Throughout this journey our family has been on together, we’ve realized it’s really the people, not the places, that make our experiences so memorable. The beautiful and interesting areas we’ve visited certainly contribute a lot, but were it not for the new friends we’ve made along the way and the old friends who have joined us in our travels, this trip may not have become the life-changing experience it’s turning out to be. In South Africa, we had the best of both worlds – an old friend traveling with us and new ones who made us feel welcome.
When we came out of customs in Johannesburg’s O.R. Tando Airport, it was a bit surreal to see our long-time friend, Kevin Pletcher, standing there waiting for us. It was so fun to see a familiar face and have him join us for this part of the trip. Kevin was met with big hugs and Ali’s typical monkey-on-a-jungle-gym routine, which she reserves only for the favorite men in her life. We quickly found our driver with Themba Safaris and were on our way to the company’s guesthouse outside Johannesburg.
After having gotten used to the chaotic streets of Addis Ababa, driving through Johannesburg was quite different. It looked like a clean, quiet American suburb, except all of the houses are surrounded by 10-foot walls topped with serious electrified fences. Unlike Ethiopia, where today’s low violent crime rates make the high walls and razor wire seem unnecessary, South Africa unfortunately doesn’t enjoy the same relatively peaceful society. The numbers of home invasions and violent attacks in the country are some of the highest in the world, particularly in Johannesburg, which led us to minimize our time in the city.
Despite this concern, we felt extremely safe at Themba’s secured guesthouse and got a good night’s sleep before rising early for our long drive to Kruger National Park. It was a nice drive and we had some good conversations with our fun driver, Bungani.
We were booked at the Sunset Lodge situated in the middle of Guernsey Nature Reserve, just outside of Kruger. The drive into the lodge seemed like part of the safari. Bumping up and down hilly dirt roads, we passed giraffes, zebras, baboons, impala, warthogs and buffalo. When we pulled up to the house our hosts greeted us with drinks and smiles. Zebras, ostriches and kudus roamed the huge yard surrounding the lodge. The view off the deck looked out onto mountains in the distance. The lodge itself was quaint and comfortable with nice rooms off the pool and common areas in the main house. The safari experience was definitely living up to its reputation so far.
Our first day there we went on an afternoon game drive at a nearby private reserve. Within five minutes of leaving the gate we ran into a group of white rhinos grazing in a meadow. Huge security measures have been taken throughout Africa to combat the rampant poaching of rhinos, which has pushed the species to the brink of extinction. Rhino horn is worth more than gold in Asia where it’s used for medicinal and ornamental purposes. As a result, last year in South Africa alone over 1,000 rhinos were senselessly killed. Their horns are sawed off and their bodies left for the vultures. Seeing these massive creatures in the wild was a privilege, but a little sad given they could be extinct by the time our girls grow up.
Our second day of the safari was spent in Kruger National Park with our guides, Shus and John, who seemed to know everything there was to know about the animals of the African bush. As the photos from our first post about South Africa showed, we saw an incredible number of animals at very close range.
A highlight of the day was coming upon a pride of lions who had recently caught a buffalo within several yards of the road. Most of them were sleeping in the shade after their meal as vultures watched the scene from the trees and hyenas began approaching, all anticipating their turn at the kill. It was a fascinating and rather gruesome observation of the cycle of life. As one might expect, the girls were initially a little grossed out by all this and there was a lot of sympathy for the buffalo. However, it seemed the whole circle of life concept sunk in a bit over the course of the four days.
While Brian and Kevin decided to go out for another game drive in Kruger Park on our third day there, the girls and I opted for a tour of the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. It was a fascinating lesson, not just on the animals we learned about but also the vast differences between American and South African liability concerns. I couldn’t believe some of the things we got to do on that tour. When our guide, Oscar, took us by the vulture enclosure we actually went into it and fed them. When we went by the lion habitat the only thing separating my kids from this massive beast was a few inches and some chain link fencing. The girls were petting cheetahs and eagles as I smiled and snapped photos. It was a little crazy.
Our safari experience exceeded our expectations in every possible way, and the people we encountered were a big part of that. The Madeley family running the Sunset Lodge was nothing short of amazing. While homeschooling their own five children, Wayne and Edwina run this quaint and comfortable lodge. They made us feel completely at home. Having kids for our girls to play with was a huge added bonus. In the evenings we ate around the outdoor grill and took advantage of Wayne’s vast knowledge of the Kruger and South Africa. During the day they coordinated our schedules, organized our rides to various parts of the park and always greeted us at the door with drinks ready. The experience was definitely worth the money and extra travel it required. It’s an adventure we’ll never forget.