Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I'm On Safari!

When was the last time you watched Disney’s The Lion King? Probably not too recently, but let me tell you this: when you are on Safari in Africa, the images, scenes, characters, and names come back to you as quickly as you can remember the song ‘The Circle of Life.’

The staff at Drifter’s Lodge was laughably taken aback when their ten new guests piled out of the van, not a single one over the age of 22. Kaylie, the youngest trainee tracker, recounted the scene to us as we sat around the fire one night. She was excited we were there, staff was committed to the Bush Lifestyle- they only leave for three days a month, and it’s usually to go on safari somewhere else. Kaylie missed seeing people her own age. She said we were uncharacteristic of the typical safari group in more ways than our age. They had sent a large van and a luggage trailer, but we just heaved our backpacks out of the van. We opted to immediately go on a game drive rather than ‘settle in.’ the staff was amused by Stephanie’s remark, “Oh are we leaving now? I have to put my safari outfit on!” Never before had a group demanded to see ‘The Battle of Kruger’ so many times. We stayed up late to talk about our adventures but were still spry and ready to go for our 4:45am wake up call.

We took pride when we were told that we ask way more questions than average. We agreed that we all learned more on our two day safari than in any accumulation of science classes. Our guide Mark quickly, adapted to our learning style by pointing out an animal then promptly answering all the questions he knew we would ask: A. what’s his name in Lion King? B. Have you ever killed one? C. Have you ever eaten one? D. When was the last time you saw one?

One of the first things we learned was The Big Five and how rare it was to see them at this time of the year.

African Buffalo: we saw a small herd of these on our first night drive. Mark uses a big spotlight to find game at night. It reminded me of shining for deer with dad out at the lake. We all are attentive; looking for eyes- not shapes (we learned this after many false alarms for tree stumps, rocks, and ponds). While driving by a watering hole we saw a few of these massive creatures. Mark said they are angry animals, to be quiet so they don’t charge.

Rhino: On our afternoon drive, I spotted these! A mom and her baby were standing in the brush as we passed. I got so excited I shouted RHINO! This startled them and they ran away across the road behind us. We were all excited to have seen our first baby animal.

Leopard: Andrew spotted this very rare animal. Mark said that he hadn’t seen one for months! We had already passed it, when Andrew suggested we reverse for a second, we were wary to do this because he had already had a few false alarms. We reversed. My eyes were the eyes of saucers as I became parallel with a massive leopard powerfully perched on top of a rock. I couldn’t even get my camera out; I was entranced by our eye contact. It was a mere moment before the whole jeep gasped and the bright leopard disappeared into the brush.

Elephant: We saw this guy on a night drive as we were crossing a dried river basin. When the light shone on his rear, it looked like a large boulder. He turned and looked at us; his long trunk up in the air like a periscope then turned and ran. Watching an elephant run is a peculiar thing, their bodies do not look like they are made to move yet they can run relatively quick.

Lion: We had seen four of the five and we’re confident that we would spot the fifth before we left. Mark said we had already been lucky but appeased us by playing along anyway. Around the time of dusk, when all of our eyes were deceiving us, Mario spotted jackals in the brush. We watched them devour a baby giraffe. Then! A lioness came and scared the group away from her prey. We tried to focus on her as the diminishing light made it more and more difficult to distinguish her well camouflaged body. I was standing on my seat, resting my elbows on the canvas rooftop when two cubs crossed the path to follow their mother.

Plus Some: Our jeep was electrified with excitement as we began our trek back to the lodge under the bright stars, Milky Way, and Jupiter. Even Mark was happy. The jeep paused and we all watched in silence as this strange, stubby opossum like animal crossed the path in front of us and disappeared as Mark whispered, “that’s an aardvark.” Mark hadn’t seen an aardvark in two years; there were several trackers that had never seen one in their life. He seriously warned us not to mention it because seeing a leopard and aardvark in the same day was unheard of. Giddily Mark began commending us as a foolish bunch of good luck charms.

