I had initially tried to arrange a safari on my own before realizing that our time in South Africa would fall over Easter weekend, making it a busy, extended weekend for locals and foreign tourists and void of any deals. I don't normally partake in any of the big trips offered through Semester at Sea, partly because I'm not fond of big groups, and in larger part because I just simply can't afford it. So when it worked out for me to lead one of the safari trips to Kruger, making a jaunt into the South African bush fiscally feasible, a lifelong dream was solidified. I chuckle as I write that, for every other day someone on this ship has "a dream come true." Seeing the 'Taj,' as so many flippantly call her as if they are dating, climbing the Great Wall, and as I can now relate, seeing a giraffe outside of the Los Angeles Zoo.
I chose the trip to Motswari, a private reserve in the Greater Kruger area after my friend Hans, whose parents used to own a South African travel agency confirmed my initial hunch -- it is the way to go for anyone seeking a comfortable but not obnoxiously luxurious stay in the African bush. It's glamor is understated -- local art, clean cement and thatched floors, circular en-suite bungalows. Fluffy white bed and deep bathtub, yes, but no flat screen TV or modern distractors. Set right on a watering hole, I could literally sit on my front porch and watch giraffes grazing on trees and hear warthogs talking as I soaked. And with a 30 person maximum, the lodge is quite intimate -- oftentimes giving you the feeling that is just you and the spiders. Which speaking of, they were abundant, mighty, and took up residence all around my bungalow named "Roan."
There were 21 of us, and the cast of characters couldn't have been better written by Christopher Guest. The rather conservative and older science professors, who cracked the virtual whip on the kids though they weren't in charge and offered me lots of free leadership advice -- um yeah, thanks, but if they want to sleep in instead of going on the game drives they spent thousands of dollars on, so be it. Lah-weese from Louisiana and her delightful husband, whom I could picture drinkin' tall boys of mint julep as they paraded around the African bush in perfectly pressed khaki and sun hats. The laid back librarian who carries around a plastic statue of Einstein and his jockey wife who, toned as a lightweight bodybuilder sports a pair of boots with 4 visible inches of metal coil for shock absorption. Malcom the tour leader whose perspiring pores give away the secret that the wrinkles in his hardened skin are so anxiously trying to spill, "look at me, I'm a big smoker with heart problems who probably shouldn't be leading vigorous trips." A kid who never stops listening to his ipod. A 19 year-old who fancies himself a verbal expert on absolutely everything, including the African Bush. A girl who has a rapidly-increasing allergic reaction to her malaria medication, and four Jewish girls from Vanderbilt who, sigh, could not give any greater ammo to caricature writers of JAPS.
We were divided into three groups for our game drives, thus we spent a large chunk of time with the same people. I had waited around on the first day to ensure that everyone made it onto a jeep. Which consequently meant that I would end up hanging with the kids who were late in the first place. The good news is that we were assigned to Godfrey's jeep, who just so happens to be the senior guide and has 12 years of exploring the Bush everyday under his wing and is further a bird specialist. He has the top level of certification, and if he soon passes the test, will become the first black man in South Africa with a credential in birds -- the most difficult of the specializations as it requires visual and sound recognition of 1000s of species.
Heading out on a game drive, both at dawn and at sunset is like living in a Disney movie, and not the scary 80s ones with the dark undertones, perhaps a blend of "The Lion King," "The Jungle Book," and "Indiana Jones." Tiani, our tracker, would sit at the helm of the jeep, shining a spotlight until the sun took over, and while driving 20 KPH could spot something as small and incognito as a chameleon. Thus, when Little Expert (who sidenote spoke about himself in third person multiple times) demanded to sit in Tiani's seat one night and shined the floodlight right on a group of 3 giraffes, I had to ask myself whether these girls were legitimately impressed or were smooth enough to play into his narcissism as a joke as they oooed and ahhhed over his manly ability to shine a flashlight on a group of giant giraffes standing 3 feet in front of him.
As our plane landed in Hoedspruit, we were greeted by 2 cheetahs on the runway and saw buffalo and elephants en route to the lodge, so the search was on from the get-go to see the "Big 5," which refers to the lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, and leopard. The occasional rain had made it particularly difficult to follow the rhinos, who were acting skiddish, but I was thoroughly impressed with the wildlife we were able to see. And who needs to check-off a list to have a worthwhile experience -- so what if we saw 4 out of 5.
