This post is the second part of my mom’s series about our recent trip to South Africa.
Thank you all for the nice comments about my last post. As I said, I am not a writer and as I write this second post, my respect goes out to all of you who write blogs…a tough thing to do. I would now like to share with you the last leg of our journey, the part of my trip that was my dream, the South African safari that I had been anticipating for years…
We landed at the airport in the small community of Hoedspruit in the eastern corner of the country, on a runway which is the second longest in South Africa thanks to the nearby Air Force Base.
[Earl: This massive runway was chosen as a site for emergency NASA shuttle landings in the 1980s but they never had to use it. On another note, often times flights have to abort their landings here and try again due to warthogs hanging out on the runway. And get this...the airport has released three cheetahs onto the airfield in order to scare the other animals away.]
It seemed like it took us forever to taxi from this runway over to the cutest airport I have ever seen. Actually, it was more like a small shack. We even collected our luggage outside the airport on the sidewalk as things such as a luggage carousel were nowhere to be found.
[Earl: In all of my travels I have never come across such a small airport!]
We then drove about 40 minutes before entering a gated private reserve adjacent to the Kruger National Park. Immediately, we saw a giraffe and some baboons welcoming us to the Thornybush Game Lodge and before long we were met by Kirsty at the reception area, who gave us such a warm introduction. She also informed us of our schedule for the following three days.
Kirsty showed us to our cabin located about a five minute walk away from the main area and all I can say is that it was a ‘wow’ kind of place!! The room had a wall of glass and a huge balcony with a view of the bush and we quickly saw impalas grazing outside. The bathroom was more than impressive, again, with shower and bath tub facing a glass wall that looked straight out into a river bed that seemed to be a popular hangout for many animals.
There was a huge mosquito net over the beds and we immediately pulled out our spray before going back outside. (I did not take malaria medication, which family and friends could not believe.) We went to the lodge for lunch, relaxed and at 4pm we were ready for our first safari ride. I was like a kid in a candy store.
[Earl: I certainly was excited as well to get out there and see some wildlife. After my last trip to South Africa, I knew full well how amazing the safari experience truly is. And it didn't take me long to realize that Thornybush really was a gem of a game lodge, from its rooms to its staff to the safari experience it offered...we could not have asked for a better lodge for this part of our trip.]
We were met at our jeep by our driver/ranger Ocean and by Ishmael who would be our wildlife tracker. And we were also joined by Whitney and Nate from North Carolina who would be our safari companions for the next few days. I can’t explain the excitement that overpowered me as we took off. I don’t even remember the order that we saw the animals over the next few days because we saw so many, but let me give you an idea of what we saw…
ELEPHANTS!!!!! As Derek explained, I am in love with elephants. Not sure why, but these animals have always fascinated me with their grace, beauty and strength. We passed a family and the baby walked right past my side. We learned about the elephant whose ear didn’t flap anymore and about the way they pull down the trees to get to the berries. Every day we saw elephants grazing and playing around.
We also saw giraffes and zebras and hippos and rhinos (both black and white) and crocodiles and monkeys and buffalo and cheetahs and lions and nyalas and kudu and even a porcupine…not to mention such beautiful scenery everywhere we looked.
[Earl: Don't forget the warthogs and wildebeests!]
It is not just about seeing these animals, it is about what I learned. Ocean has worked in the bush for 20 years. He obviously knew where to go and how to find the animals. He taught us about the animals as if they were his friends. We learned how they lived, how they raised their young, how they survived. The animals need to survive this jungle and we saw it first hand. At one point, we were 15 feet from a lion with his beautiful mane and we saw a lioness eating a baby buffalo that it had recently killed. (Not my favorite although Derek did take a video.) One day we saw vultures flying above and Ocean and Ishmael left us in the truck to go investigate. They came back and told us that a giraffe had died. We heard birds give warning signs to other animals. We saw cheetahs nervously trying to avoid other predators. We also saw the largest spiders that you can imagine. I think Whitney would also admit that the scariest thing we encountered were the spiders. We had never seen such HUGE spiders and giant webs.
Ishmael sat in the front of the jeep quiet and patient. Do you know what a tracker does? He looks at the ground and looks for the animal tracks, and he was absolutely a master! He was able to find us those cheetahs and lions just by following tracks and markings that nobody else would ever notice. Ishmael and Ocean did not go to school for this, they learned it by living and seeing, mostly from their youth. I was so very impressed.
Our days consisted of morning safari rides from 5am-9am, breakfast, taking a nap and sitting at the pool, a wonderful lunch at 1pm, more relaxing, an afternoon safari ride from 4pm-8pm and then dinner. The meals were fantastic with local food that was so fresh and delicious. Usually we ate dinner in an open-air setting where the food was cooked up on the barbeque right next to us and we could observe the millions of stars above as we ate.
[Earl: The food at Thornybush was quite unreal, with every meal outshining the one before. Perhaps this was partly due to the picture-perfect settings of the dining areas but the quality and presentation of the food definitely had something to do with it as well. And while I don't eat red meat, everyone around me seemed to love the various 'game' that was being served each evening too.]
A typical evening meal would last for a couple of hours as we all enjoyed the conversation and company of the other guests and of Ocean, who would join us for dinner as well. Then, after dinner each night, we were escorted back to our cabin by a guard to protect us from the possibility of an animal wandering too close.
And the very next morning, with a 5am wake up call, the routine started again…
It is hard to describe this experience. I was in my glory, I was in awe of the animals, I was in love with the Thornybush Game Lodge. The folks there were just superb and made us feel so welcome and I didn’t miss civilization at all while at this lodge in the middle of nowhere for three days.
But unfortunately, before I knew it, I was taking my last safari ride. That last day we followed the cheetahs, said goodbye to the elephants, saw the animals with toilet seat marks on their butt (waterbucks), watched the male buffalo that was kicked out of his herd (he must have done something wrong!!), came upon a poor baby buffalo wandering around unable to find his mother and we even walked straight up to a giraffe. Photos are really the only way to describe this adventure…
Then, we packed our bags, said goodbye to beautiful Thornybush and just like that Derek and I were off to the airport to catch our flight to Johannesburg.
Once in Johannesburg, it was time to say goodbye to Derek as well. However, the only positive thing about leaving South Africa was that usually when I say goodbye, I never know when I will see him again. But this time, he was heading to New York and then to Florida where I live…so my goodbye to him was much easier!
[Earl: It was definitely the first time I can remember saying goodbye to my mom where she wasn't upset that I was leaving or where she wasn't worried about where I was going next.]
Since returning, I have had a smile on my face and have felt so calm and relaxed every single day. South Africa is a warm and welcoming country. I had seen so much of its beauty and had learned so much about the people, the history, the culture and yes, the animals too. It was the perfect trip and one that I will never forget.
So, if South Africa has been on your bucket list as well, don’t ever take it off until you experience this country for yourself!
Finally, for all of you who always wanted to travel, whether to South Africa or anywhere else on the planet, maybe even with your son or daughter, or with your mother or father, just remember, there’s no time like the present.
Where is it that you want to go next and when do you plan on going there?