Throughout our drives through the bush, we also saw a plethora of zebras, monkeys, giraffe, impala, baku, an array of birds, mongoose, bush babies, hippos, and more! I don’t think I will ever experience a zoo in the same way.

During our stay, we ate many unusual but typical South African meals. We had warthog stew, ostrich burgers, mined meat over beans, wild Africa cream liqueur, and impala sausage. When we were not eating near the fire pit or on one of our game drives we enjoyed our time together. It was impossible to be in the bush between 1000-1700, it was way too hot. During this time we hung by the infinity pool and ate the delicious snacks provided (homemade bread, mango juice, eggs, fruit salad that included gooseberries, you know… the typical snack cuisine). These moments were some of the most memorable as we floated around enjoying South African wine and liqueur and laughed about our already established Safari memories.

My lodging was amazing. It looked like a tent with a straw roof. We had a view of a water basin. During the night we could hear critters and animals walking afoot. Each night someone would guide us down to our tent and check for animals along the way. We were warned to always have our ‘monkey clip’ fastened because monkeys had learned to come in and mess things up. There were two people to each lodging; I made Stephen sleep near the door, I didn’t want to deal with any monkey intruders. During the time
My favorite part was the outdoor shower! How many people can say they were naked when they saw a zebra? Just another reason why life is good.

Independent Travel in South Africa

Flying to Kruger was my first time being responsible for my own flight in a foreign country. Andy, my friend that organized our trip, put me in charge of two girls and myself since we were flying separately from the other seven.
Bridget is another example of ‘it’s a small world after all,’ she lives in Springdale Estates which connects to Bartlett Manor, which is where I live- in Brookfield, Wisconsin. She graduated from Catholic Memorial in ’05 with Jane’s sister Carly. Bridget is spunky, I was excited to travel with her. Jackie is from New York, has things done for her, bought for her, and is the type of person who forgets her passport.

We plan to meet at 0615 for breakfast on the ship. At 0616 the three of us are together, groggy but present, we are off to a good start.

At 0625 we are in a taxi. The driver says that it takes 25 minutes to get to the airport and we must be checked in an hour before our flight. Our flight is at eight, STEP ON IT! Bridget rhetorically asks, “Everyone have their passports!” Jackie doesn’t.

By the time we are on the road I bargain with the driver: if he gets a ticket for speeding we’ll pay double the fair; if he doesn’t get us to the airport in time we pay nothing.

He gets us to the door with five minutes to spare. We are relieved to find out that we have to be checked in a Half hour before the flight. The security procedure included putting my bag (with things that wouldn’t pass TSA standards) on the belt and walking through a detector- we wonder if it was even plugged in.

When the rest of the flight starts lining up we realize that we do not have the connecting flight ticket. The man at the desk says if we run we can get it from the counter. Cutting off angered passengers, we explain the situation and our rush. Things moved in slow motion has he processed our request and people behind us yelled.

We ran through security, grabbed our backpacks, and got onto the bus that took us to our South African Airways flight.

The man I sat next to let me have the window seat so that I could see the mountains poking through the clouds below us and the expansive, beautiful terrain. His name was Gary. He’s a native, a hippie, and lives a nomadic life that takes him around the world doing various jobs. He told me of his adventures in places that I have never heard of, places familiar to me in the United States, and of places that I was going to be heading on my voyage.

Our flight had a layover in Johannesburg. Whenever I told someone this they would A. give me a pained look B. say, “A bomb threat inside the airport is safer than taking a step outside.” C. Tell me a story about someone that knew someone that knew someone that was shot or mugged or raped in Joburg, as the locals call it.

My thought: adventure. My conscience: mom and dad wouldn’t be happy to know I was traveling by myself with two girls here. My guard: high. My mind: open.

Somewhat to my dismay, we boarded our next flight without harm or misadventure.  As we took off I could see the obvious poverty from the sprawling multitude of shacks below us. I sat next to a couple that had moved from Texas to Mozambique four years ago. They had just opened a transition house with the mission to help young boys become productive young men by giving them the structure of a home and family. They had seven boys.