A group of elephants surrounded our jeep, whisking their tusks through the air and creating dirt clouds. Hippos popped their heads in and out of the water, which gave me the urge to want to plunk their heads with a delicate mallet, or fill their mouths with marbles like the game. Baboons ran around like toddlers on a sugar high, making it hard to see their pink butts; though the waterbucks gave us a good, consistent view of their toilet-seat-behinds. Kudus. Impalas. Venomous snakes. Steenboks. It was exciting and even unsettling at times to literally pull up next to these animals -- who tolerate and are used to the green Land Rovers, as long as none of the people in them make noises or stand.
One of the perks of a private reserve is that the jeeps are not limited to the roads, thus we were thrilled when Godfrey pulled up to a pack of three sleeping white lions, which I later learned is a very rare color mutation of the South African lion species that is created by a recessive gene (even the woman that has managed the lodge for 25 years has not seen one). Despite the giant land rovers and photo flashes, they were so beautiful and calm. Their stomachs expanded and fell, gently, with each breath, and even the moment of the mother opening her mouth seemed like more of a yawn than a human-killing growl. When the occasional student would stand up to take a photo or make a ridiculous faux animal sound, Godfrey would immediately pounce -- thank bejesus. That's the last kind of incident report I need to be writing, for it is hard to think that this gorgeous animal, that seems so calm, friendly and pet-able would rip you in two in T-1 should you ever get out of that protective shell of army green metal.
Though we spent at least a cumulative hour tracking a Flip mino and a strap-less safari hat (who wears a hat without a strap on a moving vehicle), the highlight was a group of 3 leopards. The mother sat perched in a tree, her arms and legs hanging down like little floating nubs of fur, while her two cubs played. They batted each other, licked each other, and in a true cat lady moment I couldn't help but think about my little furballs back at home -- who thankfully, have been sending me lots of mail.
We saw a hyena when we stopped to have a glass of wine, and after stopping literally every 20 minutes for one of the girls to urinate, were given a delightful spread of coffee and biscuits while a group-sized porta-pottie was formed behind a lookout shack. I was astonished at how the commentary never stopped. Never. And how it was usually about something very trivial and non-safari related. From the legalization of marijuana, to Lady Gaga and a state of the union address regarding the ridiculousness of Land Rovers having so many useless buttons -- "I just want to like drive my Land Rover. Four wheel drive. Pfff. It's so retarded. Somebody should just like call them and tell them that they need to just like stick to making a car, not all of these stupid buttons that nobody uses (nevermind that we were driving in a 4x4 Land Rover through the African bush during this rant).
"Godfrey's Girls" was the jingle that one of them had started singing on repeat. She was the same one that asked a question at least every 10 minutes, usually prompting a reiteration of what was just said, and always beginning with "Godfrey," as if there were someone else on our little Land Rover who would be fielding questions (except for Little Expert, but he preferred interruption). The constant chatter, albeit annoying at times, was a good reminder that I am traveling around the world with 650 20 year-olds, and am sometimes seeing it through their eyes. I like to joke around, pull pranks on my friends and tell stories. And when it came to having things in common, I was just as game as they were to sit in the infinity pool with a beer (even if I did soon leave to take a bath). However, for these four girls from Vanderbilt, who were sure to make it glaringly obvious that they come from the kind of wealth that enables you to talk on your iphone in the middle of Africa and to talk about the tens of thousands of dollars you have spent on shopping, I have to admit that I was shocked at their lack of generosity. Here they were, coming up with jingles for Godfrey and calling him by a not-very-funny-to-everyone-else nickname ("God"), and spending hundreds of dollars on art and Motswari-wear after having dropped a few thousand on the trip, and at the end of the day when everyone from our group gathered a tip for our lovely, hardworking guides who are trying to support families, they seemed almost offended and each put in the equivalent of $2.
As Godfrey says, upon being asked about happiness, "being true to yourself" is the ultimate high. And since I disagree with all of them that marijuana will soon become legalized in California, I hope they will take a lesson from "God" and find a better high, and a better self to be true to. For if Godfrey is God, he was surely listening.