound fresh.
“It is part of life for them,” was Stanley’s calming, rhythmic response to our laments as he started the low grumble of the jeep to depart for our next discovery.
One of my favorite moments included stopping on our drive back to the lodge in the pitch blackness of night to bask in the twinkle of dozens of fireflies surrounding us and the serenade of frog songs accompanied by the trickling notes of a nearby creek. It was magical.
There was a moment the following morning when we came upon a clearing where a herd of impala and zebra were peacefully grazing together. The zebra—three or four of them—saw us and galloped away in straight line just feet away from our jeep, and the impala paused for a moment and then did their prancing high jumps over the tall grass as well. I was heartbroken not to have had my camera that morning, but grateful to have been able to fully live in the moment.
That evening, we took a break at sunset next to a watering hole to have cocktails. As darkness rolled in over the pink and orange sky and we settled back into the jeep, we heard the deep grumbles of Cape buffalo and looked up into the blackness to see them completely surrounding us. It was a bit unnerving, admittedly, to be surrounded by one of the most aggressive animals in the bush, especially with Elliot’s spotlight only permitting us to see a few at a time. As we made our way past them, we swore we saw an incredibly fat one bleeding and about to give birth. Stanley and Elliot glanced at each other a laughed. “You’ve had a few too many drinks, my friends,” Stanley said. “She was just pooping.”
And the next morning, in the final minutes of our last game drive, a fellow driver radioed that they had tracked down the only two lionesses on the reserve. Stanley put his foot on the accelerator and we soared through the mountains, a green blur watercolored with the purples, yellows, and magentas of flower patches in our periphery. Elle, a second-year CBS student sitting behind me, described it as being on a rollercoaster without the height factor, truly exhilarating, and enriched by our knowing the end would bring us to the royal highnesses of the bush. We ducked and dodged branches and thorns stretching their arms toward us and finally made it to the lionesses’ spot. Stanley slowly moved the jeep off the path and through thickets of thorn trees so we could get close to her. I don’t know if there are words to describe the feeling of looking straight into a lion’s eyes in the wild, but “breathtaking” seems like a good word to use.
Leaving Bongani left a pit in my stomach, but knowing the beautiful city of Cape Town would be our next destination lightened the pain. Mike and I hit the hay early that night for a 4:30 a.m. departure to Kleinbaai for shark diving. When we arrived in Kleinbaai, we watched the sun rise over Van Dyks Bay and then boarded our catamaran to see the Great Whites.
We drove for about twenty minutes into the ocean, all the while watching the crew string tuna heads (aka chum) soaked in anchovy oil to attract the sharks. The smell combined with my heavy wet suit and swaying of the water made me nauseous, but the adrenaline of being in the cage and eye to eye with a Great White Shark quickly pushed away the sea sickness. It was a unique experience, but I enjoyed standing on top of the boat in the warm sun just as much. Luckily, a portion of the fee associated with the dive was dedicated to poaching prevention—the animals are frequently hunted for their fins. To learn more, visit www.whitesharkprojects.co.za
We spent the afternoon strolling along the beaches of Camps Bay and Clifton, and Mike and I got in on a few games of sand volleyball with some fun Cape Town locals. It felt fabulous to be active after days of lounging, and now, being back in NYC, I’m longing to just be able to hop to the beach for a quick game. I’m devising a plan to convince Mike that our home is there, in Cape Town, waiting for us. Michelle Perry, let’s work on this together!
We had a lovely date night—just the two of us—at a hip restaurant, Blues, on Camps Bay. We talked over the gentle swish of waves meeting the shore. We inhaled the slight saltiness of the ocean breeze. We drank red wine. We laughed with each other. We talked about the way the trip had made us realize that the simple things—slowing down, living in the present, appreciating our surroundings—are what make life grand. (Is that possible with two toddlers during b-school in NYC?) Then, we joined the rest of our group downtown for drinks with other business school groups from the New York and New England area.
The following morning was another early one to depart for wine tours and tastings at the KWV Wine Emporium and Moreson Estate. I have to say, although this was a relaxing morning, I’m jealous of the guys from our group who opted out, rented motor scooters, and spent the entire day exploring Cape Town and the coast line. That’s kind of immersion that energizes my spirit.
We spent the evening climbing Lion’s Head to get to the top for sunset. I felt alive on top of that mountain. Our friend, Kola, was such a trooper and conquered his fear of heights climbing with Mike, Marc, Brian, Lauren, and me that evening. He did it the right way. I don’t think there’s an experience out there that can fill your senses quite like standing 2200 feet above sea level watching the orange sun sink into glistening water that’s met by mountains, and gradually seeing the city below you sparkle to life as the pink sky fades to black. The only word any of us could manage to pull to our lips was “wow.” As we began the descent, Brian asked, “Did you leave anything on top, besides your heart?” I can honestly say mine is still there.
The next morning, Mike and I woke up early to climb Table Mountain as dawn began to break. This one was a toughie—imagine a 3563-ft tall and steep staircase. It was a cloudy, windy morning, and we embraced the cool mountain mist sprinkling down on us throughout the climb—we were happy to have another one-on-one date together. Although the clouds and haze didn’t allow us to see the sun rise over the peaks, the views and being able to look down on Lion’s Head, which we had just climbed hours before, were well worth the early morning wake up. While we had planned to take a cable car down, the wind didn’t permit it and we made the jaunt by foot.
We gave our legs a rest for the remainder of the morning on a motor scooter soaring behind Brian along the coast. It felt like a safari through the city, along the beach—the perfect experience to keep South Africa lingering within us as we wished her goodbye.