Kruger International Airport looks like a lake cabin. It’s about as big as one too. When we unboarded our plane we laughed and jumped in excitement- the scene around us was incredible: mountains, this funny little airport, a township, and so so much green! No security men really cared when we just hung out on the air strip terminal and waited for our friend’s plane to appear. Only a few minutes later it landed. The ten of us were together ready to embark on our safari!

I Love South Africa

It seems I find myself liking each country I go to more and more, but maybe I just appreciate them for different reasons. Whatever the case, I am in love with South Africa.


1.The People

Everyone I met in South Africa was laid-back.

Our first night in Cape Town we went to Zula Mama Africa’s on Long Street. It was hip: live band, good location, popular balcony with views of arrests being made on the street below.  David, a self-proclaimed nerd from Dartmouth, who I thoroughly enjoyed talking to, suggested that we sit down with some locals to get the vibe. We ended up having a long conversation with two women, life partners, one from London the other native to the Cape Coast. They chose to live together in SA because they are more tolerant of homosexuality. Interesting that a country that struggles so much with racial issues is more accepting of social issues that plague world powers around the globe. They owned a surf shop and offered us lessons for a discounted price.

Maddie, Taylor’s wonderful, enlightened, roommate from SCU, has been studying abroad through the CIEE service and learning program at Cape Town University. She and the eight other students in this unique program attend liberal arts classes at CTU (or when the teacher feels like visiting, in their living room) and also participate in local humanitarian projects. Maddie works in a township, helping with young children that have already been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. She said that it was eerie how mature and knowledgeable the kids were about the widespread disease. One of the first things Taylor ever told me about her was, “Maddie wants to save the world.” And I believe that what she is doing now will have a beneficial multiplier effect for South Africa and in turn the world.

On Sunday we met several other Americans in South Africa. One of Maddie’s housemates had recently organized a movement in Cape Town that made international headlines in the New York Times! We met interns from all around the world that were working in non-profit organizations. For example, Charlie from Dublin who coaches rugby at a township school- aiming to give students organized extracurriculars because if he knows they’re doing that, he knows they’re not spreading HIV. Brett, from Michigan who’s dad was a Phi Delt at Miami ’70 (holla at my boys), was similarly coaching a basketball team. Tom, from Connecticut (Fairfield County, holla at B & Ted) had been mugged three times this week but was still having a great time in his semester off from USC helping in South Africa.

Then there was Steve, our ‘boogie bus’ driver. A boogie bus is much like the ‘trotro’ from Ghana in shape, size, and upkeep. However, Steve’s pride and joy was differentiated by its unique decorations including a disco ball and hanging lucky trinkets. Also, it was colorfully creatively painted. Maddie had his number in her cell phone and her housemates and she would call Steve whenever they wanted to travel in a group. Anyway! Steve loved his job and he really was proud of his bus which he had bought used sixteen years ago. He had such a jovial view on things; he was excited about the things we were doing; he was fatherly looking out for us; he was eager to give us advice and impart his local knowledge. Steve had gusto for life and his connection to his community and nation was obvious when he spoke about the area. Interestingly, Steve was what South Africans would call ‘colored’ – neither black nor white. The fact that he had this nationalism was a hopeful indicator that South Africa has taken great social strides since the end of the Apartheid.

2.The Land

Oh how beautiful it is! We woke up early to watch the ship come into harbor while the sun was rising over Table Mountain. Flying to Kruger I saw that plateau mountains were common everywhere in the country. Our visit in the first week of October corresponded with South Africa’s first week of spring. The green nation was spotted with bright colors of flowering trees. The wine lands were picturesque and even the barren terrain of Kruger could be appreciated because it was home to diverse wildlife.

