I live my life in the city. I try to get away when I can for a hike in the mountains or a short camping trip, but I always return to my comfortable city life. I live 8 miles from work and I spend most of my time in my downtown Seattle office fighting for my clients. Although I have done plenty of traveling, and experienced many of our country's amazing National Parks, nothing in my experience compares to the 18 days I spent in Africa in February.
I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa after almost 24 hours of travel. The 10 hour time change simply reinforced the reality that I was truly on the other side of the world. Johannesburg is a modern, world-class city, and I was both surprised and impressed by its apparent wealth and vibrancy. However, I had little time to enjoy the city, as my guided safari began early the next morning.
My tour group consisted of our guides Chris (South African) and Thumi (Zimbabwean) along with me, my old friend Bill and 5 other people. We were all English-speaking (2 Canadians, 2 Brits and a Scot) and we quickly became a cohesive group. The routine was established early on. We would drive a long way to an amazing destination, with roadside stops for lunch. Dinners were prepared by the guides and we all pitched in with dishes and cleanup.
Our first stop was Kruger National Park in South Africa. We spent 2 days there, cruising through the park looking for wildlife. The first impala we saw captured our imaginations, but by the third day, impala were commonplace. We were looking for the rarer creatures. We were surprised to see a leopard slinking through the tall grass within the first hours in the park. She stopped to check us out, remaining for almost 10 minutes before she stalked away.
Over the next 7 days we explored multiple National Parks in Zimbabwe. Most of our game viewing was done from open land rovers, but we did get to do a few game walks in Matobo National Park. Throughout the trip we saw plentiful elephants, buffalo, giraffe, zebras, warthogs, ostrich, and a wide variety of antelope.
Along the way we stopped at the Great Zimbabwe ruins, the capital of the Shona people between the 11th and 15th centuries. The ruins complex was vast and well preserved, and provided an entirely new perspective on this part of the world. Zimbabwe means "house of stone", and it is from these ruins that modern (if you can call it modern) Zimbabwe gets its name.
The halfway point of our trip was spent at Victoria Falls. The town is just like any tourist town in the world, but the falls were truly amazing. The local name for the falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means "the Smoke that Thunders" and the name is accurate. You can't view the falls without getting wet, and anytime the sun is out there is a spectacular rainbow. One of the highlights of the trip was the helicopter ride over the falls, which are justifiably one of the seven wonders of the natural world.
After a relaxing weekend at the falls, we continued into Botswana. In contrast to the poverty of Zimbabwe, I was impressed by the relative prosperity of Botswana. Their currency, the Pula is stronger against the dollar than the South African Rand, and their infrastructure was impressive. This affluence most likely results from the diamond mines in the southern part of the country.
We spent my 45th birthday taking a riverboat ride through Chobe National Park, where we saw more elephants and giraffes, and many hippos. At one point we grounded the boat just a few feet from a 15 foot crocodile. It was a bit unnerving, but truly amazing. After Chobe we met up with some local villagers who polled us in traditional canoes called Makoros, into the Okavango Delta, the world's largest inland delta. We spent two nights camping in the Delta. It was brutally hot during the days, but we went on long hikes in the mornings and evenings, and saw many more hippos and crocodiles, as well as spiders and snakes. The southern night sky from the Delta, far from any artificial light, was truly breathtaking.
Our final stop was the Khama Rhino Sanctuary. It was here where we saw the most different types of animals together. I saw baboons with warthogs, rhinos with zebra, impala and giraffes all sharing the same watering hole. Along the way, we saw over 100 species of birds, including colorful kingfishers, playful hornbills, and vultures feasting on a roadside carcass.
Finally it was time for the long drive back to Johannesburg, and a day trip to Soweto. During the safari I witnessed widespread rural poverty, but nothing I saw seemed as hopeless as the millions of people packed into the "informal settlements" of Soweto. Despite the abject poverty, the people I met during my journey were almost uniformly friendly and welcoming.
Throughout the trip, there was a profound sense of being someplace different. The smells, sounds and sights were all foreign to me, and although almost everyone I met spoke English, it was obvious that I was in a different world.
It was another long trip home, with a stop in South Florida to celebrate my Grandmother's 100th birthday, but I was happy to be back home with my family. As with all of my travels, this trip reminded me that even with all of the grandeur our amazing world has to offer, my favorite destination is still home.