3.The History

Kaffir Boy is an amazing book by Mark Mathabane. It is a narrative about a boy’s struggle and life in the townships during apartheid. The true story follows him from the darkness of misguided hatred, through education and sports, to the light of realization of social equality and opportunity. Read it.

Gandhi’s inspiration to begin his movement began in South Africa when Indians were facing social discrimination.

The apartheid just ended, South Africa’s history is so recent. I highly recommend looking into it- just Wikipedia. I’m not going to give a history lesson here.

4. The City

Long Street is so unique. An eclectic grouping of bars, boutiques, and diners. All of which have balconies. Many of my friends felt at home saying it felt like their stomping ground in San Diego.
The Muslim neighborhood/ township that was central in the city was rows of vibrantly painted houses that had stayed in the family for generations.

 Like any city, there are the street dwellers that add extra character. While walking around, a drunk man stumbled in front of us, proclaimed that Maddie was from England, Taylor was from Africa, and I was from Australia. We kept walking, so did he. He walked right into a man waiting to cross the street. The man ignored him but the drunken fellow was enraged and picked up a rock and threw it at him. It missed. I noted how clean the city was because that was the first stray sizeable rock I had seen. Then we laughed at the random things that happen on city streets.

Waterfront, the area we ported in, harkened back to Michigan Avenue in Chicago or any main shopping area of a cosmopolitan city. It was so nice to shop without haggling or bartering.
Through our Cape Town connections a few of us got on a list for the trendy club, Chrome. I actually had to give my name, be checked, and then allowed in- how official! Inside house music raged and 1rand shots (13cents) were bought by the rounds.

The community of the townships add character to South Africa. On Sunday, the place to be was Muzzolis. It was packed which made it all the more interesting and fun. The basic principal of this Sunday day-drinking party was to celebrate the whole week by buying a bucket of meat. Then going across the street to the liquor store and buying a six pack of Savanah Dry, which is a cider beer similar to Strongbow.  House music, a techno mix of reggae and hip hop, provided an irresistible dance beat.

5. So much to do! 

I, Katie Jo Kohls, love to be active. I want to do things. I want to get up and go. I want to play. I want to experience. I want variety. South Africa offers a little bit of everything. In six days I tried to take in as much as I could.

For class credit, we ventured to the wine lands for a wine ‘tasting’ and learned about the production and marketing involved in small wineries. We focused our questions on things the vineyards (Nelson’s Creek and Backsberg) were doing to become more sustainable.  Most importantly, we learned how to properly evaluate wine. I will now be able to keep up- somewhat- with Uncle Jim and Aunt Deb when they try to impress new wines upon Krista and me.

I went on a REAL safari!

I hiked and climbed a two hour strenuous path up Table Mountain, named for the cloud covering that shrouds it like a table cloth. The hike was fun, granted we were unprepared when we set out. There were nine of us, one person with water. On the way up those in jeans wished they had dressed for a serious cardio workout and limber movements. On top, in my tank top and shorts, I was laughed at by workers who were bundled in legitimate ski jackets.
Exploring, helping, surfing, shark cage diving, the tallest bungee jumping bridge in the world, relaxing countryside, facing raw danger on safari, the opportunities are boundless.

6. Opportunity to make a difference 
What really attaches me to this country is the fact that I know I can help. South Africa is Almost There in terms of economic, health, and social issues. So much has been done already to improve the condition, which is why South Africa is a leader for the continent. I want to go back and help with education. From my traveling thus far, I have realized that education makes all the difference. If we educate people, we can give them the tools to make decisions that will benefit their country. No one knows their country more than the locals. I think this is one problem with giving foreign aid, making decisions for a country without a real grasp on their culture, history, aspirations, or core issues. I’ve never seen myself as a humanitarian, probably much to my mother’s dismay. But, here there’s a starting point. I know that young people with an untarnished optimism regarding nations of misfortune and global cooperation can catapult countries like South Africa towards complete stability. I believe individuals like the people I met while visiting, people like me and other students my age, can make more of a difference by understanding and working hands on than any impersonal organization.